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Driver’s License Chronicles, Part 5

May 12th, 2013 No comments

It had been almost a month since my last trip to the Menkyo center in Kaihinmakuhari to fail the practical driving test, but going there again on Friday still felt like routine. The only difference was I had work in the morning, whereas every other time I’d gone had been on a day off. I greatly preferred this circumstance, as the Menkyo center trip didn’t cost me a holiday but merely an afternoon sitting in the teacher’s room of K-chu doing nothing. Also, teaching a couple of successful lessons at H-sho in the morning made it a good day regardless of what would happen in the afternoon.

I woke up early and decided to go for a run in the morning so I wouldn’t have to bother with it in the afternoon. Success.

I taught a fifth-grade class “I’m from ~” and they greatly enjoyed the games and activities. Success.

In order to accommodate my need to get to the Menkyo center on time, H-sho combined both 20-student sixth-grade classes into one giant 40-student class so I could do my lesson for both and leave after third period. I had to alter the plan a bit, but it worked out well. Rather than having the class arrange the alphabet on the blackboard and then having them try to beat their own time, I pitted one class against the other and had them try to beat the other class’s time. One class won the uppercase battle, and the other won the lowercase. The students loved it. Success.

After third-period I had just enough time to ride home and drop off my computer and excess baggage so I wouldn’t have to lug it around with me all afternoon, stop at the 7/11 to pick up a snack for lunch, and get to the train station with time to spare. Success.

I made it to the Menkyo center with no trouble at all, as by now I know the train and bus routine so well as to be able to sleep-walk through the whole journey. Success.

So by the time I got there, I figured I’d already chalked up enough successes on the day that one little failure wouldn’t bother me too much. On top of that, I now know what the consequences of failure are, and they’re not bad at all. I have to work up a sweat on the way to work four days a week, but that’s no big deal. And on Wednesdays I have to pay for a taxi to M-sho and walk home from K-chu, but the cost of the cab-ride four days a month is less than a monthly lease of a car anyway and the walk home from K-chu is a doable 45 minutes. The worst consequence of another failure is simply having to bother with the whole annoying process of going to the Menkyo center and taking the test yet again.

I got there just as the booths were opening up after the lunch break, and immediately spotted my Tunisian friend at the front of the line. He asked me about why I failed last time and I told him about my left turns not being tight enough for our super-strict lady proctor. He agreed that she was definitely too strict and wished me better luck this time. I thought I’d see him again in the waiting room for the test-course but that was not to be. Apparently he was there for something else that day, or perhaps he’d taken the test in the morning and was still there for some reason. Who knows?

In the test-course waiting room I didn’t even bother going through the course in my head again like every other time. I just took out my Kindle and did some reading, just wanting to get this over with and go home. A Chinese guy sitting next to me attempted to talk with me about the test, but he spoke no English and I speak no Chinese so we could only use our limited Japanese to communicate. I found out it was also his fourth time, and we managed to explain to each other why we’d failed our previous tests.

Our proctor was the first to enter, and while I was immediately relieved that it wasn’t the woman, this guy seemed just as strict and no-nonsense as her. I was hoping for the guy I had the first time, who seemed the friendliest out of all of them and might very well have passed me had I not driven up on the curb in the S-curve. No such luck. This guy just told us the order we’d be going in, explained that the test was very difficult and recommended that we all go to driving school. He didn’t walk us through the course map and explain the rules about backing up in the crank and S-curve like the other proctors had. He was in and out in two minutes.

I finished the chapter I was reading, and very soon after the vehicles were brought around and I went outside. I was to go second again, so I’d be riding in the back while the first person took the test. This time it was a Filipino woman who was taking the test for the second time. We didn’t exchange many words before getting in the car, but I wished her luck.

I could tell she was going to fail pretty early on. She wasn’t staying nearly left enough as she drove around the course perimeter, and she almost missed the right-turn onto the center road. The proctor had to point it out to her as she was driving past it, so she had to come to an abrupt stop and make the turn well past the turn-marker. She did come to a full stop at the stop sign at the end of the road, but forgot to signal her left turns until she was already making them. I was surprised that he didn’t fail her before the crank, but he let her get to it. At first it seemed like she really knew what she was doing, as she made the sharp right-turn like a pro, doing it surprisingly quickly and not hitting the poles. But as soon as she got to the left turn I knew she’d miscalculated and the back wheel was going to hit the curb. Indeed, she not only hit the curb but drove right up over it. Instant fail. She took the car back to the dock and then it was my turn.

Here we go again. I check under the back and front of the car like every other time. Get seated, adjust the seat, the mirrors and all that. Same old routine. I feel like I’ve done this a hundred times already, not merely three. Of course as I take my foot off the break and start to pull out I realize I forgot to disengage the emergency break, but the proctor doesn’t write anything on my sheet so I assume it doesn’t matter.

I don’t bother verbalizing my actions this time. I just make all of my mirror-checks and head-turns as blatant as possible. All I say is “hai” to the proctor’s instructions, all of which I know before he says them. As I make my way around the perimeter I’m only half-focused on the course, thinking about this morning’s lessons and how well they went.

At the right-turn I make sure to get as close to the center lane as possible and make the turn without incident—no other vehicles are coming the other way. It’s not until I get to the series of left-turns before the crank that the proctor starts writing on my sheet. What could he possibly be writing? I’ve done everything perfectly so far. I suppose it’s still just not perfect enough.

At the entrance to the crank I move to the right to reduce my chances of hitting the curb on the way in like I had the second time, and I notice him writing something but I make it in without any trouble, do the right-turn perfectly, and make the left-turn only having to back up once. I’ve got the whole crank thing down.

More easy stuff, then it’s the S-curve. I move to the right again at the entrance to get in a good position to not hit the curb at I drive through it, and for the second time I make it through the S-curve without needing to back up at all, though I make sure to excessively check my mirrors like a paranoid schizophrenic throughout.

The proctor doesn’t tell me to head back to the dock before finishing the course, so that’s a good sign but I was able to finish the previous two times as well and still failed. As I make the final turn into the dock, my old instincts kick in and I accidentally engage the windshield wipers a second before remembering the blinker is on the other side. The proctor doesn’t write anything though, so either that’s not something you lose points for or I’ve already failed and it makes no difference. I park the car, the woman riding in the back gets out, and I prepare to accept my fate.

The proctor speaks in Japanese with a few English words thrown in here and there. “This time was okay” he says. “Okay?” I repeat. What does that mean? “Yes, it was okay,” he says making the OK hand-gesture. He says a few things in Japanese I don’t understand but assume it’s about how I drove well. Then he says, “demo” which means “but”. Of course.

He explains that at the entrance to the crank and S-curve I shouldn’t have moved to the right because there could have been bicyclists or something. I’d blatantly checked the right mirror before doing so for that very reason, but apparently it didn’t matter. I should have just taken the turn from where I was, even though that makes it much harder not to hit the curb. I accept his advice with humility, and wait for him to jot down that awful “fail” kanji (不) on my paper.

But he doesn’t hand me back my paper. He tells me to wait. Confused, I get out of the car and walk towards the other people there. “You passed?” the Filipino woman asks me. “I don’t know,” I say. He didn’t tell me I passed (at least I don’t think so—I’m not sure what ‘you passed’ is in Japanese) but he didn’t hand me back my paper and he’d told me to wait. The other test-takers tell me this probably means I passed, and they congratulate me. I realize that I probably had passed—otherwise he would have given me my paper so I could go make a new appointment—but I’m not quite ready to start celebrating. Not until I know for sure.

The Filipino woman is waiting behind for her friend—the woman going after me—to finish the test, and she asks me if I could give her any pointers on how to make it through the crank. I take her to the map and walk her through the procedure, and she’s surprised to learn that you’re allowed to back up three times. The proctor hadn’t explained that this time, much to her unfair disadvantage. But she was very grateful to me for telling her, and we got to chatting a bit as we waited for her friend to finish the test.

I get to know the other test-takers a bit better. All of them have been in Japan longer than me and have been driving with an international license. They only need a Japanese license because the rule has changed and you can only use an international license for a year. The only other American to go had been renewing her international license for years every time she goes back to Arizona, which you’re not supposed to do. It was also her fourth time on the test and she ended up failing because her left-turns weren’t tight enough, a frustration I told her I knew all too well.

After all of them had left, I sit in the waiting room and eventually the proctor enters and calls my name. He tells me what I now need to do to get the driver’s license, and it is thusly confirmed. Success.

All that remained was the long slow process of getting the actual license. I first had to go to Window 2 to pay for the license, which costs 2050 yen, just slightly less than the 2200 yen cost of taking the driving test. Then it was back to Window 10 to give them the stamps indicating I’d paid. Waited there for awhile, then was taken to another room to go to another window and fill out another form. Waited there for a long time, then was given a receipt for the license and told where to go next. Got my photo taken, then waited outside in the hallway for a very long time hoping I was in the right place and they hadn’t forgotten about me. While I waited, the woman proctor from my last two tests hurried by. I would have liked for her to stop and take note of the fact that I’d passed, but she didn’t acknowledge me. A short while later, a man came out from the back room with my license and a paper with instructions for how to renew it after a year. He explained a bunch of things in Japanese which I pretended to understand (I can find out anything I need to know through Interac), then he gave me my long-awaited license. I took a quick iPhone photo of it for Facebook, then inserted it into my wallet.

On my way back home I called Interac to let Takahashi-san know that I’d passed and got the license. She sounded happy for me, congratulated me, and told me she’d send me an e-mail about getting me a car as soon as possible.

I happened to be riding the train back to Togane at the same time as most high school students journey home, so I had the nice bonus of seeing some of my Togane Chu students who graduated last year. I ran into a lot of them at Togane Station and proudly showed off my new license.

I still haven’t got an e-mail from Takahashi-san, but I assume I’ll be taken somewhere by an independent contractor to get a car one afternoon this week, as I have no lessons on any afternoon. I have M-sho on Tuesday though, so if it doesn’t happen tomorrow I’ll have to cab it one more day. If it does, I’ll be driving to work in Japan for the first time ever in just two days. I’m a bit nervous about driving on these super-narrow windy roads, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it quickly enough.

I’m actually not nearly as happy about being able to drive as I am about not having to go back and take the driving test again. I still don’t really want a car, but I know I’ll be glad to have one to drive to work when it’s really hot and humid or when it rains. It’ll also be convenient in many other ways, some I probably don’t even realize yet. But the experience-factor is probably the best thing, as driving in a foreign country where they drive on the left side of the road is a pretty cool experience to have.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

Driver’s License Chronicles, Part 4

April 16th, 2013 No comments

Before I took the driving test the first time, the guy at the Interac Chiba office in charge of driver’s licenses told me on the phone that whether or not you pass largely depends on the proctor you get. The first time I took it, the proctor seemed very nice but I automatically failed for driving up on the curb in the S-curve. The second time I took it, the proctor was a young woman who seemed nice enough but who failed me for trivial, nit-picky reasons. I was hoping to get a proctor more like the first one on my third try.

I had to go in the morning this time because the afternoon slots were full. Now that I’m working again it’s hard to find a weekday in which I can go, but because there was school on Saturday (which I’ll write about in another entry) we had Monday off. It wasn’t quite “off” for me though, as these driving test days are pretty much just work days that I don’t get paid for. In fact I have to pay every time, about $15 for train transportation and $22 to take the test itself.

I had to catch the 7:08 train, the commuter line to Tokyo. I’ve never ridden a train during the morning rush-hour before—it gets so packed with people that everyone is squeezed up against each other, like a cattle-train full of businessmen and high school students. Even when you get off the train, it’s still a massive herd of people making their way to the station exits, and everywhere the streets look like a parade of suit- and uniform-clad Japanese people on their way to work or school. As I rode the bus to the Menkyo center I realized I’ve never actually been out in a city during this time of day. It’s like a different world.

When I got to the Menkyo Center and Window 10 opened up, I found myself lining up directly behind none other than my Middle Eastern friend from the first test. He recognized me and took off his headphones, and we exchanged stories about our second attempts, now having both failed twice. He got a nice proctor but hit the poles in the crank. I explained to him about the absurdly strict woman-proctor. We were both hoping it wouldn’t be her.

But of course, that’s who we got. As soon as she walked in to the waiting room I felt my hopes of finally passing this time drop significantly. The Middle-Eastern guy, whom I learned is actually from Tunisia, looked at me for confirmation and I nodded silently that yes, it was her. We’d drawn the short straw.

After she went through her explanation of the course, I found myself talking to the guy who’d be taking the test right after me and thus riding in the back of my car at the time. It was actually a Japanese guy, but he only had an American driver’s license because he’d been living there since high school. He’d actually been living in a town in Long Island close to Huntington of all places (it is a small world), though I forget the exact name of it. We chatted for awhile—turned out he’s a huge Billy Joel fan—and I gave him all the pointers I could about the driving course, as this was his first time and he hadn’t read anything about it beforehand. I figured he didn’t have a chance, especially with the woman proctor, but I wanted to help him as best I could.

I ended up riding in the back of the car with my Tunisian friend yet again. I was really pulling for him this time, and was pleased to see him making none of the egregious mistakes he’d made the first time. He stayed in the left lane, stopped for a full three-seconds at the stop sign, checked all his mirrors before every turn and so on. He made it to the crank, so it was the first time I got to ride in the back for that, and he seemed to do everything properly there as well. He had to back up three times, but that’s allowed, and it looked to me like he sufficiently checked his mirrors every time. But when he got out of it, the proctor told him that unfortunately he’d failed and to take the car back to the dock.

Needless to say, that did not bode well. I stepped out of the car as she gave him the explanation for his failure and I told the Japanese guy I had no idea what happened because it seemed to me like he’d done everything right. The explanation seemed to drag on forever, but when he finally emerged from the car, the Tunisian guy told me she said he hadn’t been checking his mirrors enough. Wow.

I wished him better luck next time and that’s the last I saw of him. I got in the car, went through the whole routine, and began the test.

This being the third time, I felt right at home there in the left-lane with my right-side steering wheel. As I made my way around the outside of the course, I felt like I knew every part of it intimately. I practically live on this driving course.

I made it around the whole course as easily as usual, and came to the first right-turn. I made sure to get close to the center lane because that’s why I failed last time, I did my four-point check and said “yosh” (all clear) and just started to make the turn when she said, “honto?” (really?) and I immediately stopped because there was actually a tractor and a bus coming towards us on the other side of the road. It hadn’t been “all clear” at all—I was just so focused on going through the motions of checking around me that I’d neglected to actually check.

At that moment I knew failure was a virtual certainty. I’d only gone a few centimeters into the turn, but it was clearly a mistake and one that no doubt cost me major points. Even if I hadn’t failed already, I’d have to do the rest of the course perfectly to have a prayer of passing.

But somehow I did. I got through the crank with the least amount of trouble ever, now having the mechanics of that obstacle pretty much down. I only had to back-up once, and I made sure to look around and check my mirrors every few seconds throughout as though I was worried some band of ninjas was going to pop out at any moment. I didn’t want to make the same mistake as my Tunisian friend. And when I got to the dreaded S-curve, I pulled into it at just the right angle to get me through the whole obstacle without having to back up even once.

My heart was pounding heavily as I made the right-turn out of the curve. She’d been marking things down on her paper the whole time for reasons I couldn’t fathom so I knew at any moment she might pronounce my failure. But I went through the whole rest of the course, a couple of intersections and one last right-turn before returning to dock.

When I parked the car and the Japanese guy got out, I looked over and didn’t see my paper with the fail kanji on it, but rather her map of the course. Was this a good sign?

She started talking and the only word I heard was “zannen”, which means “unfortunately”. Yep. That’s right. I failed again. The third time was not a charm.

Why did I fail this time? Well, I’d obviously lost a few points for my mistake on the first right-turn, but that hadn’t done me in. Two of my left turns were not tight enough—she drew a diagram showing how left-turns were supposed to look like 90-degree angles but mine were more like 100-degreees. And on two of my right turns I hadn’t gotten close enough to the center line. That final right-turn, the one after the S-curve, had taken away the last few points I’d needed to pass. Because of a few centimeters, I’ll have to come all the way back here and take this fucking test again.

She was acting sympathetic as she gave her explanation and even wished me good luck next time. All I could think was “the luckiest thing that could happen is not to get you as a proctor.” When I stepped out of the car, my Japanese Long Island-friend looked at me hopefully and I shook my head. “Are you serious?” he said in disbelief. That had seemed like a passing run to him too, but nope.

It’s beyond ridiculous. I can’t have a driver’s license because my left turns weren’t tight enough? Riiight, because every single Japanese driver always takes every left turn at perfect 90-degree angles every single time. I’ve actually been paying attention—Japanese drivers take wide left turns, don’t get close to the center lane when making right turns, barely watch where they’re going let alone check their mirrors all the time, and never even come to a complete stop at stop signs. Watching them drive these past few weeks has been like a constant rubbing it in my face.

The worst part of the ordeal is always going to schedule the next appointment. The line of driving test failures is always long, then you get to the window and they tell you the next available date is about a week and a half in the future. Unfortunately, now that I’m working I can’t just take the next available date. The only time of the week I never have any lessons is Friday afternoons, and because of upcoming national holidays the earliest Friday afternoon session available is the 10th of freaking May. So unless I can work something out with the school, I have to wait almost an entire month before I get my next chance.

I accept the date and take my new form, go pay my $22 to get it stamped, then return to the appointment line to find my Japanese Long Island-friend and ask him how it went. He failed because at one point he’d forgotten to drive on the left side of the road. Ironic for a Japanese person, but he’s only been driving in America his entire adult life. But at least that’s a legitimate reason to fail. I failed because my left turns were off by 10-degrees.

Needless to say, I was not too happy as I made my way home. The only positive thing I can say is that I feel much more confident about my chances next time. Hopefully I’ll get a different proctor, but even if I don’t I at least know exactly what this one is looking for. I’d thought my left turns were tight enough but I now I know to take them even tighter. And I certainly won’t forget to get close to the center-line for every single right-turn, as my mind had been on too many other things before. But most significantly, I now feel like I’ve got the two big course obstacles—the crank and the S-curve—pretty well figured out. The most nerve-wracking part of the test is knowing that no matter what you do otherwise, you can still fail instantly with just one slight mistake in either obstacle, but now I’ve got the technique figured out. The rest of the test is just not making the mistakes you made before, and since all of those mistakes are burned so deeply into my brain it’s unlikely I’ll forget.

In any case, the only daily-life consequence is having to continue to ride my bike to and from work four days a week, and to take a taxi on Wednesdays. I’ve got to pay for the taxi out to M-sho, but Interac will pay for the taxi from M-sho to K-chu. I’ll just walk home for K-chu—it’ll take awhile but it’s doable.

The most negative consequence is simply having to go back to that damned place and go through the whole damned ordeal yet again. I’m sick and tired of it. Hopefully the next episode of these Driver’s License Chronicles will be the last.

Categories: Personal Tags: ,

Driver’s License Adventures, Part 3

April 4th, 2013 No comments

I went back to the Menkyo Center today, took the driving test a second time, got through the course almost perfectly, and failed anyway.

I went second again, this time riding in the back as a Brazilian woman failed the test almost as badly as the Middle Eastern guy from the last time. It would be nice to ride in the back during a passing run so I could know what the hell they’re looking for.

I did much better in the crank this time, only having to back up once at the very beginning when pulling in.

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The S-curve was still a bitch, but when I felt my back left tire hit the curb again, this time I backed up before running over it. You’re allowed to back up three times and I backed up three times, so I thought I’d made it through successfully.

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I completed the whole course and parked the car, then turned to the proctor and glanced at my page to see the big fat “fail” kanji (不) on the page. You’ve got to be kidding me. I drove like an expert, never forgot to turn signal, to check my mirrors, to completely stop at stop signs, and I even verbalized in Japanese everything I was doing. I did everything the book told me to do and then some, and I still failed.

I had a harder time understanding the proctor’s explanations this time because I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. As best I can tell, I didn’t get close enough to the right lane when making right turns, and I hadn’t checked all of my mirrors before backing up in the crank and the S-curve.

So now I’m even less optimistic going forward than I was before. I hadn’t gone in today expecting failure—there’s a difference between knowing failure is likely and expecting it—but now that I know you can pretty much do everything exactly right and still fail, I have no idea how long it’s going to take to get this thing. Apparently it doesn’t matter how much time and effort you put into preparing for it—they just want to make it as inhumanly impossible as they can. As though you’re an unsafe driver if you can’t flawlessly navigate an “S-curve”.

Seriously, what kind of sadists designed this test? There are no “S-curves” or “crank”s on actual Japanese roads, but they won’t give you a driver’s license unless you can make it through them perfectly? Meanwhile, they don’t even test you at all on stuff you will almost certainly have to do, like backing up, making a K-turn, or parallel parking. It’s absurd.

Sorry, I had to get that rant out. I’m certainly not the first gaijin with a blog to do so, and I won’t be the last.

As for the actual consequences to my life, we’ll see. I will have to bike to work for the first week, then I take the test again on Monday the 15th (luckily school is cancelled that day).

When I arrived back in Togane, I didn’t go directly home but took my bike on a test-run to the two closer schools: H-sho and K-chu. Adding the 5 minutes it takes me to bike to the train station, it’ll only take about 25 minutes to bike to those schools, and only five minutes to bike from H-sho to K-chu after lunch on Fridays. That also takes into consideration getting off the bike and pushing it during the steepest parts of the hill. I definitely worked up a sweat getting up there, but it’s not overly strenuous. Definitely doable, just inconvenient—especially when it’s raining or in the summer when it gets super-humid.

M-sho, on the other hand, is about ten times the distance over many more hills. When I got home I e-mailed Interac to suggest the possibility of hiring a taxi to take me between schools on Wednesdays only. Since Interac covers 20,000 yen of a car-lease anyway, if the price of a cab for just 4 days a month is less than that (and it almost certainly is), why wouldn’t they cover that as well? I got no definite response today, but I feel pretty good about the chances. They need me to get from M-sho to K-chu between the end of lunch and the beginning of the afternoon periods, and if that’s not feasible by bike then it would make no sense whatsoever for them to refuse to pay for a taxi.

But to end on a positive note, when I stopped at a convenience store up in the hills before heading back down to central Togane, there was a group of four young boys there having a snack by the window. They greeted me as soon as they saw me and asked me if I was an American. I asked them if they were H-sho students. Two of them were, and the other two were about to enter their first-year at K-chu. I told them I was their new ALT and we had a very pleasant exchange. I told them my name and where I was from, and they told me their names which I unfortunately forgot but will learn soon enough. I gave them a friendly goodbye and a “see you next week” and went on my merry way. Extremely friendly kids, very excited to meet me. If that doesn’t brighten your spirits, nothing will.

I also found out today that ALTs don’t actually teach every grade in elementary schools. Apparently kids don’t start learning English until 5th grade, so I’ll only be teaching fifth and sixth graders, which means two classes of 20 for M-sho, and one class of 35 fifth-graders and two classes of 20 sixth-graders at H-sho. That’s slightly disappointing because I’d been curious about the experience of teaching really little kids, but it’s also a bit of a relief because the territory won’t be that unfamiliar—these kids won’t be all that much younger than first-year JHS students.

Tomorrow is the opening ceremony at H-sho, which means barring some catastrophic bombing of my self-introduction speech, tomorrow is going to be a million times better than today.

Driver’s License Adventures, Part 2

March 27th, 2013 No comments

I spend all of Monday morning in preparation-mode, cycling between practicing my speeches for Friday’s closing day of school, and this afternoon’s practical driving test. To prepare for the driving test, I go through the entire course in my mind, visualizing every part of it and even using the Mario Kart Wii wheel as a prop. I’ve got the entire thing down to a science, each and every procedure and for each and every section of the course. Most people fail on their first try, but it’s possible that the entire next year of my life is riding on this. If it looks like I might not pass in time, Interac might not transfer me to the schools I’m hoping to be transferred to.

I time my arrival at the Unten Menkyo center in Kaihinmakuhari to correspond with the beginning of the one-hour block of time from 12:00 to 1:00 in which people are allowed to walk the course. I walked it a couple of times the first time I was there, but I definitely want at least one more chance to get it even more firmly in my mind, walking the course and going through each procedure at the actual places I’d be carrying them out. Just my luck that it’s raining today—now I’ve got the whole windshield-wiper situation to add on top of everything else I need to be conscious of, not to mention the potentially slippery roads. I’ve got my umbrella but after a half-hour walk through the course, I’m still pretty wet and my left foot is soaked—there must be a crack in the bottom of my left shoe.

I would have used the whole hour but I don’t want to get completely drenched, and I feel pretty confident that I’m as prepared as I can possibly be, so I go back inside and wait where I think I’m supposed to wait. When I got in, the ladies at the information desk had told me to pay 2,200 yen for a stamp and take it to Station 8. I got the stamp but Station 8 and every other station was closed for the lunch break, so now I stand there waiting for it to open. To confirm that this is where I’m supposed to be, I ask “jichishiken?” (practical test?) to a girl there and she says something that sounds like confirmation.

At 1:00 four men who appear to be proctors come to the desks and I show them the sheet of paper for the exam I’d received last week. They tell me foreigners have to go to Window 10. I’m confused because the guy at Interac had told me I wouldn’t have to go back to Window 10 and could just show up at the driving course at my appointed time, but shockingly enough this was incorrect, as was the information the lady at the information desk had given me.

So I go to Window 10 and give them the form and the stamps. There hadn’t been a clear place on the form on which to put the stamps, and I find out now that this is because I didn’t need them if this was my first time taking the test because I’d already paid. They tell me to keep the stamps and put them on the form when I re-take the test. I have no intention of having to re-take the test, but OK. Wouldn’t be the first 20 bucks I’ve ever wasted.

After a short wait, I and three other foreigners are called back to the window and told to head over to the test-course waiting room. There are about thirty Japanese people there too, but only three of us who are foreigners who’ll be taking the test with the automatic transmission car. There’s an Indian man with his wife, and a Middle-Eastern guy dressed extremely casually and listening to his iPod. I myself am dressed in a full suit and tie, knowing that half the battle is making a good impression on the proctor.

Our proctor arrives after the others have already entered and begun their explanations to the various other groups taking other kinds of tests. He asks us all if we speak Japanese. The others do but I tell him it’s difficult for me. He apologizes for not speaking any English, but I try to explain that it’s okay because I’ve memorized the course. He shows us the map and explains the whole course to us, doing his best to make sure I understand. I keep assuring him that I do because I’ve studied it. I am relieved that he seems like a nice guy—probably not the kind of proctor who looks for any excuse to fail you.

He tells us that the Middle Eastern guy will be going first and I’ll be riding in the back. Then I’ll take the test while the Indian guy rides in the back. He asks us if there are any questions, and I do have a question so I try to ask. When you make a right turn into a road with two lanes, I’m not sure whether you’re supposed to turn into the right lane and then change lanes to the left, or just turn wide into the left lane. The Middle Eastern guy speaks English so he tells me you’re supposed to turn to the left lane. Unfortunately, I’ve been practicing the other way the whole time, so I’d have to adjust.

The proctors leave and there’s another short wait as they retrieve the test vehicles. At 1:55 the test vehicles pull up, and I’m shocked by how many there are. There are about ten cars, but also three busses and a tractor. The test course—it appears—is going to be a lot busier than I’d thought.

The three of us find our car and the Middle Eastern guy opens the back door for me to go inside. He’s a nice guy and I hope he passes, both for his sake and so that I can see what a passing test-run is like.

In the book about the driving tests I’d been studying, it tells you to carefully check under the back and under the front of the car before you get in. The Middle Eastern guy doesn’t do this but the proctor is already in the car and doesn’t seem to notice. It appears you don’t have to do that in this prefecture.

He takes his seat and fastens his seat-belt, so far appearing to do everything correctly. The proctor points out where the blinker is (the Japanese word is “winka”), as well as the emergency break and the windshield wipers. In Japanese the blinker and wiper are reversed, but luckily the pedals are the same. I’ve made sure to practice the right-side blinker motion in my head every time.

As we pull out, I’m relieved to find that it has in fact stopped raining. So that’s one less thing to worry about.

The book suggests you verbalize every action as you take it, but the Middle Eastern guy doesn’t and I don’t think it’s necessary anyway. The book also tells you to keep as far left within the left lane as possible, but he doesn’t do that either. As he rounds the first curve I’m already starting to doubt his chances of passing, as he not only doesn’t stay to the left of the left lane but drifts a little into the right.

The next section is a long straight road where you must accelerate to 40 km/hr. Some prefectures will make you change lanes so I’d practiced that as well, but this wasn’t part of the test. Another thing I can stop worrying about.

At the end of the long stretch, you can go straight into a right-hand curve or take a left-hand “exit” into a stretch of road with a hill and fake railroad tracks. My map had shown that for our test we’d have to take that road, so I’d practiced those two obstacles—making a full stop on the hill and accelerating without rolling backward, and stopping at the railroad tracks and rolling down the window to listen for a “train”—but apparently I didn’t have to worry about that stuff either.

The Middle Eastern guy starts to merge into the left but the proctor quickly shouts at him not to, to just keep going straight. I feel bad for the guy—it’s also his first time taking the test and he’d been nervous as hell going into it. That little slip-up undoubtedly got him rattled even more.

Around the next bend you have to change to the right lane to avoid an obstacle, then make a right turn onto the center road with four lanes (two for each side) and a traffic light. He starts to turn into the wrong road, and the proctor has to shout at him again. This really isn’t going well. But if he actually manages to pass that’s great news for me as it means the bar is much much lower than I’d expected.

But when he actually does make the right turn, I know it’s over for him. He turns into the lane second-from-the-right, which is the wrong side of the road. The proctor corrects him and he gets to the right (left) side of the road, but rather than a specific lane just straddles the line between them all the way through the traffic light. He makes the next three left turns, forgetting to put his blinker on, and just when he’s about to reach the crank, the proctor tells him it’s over. He’s failed. Just take the car back to the dock. On his way back he once again drives on the right side of the road. Ouch.

I get out of the car as the proctor explains to him all the reasons he failed. The Indian guy—who will be riding in the back during my test—is there and I inform him that our Middle Eastern friend failed. The Indian guy will be taking the test for the second time, and I tell him this is my first. He tells me how difficult it is, but somehow I’m much less nervous than I’d expected to be. Maybe it was because I knew I couldn’t possibly do as poorly as the first guy, and my driving would seem expert by comparison.

When I’m told to get in the car, the proctor is still inside but I go and check under the car anyway. Better safe than sorry. I go inside, lock the door, adjust the seat, and check all the mirrors (adjusting the rearview with both hands) before I realiz I’d forgotten the seat-belt. No matter, at least I remembered it before starting the car. I also check the blinker, the wipers, and the emergency brake. Once I’m sure I’ve done everything I was supposed to before starting the car, I ask if it’s OK to start. I start the engine, release the emergency break, put the car in drive, and do the “full-head spin”. The word for “check” in Japanese is “kakunin”, and I’ve been practicing saying that followed by a number for each thing I check. When you start you’re supposed to check 1- behind you, 2- the left mirror, 3- the rearview mirror, 4- the right mirror, and 5- over your right shoulder. I go through this while verbalizing, “kakunin ichi ni san shi go” then put the blinker on and pull out.

course

I continue to verbalize everything as I make my way through the course. You’re supposed to check your rearview before every time you brake, so I say “baku mira” then “bureki” every time. At the long stretch of road it takes me awhile to accelerate to 40 but I get there, and make sure to verbalize the checking of my rearview four times along the stretch (the book says you fail if you don’t check at least twice).

I make it all the way around the course and am already feeling a little more at ease. This is the first time I’ve ever driven a vehicle in a foreign country and the first time I’ve ever driven on the left side with the wheel on the right. I haven’t driven a car at all since October, but it appears to have come right back to me with no rustiness at all, and the fact that the wheel is on the other side is not as disconcerting as I’d feared. Visualizing it all dozens of times beforehand really helped.

But so far has just been the easy part. Now we get to the turns and obstacles, starting with the right turn onto the center road. When you turn right you have look 1- left, 2- right, 3- at your right mirror, and 4- over your right shoulder. I say “kakunin ichi ni san shi” and make the turn, hand-over-hand like you’re supposed to, but my instinct is to turn into the lane closer to the center. That was a mistake, but at least it was the correct side of the road.

There’s not enough room to change lanes before the traffic light, and it’s just turning red. I say, “aka shingo desu” (the light is red) and stop. Ah, twenty seconds of rest before proceeding. When the light turns green I say, “aoi shingo desu” (the light is blue—yes, blue) and proceed. I kakunin at both crosswalks and check my rearview again, then change lanes to get in the left before the course’s series of three left turns around the block with the crank. There’s a stop sign there so I say “tomare desu” (it’s a stop) then stop and count to three (you must wait a full three seconds) before proceeding.

Left turns are the same procedure as right turns but in reverse, so I kakunin ichi ni san shi again and turn left, making sure to keep the turn as tight as possible. I signal left as soon as the first left turn is complete, which the book also suggests you to because it’s obviously better to signal too early than too late. The proctor has been calling out each turn in advance, but he can tell I’ve already got it memorized. I’m hoping my blatant use of Japanese is correcting his earlier impression that I’m just a dumb foreigner who can’t speak the language, and I think it’s helping. I even say “winka” every time I signal.

After the third left turn I’m at the point where the first guy failed, but now we’ve reached what most people consider the most difficult part of the course. It’s called the “crank”. A very narrow road with two sharp right-angle turns you must navigate without hitting the polls erected over the curbs, or driving over the curb. You’re allowed to hit the curb but driving over it is instant failure. If you hit the curb you’re allowed to back up, but only three times.

The book says the procedure for the left turn is to stay as far left as possible and turn at the last possible moment, then get as far to the right as possible for the right turn. This has been bugging me because I imagine that making it more likely to clip your tires, so instead I try to keep to the center. I take that turn as slowly as humanly possible, coming within a centimeter of hitting those polls but not doing so. I’m hugely relieved to have made it through the first turn without having to reverse at all, but half-way through my second turn I feel my back left tire hit the curb.

Okay, so we’ve got to back up. I shift into reverse and pull straight back like the book says, but the tire hits again when I continue. Now I turn the wheel a little as I back up, trying to get into what I imagine is a more favorable alignment. No avail—the tire hits again. As I shift into reverse the third time, the proctor informs me this is the third time. If I don’t make it this time, I fail. This time I turn the wheel massively as I reverse, really altering the alignment as much as possible. And it works! The tire doesn’t clip and I don’t hit the polls. The hardest part is over!

The next part is cake. A right turn back on the main road and a right turn at the traffic light—I turn into the closer lane again, but I merge left quickly enough and hope it’s not the difference between passing and failing. Slow down and kakunin at every little intersection, winka before the left turn at the end, stop and count to three at the stop sign. Left turn and around the bend, and now we’re at the course’s second major obstacle: the S-curve.

This is exactly what it sounds like: an extremely narrow S-shaped curve you have to navigate without hitting the curb. The books says it’s easier than the crank, but as soon as I enter it I can tell it ain’t that easy. I make the leftward curve as slowly as possible, ever conscious of the distance between my right tires and the curb, and keeping the blinker on the whole time. I get to the straight section, change to a right turn-signal, and begin turning the wheel to the right.

That’s when it happens. I feel my left rear tire rise up and plummet back down again. My sigh is so loud that the Indian guy in the back probably heard it too.

At the end of the curve, the proctor tells me what I already knew: because I drove up on the curb I have in fact failed, and I should return the car to the dock.

I don’t bother verbalizing anything anymore. I don’t even pay enough attention to what I’m doing to remember that the blinker is on the right side, and end up putting the windshield wipers on for the last turn. Doesn’t matter now anyway.

We pull in and the Indian guy gets out so the proctor can tell me my mistakes. It’s amazing how well I can understand Japanese when I know exactly what the person is going to say. He said my checking was very good, and I drove well. I failed because I drove on the curb in the S-curve, but I also lost points for not turning into the far left lane on two of the right turns, and also for turning the wheel too much in the crank. I think he wished me better luck next time.

So that was it. I’d done almost everything right and went to great lengths to give the proctor no excuse whatsoever to fail me. I did make a good impression on him, but it ultimately didn’t even matter. What did me in was a mistake of pure mechanics—I misjudged the position of the rear of my car during an obstacle. That’s instant failure no matter what the proctor might think of you.

As I walk away the Indian guy tells me he’d failed for the same exact reason his first time, and that he can’t believe how narrow that S-curve is. I wish him luck and go on my way, passing by the Middle Eastern guy outside as he’s smoking a cigarette and inform him of my failure. We wish each other better luck next time, and in I go to make another appointment.

I’m upset, but not as angry as I thought I might be. Having to take the test again is no big deal—what I’m worried about is how this might affect my job placement. If I can’t get the license before the school year starts on April 8th, they might not give me the position I’d been hoping for, the one with multiple schools including junior high and elementary. Unfortunately, the next appointment I can take is for April 4th, cutting it as close as possible. That’s also a Thursday which means if I get the license that day there’d only be Friday to get a car and be ready to drive to work on Monday, so this might mean they’ll change my placement already.

I call Interac but neither of the people who are handling my license-situation are in the office, so I have to wait until one of them calls me back. That happens as I’m waiting on the train platform, and when I tell him I fail he’s totally nonchalant, saying that’s the norm and not to worry about it. I express to him my worry about it affecting my placement, and he says he doesn’t think it will—that they’ll just look into bus routes or something until I get the license. I think if I can take a bus to these schools why do I need a car in the first place, but I don’t say anything. I’ve already gone this far—I’m going to see it through until I get that license, even if it takes me ten tries. (On the plus side, the 2,200 yen I’d spent on those stamps turned out not to be a waste after all!)

I’m relieved, but I want to talk to the woman in charge of that anyway, also to clear up my question about whether my school will have the official word I’m leaving before the closing ceremony. She’s out of the office all day but I reach her the following morning, and she tells me Interac informed the Board of Education about my transfer on Monday and they’d probably tell the school sometime this week. More good news.

She also tells me that they checked the route to my schools and I can use a bicycle to get to them until I get the license. Again I’m wondering why I need a car at all, but at this point I’m not turning back.

I also ask her why they can’t tell me what specific schools I’m going to, and she says it’s because of the contract, but they’ll tell me next week. But she can tell me that it’s one junior high school and two elementary schools, which all but completely confirms that it’s going to be what I think it is—that I’ll be taking over the schools from the Jamaican Jehovah’s witness, meaning I’ll be going to the same junior high school that one of my current vice principals is becoming the principal of. More good news.

So that was the second installment of my driver’s license adventures, both for those of you who know me and any foreigners who might have stumbled on this post while researching how to pass the driver’s test. Hopefully this will just be a trilogy rather than a long series of chronicles.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

Driver’s License Adventures, Part 1

March 12th, 2013 No comments

Monday was a school holiday to make up for the Saturday of the graduation ceremony. It’s Tuesday now and I’m back at school for the first time since then, still in a strange state of mind. A third of the student body is missing, and about three-quarters of the students I liked most are gone. But I can’t consider them firmly lodged in the past just yet. Most of them—those who aren’t travelling for vacation—will be back for the closing ceremony in about three weeks, which will also be my very last day at this school. I’ll have to say farewell to them again at that point, as well as say farewell to everybody else. To make things even more confusing, I’m not leaving Togane so I’ll continue to see a few students out and about whenever I go out. Just this past weekend I saw five of the kids who just graduated. It must be a little like breaking up with someone that you still see regularly.

On Sunday I hung out with Lily, Jack, and his friend John at their apartment, which was a nice distraction from the heavy and confusing emotions. We spent most of the time playing with their iPads—it’s astonishing how much time such devices can kill. After going out to dinner at a curry restaurant, we parted ways for what might be quite awhile. They’re all moving to Tokyo at the end of the week, so that’s even more goodbyes to look forward to! At least I know I’ll see them again, as I can always visit them in Tokyo.

But yesterday’s distraction was by far the most effective, as I had to use the free weekday to take care of the first part of the process of getting my American driver’s license converted to a Japanese one. No time for dwelling on past and future now—I’ve got to obtain documents, fill out applications, and take tests!

The main center for driver’s licenses in Chiba prefecture is the Menkyo Center in the city of Makuhari, close to Chiba city. It’s about an hour-long journey by train altogether, with one or two changeovers in between. But before I went there I had to get off a few stations earlier to head to the JAF building (Japanese Automobile Federation) and obtain a Japanese translation of my American driver’s license.

I got there just as they were opening for business at 9:00, and had to wait a little extra time as all the employees paused for their morning meeting. I’m not sure what effect my had, but I was treated with a great deal of respect—far more than I’m used to from dealing with American or German bureaucracies. I’d decided to wear a full suit that day even though it wasn’t necessary. I find myself more comfortable in a suit in public, especially when I know I’ve got to be dealing with Japanese workers. In this case it was particularly comforting to know I looked professional, as it made up for my lack of Japanese speaking ability. I may sound like a dumb gaijin looking for a driver’s license, but I looked like a person who should have one.

The translation took about twenty minutes and cost 3000 yen ($30). As if that weren’t expensive enough, I spent an addition 1000 yen ($10) on a copy of the English translation of the Japanese “Rules of the Road” booklet, both as a resource to study for the writing test and simply to have something to read during the inevitable waiting periods at the Menkyo center.

I got back on the train, got off at Kaihinmakuhari station, found the bus that goes to the Menkyo center, and took it there. The whole thing was pleasantly un-confusing. I went inside and found the information desk, confirmed that I was supposed to head to Window 10, and headed on over. The guy at the window—like every other Japanese person there—spoke no English whatsoever, but I had a good enough idea what to expect and was able to pick up on enough words to make it through smoothly. I had all the necessary documents—more than what was necessary, actually—so that wasn’t a problem, and after waiting for about ten minutes was given an application form for the driving tests to fill out. I needed a photo for the license, and there were photo booths there with a worker who helpfully guided me through the process. She didn’t speak English, but the photo booth did, so that was no problem either.

I had to pay 2,200 yen for the test application, but by the time all that was finished Window 10 was closed for the morning. For whatever reason, they only accept applications between 8:30 and 9:00, and between 13:00 and 13:30. It was now just 10:25, which meant I had a ridiculous amount of time to kill.

From my research, I knew I’d be able to walk the driving test course between 12:00 and 13:00, so that shortened the waiting time by an hour, and the rest of it I spent reading the Rules of the Road book and heading across the street to a convenience store for a snack. The Rules of the Road book was just chapter after chapter of painfully obvious common sense (e.g. “You must always wear a safety belt while operating a motor vehicle” and “Always follow the instructions given by police officers”) occasionally interspersed with something that might be useful during the test. There was an appendix explaining all the road signs, but I’d found a website with them last week and had them sufficiently studied already.

When 12:00 came I headed out to the driving course, but hesitated before going out on it because there was absolutely no one else there, not even a worker from the center. There were a series of placards with maps of the course and various routes posted, which made me nervous because the map I’d found online had only one route, and that’s the one I’d spent the last few days memorizing in my mind. I had my route through the map down, but not knowing what the course actually looked like, it was hard to really picture myself taking the test.

course

When I saw someone else come out and begin walking the course, I figured it was safe to do so myself, and proceeded to trace the route from the map I’d memorized, pleased that the actual course matched up so perfectly with the map. I did more than just walk the course, but actually pictured myself in the car, going through all the motions of signaling and checking my mirrors before every turn, slowing down and stopping at intersections and crosswalks, and carefully navigating the two major obstacles of the course: “the crank” (a narrow, two-turn passageway that you must make it through without running up on the curb), and the “S-curve” (exactly what it sounds like—a narrow, S-shaped curve). After walking the entire course once, I already felt massively less stressed about the test. Knowing exactly what it really looks like and being able to visualize the whole process from start to finish is enormously beneficial, and I’m now thinking there could be a chance I will pass on the first try, though the odds are still against me.

After completing the course I’d memorized, I took out the iPhone photo I’d taken of one of the course maps in the waiting room and walked the parts of the other two routes that were different than the one I’d learned. I had extra time, so I figured I might as well play it safe, and it also increased my familiarity with the crank and the S-curve. There were a few other people walking the course, but by the end I was unselfconsciously holding an imaginary wheel and miming all the major driving motions I’d need to make. Once I started doing that, I saw a couple of other people doing it too.

When 1:00 rolled around I headed back inside and stood in the line for Window 10, which consisted of about ten other foreigners looking to convert their licenses. A few places ahead of me in line was an American girl that I could have sworn I knew, and after a few glances and hearing her voice a few times I was 99% certain it was a girl I worked with at the Doubletree in Santa Barbara, but I just couldn’t remember her name. She looked at me a few times but her face showed no recognition of me, which made me hesitate just enough not to ask if it was her. I resolved to do it later if I saw her again, but I didn’t. That would have been a coincidence of monumental proportions, to be at the same Japanese driving center on the same exact day. But I’ll never know if it was her.

I got to the counter and handed in my application, and was told to wait awhile and I could take the writing test today. It was a good twenty-minute wait, and I was just at the end of the Rules of the Road book—at the appendix explaining signs—when I was called back to take the test. It was just me and one other woman from some other Asian country, and we were seated at a couple of desks separated by a divider and given an answer sheet and a test booklet with ten questions taken from a list of about 30. Our instructions were given in Japanese, but I’d known what to expect so had no trouble understanding that it was a true or false test—circle means true and X means false—and we’d have ten minutes to finish it.

The first few questions were just as easy as I’d hoped. “You may drive under the influence of small quantities of alcohol or drowsy medicine if you feel fine.” False. “When the traffic light is green but the police officer signals stop, you should follow the police officer’s signal.” True.

Most of the questions were like that, but three of them were poorly worded and caused some confusion. For one of them, the picture didn’t match up with the question. The question was long and confusing, but it definitely said “when the white line is parallel to the yellow line on your side” it is permissible to change lanes. If the yellow line is on your side, it’s not permissible, but in the picture the white line was on the car’s side. Should I go with the picture or the words? The test proctor was not going to be of any help, so I went with the wording and said it wasn’t permissible.

The last question was by far the worst. It said something like, “On a narrow road where there is little traffic, you parked your car on the left side of the road.” Uh…what? It didn’t say, “you may park your car on the left” but that you “parked” your car on the left. Well, I know that’s false—I certainly haven’t been parking any cars on the left side of narrow roads, but I’ve seen plenty of Japanese people do just that. Obviously, you’re supposed to park on the left but I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to do it when the road is narrow. The section on parking in the Rules of the Road book made a lot to do about having a proper designated parking space and not leaving your car parked on roads for long periods of time. I looked at the test proctor and tried to tell him that this question makes no sense, but he didn’t understand and just repeated the instruction about true or false. Well, it’s fifty/fifty. I’ll just say false.

We had to wait about ten more minutes for the test results, and I was slightly nervous. You have to get 7 out of 10, but I was definitely unsure of about 3 of my answers and for all I knew I’d made a mistake on another as well. But when the test proctor emerged from the room he just told us that we’d both passed, and now it was time for the eye exam. Well, that’s a relief, but I wish I could have seen which questions I got right or wrong. I don’t even know if I passed with all 10 or just skated by with 7.

The other lady went in for the eye test first, and I tried to decipher the instructions on the outside of the booth. The first part was easy: just indicate which direction the opening in the C was pointing. The second part was even easier: say which color the lights are to make sure you’re not color-blind. But the third part was some kind of depth-perception test, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of what you were supposed to indicate. A woman and man I’d stood behind in line (they had Mongolian passports) came over to check the instructions too, and because she’d been translating the Japanese for him I asked her if she spoke English. She didn’t, but I told her in Japanese I didn’t understand the third part. As she read the Japanese and explained it to her friend, I was able to get a better idea of what it was and when she was done she communicated what it was to me with Japanese and hand signals.

The woman ahead of me was taking forever so I assumed it had to do with that confusing final test. When I went in I quickly got through the first two parts, and was shocked when that was the end. No depth-perception test at all. The proctor told me I did very well, and that was that. The woman before me must have been color-blind or something.

Finally, we were told a few things about the driving test and given a map of the course with the route indicated. I was pleasantly surprised to see it was the route I’d been studying already, and showed him my iPhone picture of the other routes just to make sure those were irrelevant. Indeed, the route I’ll be taking through the course is the one I’m most familiar with. So that was great news too.

I was hoping to schedule the test a.s.a.p. but when I got to the appointment window the earliest possible date was the 19th. That being next week and me not knowing my schedule for next week, I chose the first day of spring vacation—(the “unofficial” spring vacation, before the closing ceremony), Monday the 25th. That gives me two more weeks to stress about this, but also two more weeks to visualize my route through the course and practice in my head. I also intend to contact the only person I know with a car—Atsushi—and ask him if he’d be willing to take me to some back roads and let me practice driving with a right-side steering-wheel car. If I could get the hang of that before taking the exam, I think my chances of passing the first time would go up enormously.

So that was what it was like to go through the initial process of converting my driver’s license. I somehow made it through the whole thing successfully without anyone speaking English at all. I’ll have to study some driving vocabulary for the practical test so I can understand the proctor’s instructions, but having already memorized the course means I won’t have to rely exclusively on his verbal instructions anyway.

I have no idea how boring this was to read, but some people might find it interesting, and perhaps some fellow foreigners will find it useful, as I found some other blogs describing other people’s experiences with this process useful to me. Stay tuned for Part 2 in two weeks, which promises to be much more interesting and much more useful.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

Falling Into Placement

March 6th, 2013 No comments

I didn’t expect things to happen so quickly, but less than three days after I made that call to Interac I now pretty much know what the next school-year has in store for me.

I won’t go into the complicated little details of how this all came together, but suffice it to say it’s now beyond any doubt that I will not be returning to this school. I will still be operating under the Togane Board of Education, but I will have two schools instead of one—a different junior high school than the one I’m at now, and an elementary school. That’s as close to the kind of situation I’d been hoping for as I could have hoped for. Not only will I get to find out what life is like in another junior high school, but I’ll also get a taste of elementary school life as well.

I don’t yet know what the specific schools will be, but I do know that I will have to get a driver’s license in order to reach them. I find that a bit odd since Togane isn’t very big and I think I could easily reach anywhere by bicycle, but my being offered this position is predicated on my ability to get a Japanese driver’s license.

After doing some research, it looks like this is no easy task. There are the typical bureaucratic procedural hurdles to get through but that’s not the big obstacle. The written test is also apparently a joke, as I’ve done some sample tests online and pretty much all of it is plain common sense. I just need to study the road signs and I’ll be fine.

The huge hurdle, however, is the dreaded practical examination. It didn’t take long into my research to discover that they make the test as inhumanly difficult as possible, apparently actively searching for any reason whatsoever to fail you. Here’s a website describing what the process is like at the driving center where I have to go. And here’s a site where I downloaded an extraordinarily helpful book from which I can study every last thing they’re looking for, but if you just scan some of the comments at the bottom it’s quite intimidating. Passing the test on your first try, it would seem, is almost unheard of.

At least I have the advantage of plenty of downtime at school to not only memorize the course but the procedure for every little thing down to properly making turns. I’m supposed to go in and apply for the test on Monday, and while there I should be able to walk the course and get everything even more solid in my mind. Still, I expect to fail the first time for the simple reason that I’ve never driven on the left side of the road from the right side of the car in my life. If I were to actually manage to pass this insanely difficult driving test on my very first time behind a right-side steering wheel, it would be nothing short of a miracle of epic proportions.

But I have until April 8 to get the license, and the woman at the Chiba office who was in charge of my placement tells me you can take the test as many times as you want and only have to wait 3 or 4 days between each time. I’m sure I’ll get it on the second or third try, and if by some incredible stroke of misfortune I don’t have it by the 8th, she tells me they’ll arrange for a cab to take me to the schools until I get the license. But that was after she said they’d have to change plans if I couldn’t get the license, so I can’t be too sure of that. The back-up plan, she said, was to just switch me and Kim, giving me just one junior high school to teach at but at least it’s a different one.

Today I had my first final lesson with a non third-grade class. It also happened to be a day that O-sensei was absent so I ran the whole thing on my own. I spoke Japanese nearly the entire time, and was pleased they understood. The first thing I did was tell them it was our last lesson because I won’t be coming back in April, and their reaction was as nonchalant as I’d expect from the second-graders. Some of them seemed a bit warmer than usual, but none of them were upset or anything. Like I wrote before, they’ve long since taken me for granted and that’s a major part of the reason I want to leave in the first place.

But at the very end when I said my goodbyes (I didn’t give the whole big speech, just a few words of gratitude and encouragement) a couple of the students asked me to take a picture of me with the whole class. That was pretty touching, but it’s against the rules so I had to decline.

The next two months are going to be difficult, both in terms of emotion and stress, but they promise to be among the most interesting since I first arrived in Japan.