Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Long time no see...

...the reason for that being that I have been busy cramming for the 日本語能力試験, which is coming up on Sunday. (Japanese Language Proficiency Test.) (I'm not sure why I'm taking it, but I've signed up, got the bus tickets and hotel room, so...)

Let's see, what else has happened in the last month or so?

Well, I got my Japanese driver's license. Previously, I had been driving on an international license, but those are only good for one year, and the law in Japan states that if I wanted to just get a new international one, I'd have to leave the country for at least three months, so I had to shell out the cash to get a Japanese license. Of course, it wasn't as easy as all that.

First, I had to go to the testing center to have a chat with one of the officials there. Now, it's an unwritten rule in Japan that the license testing center in each prefecture has to be as far away from the major cities as possible. So, I had to spend about two and a half hours on two trains to get there. Since my boss couldn't come with me (and why should she? better for only one of us to be inconvenienced), I had to bring my dictionary and a lot of patience to answer the guy's questions. He was asking me about the driver's ed. courses I took in Minnesota, in great detail. Now, since that was something like 17 years ago, it took a little effort to recall. Then, of course, I had to figure out how to translate all that in to Japanese. This led to a lot of "no, wait, go back to that bit and change it." The official dude was also quite patient.

Of course, I couldn't take the test that same day, so I had to make an appointment to come back in a week. On that day I showed up at 1:00 in the afternoon, and took the written test. For foreigners, there are only 10 questions, as opposed to something like 50 for Japanese people. That was no problem. Now the Tottori licence center folk were kind enough to allow me and the other foreigner taking the written test that day to take the driving practical test right afterwards.

Now this is how the driving test works in Japan: First, you ride in back while someone else takes the test. Afterwards, you have your test, while the next person rides in back. After you park the car, you get out and walk around to the passenger side, where the instructor unrolls the window and gives you advice. Even though the test for foreigners is shorter and easier than the one for native Japanese, the testers are still pretty strict, and most foreigners fail the first time.

As for me, I failed the test three times. After the first test, the only thing that the instructor told me was to slow down in the curves. The next time I took the test, I had to be at the testing center at 9:00 in the morning, which meant that I needed to catch the 6:00 train out of here, and I did this three days in a row. Fortunately, I didn't have to go to work those days.

There were usually between eight and ten foreigners taking the driving test each day. Some of them had been going to take the test often enough that they had gotten to know each other quite well. One day I rode in back while a Chinese guy took the test for his 13th time! (He failed that day too. And he deserved to. After his test was over, the instructor looked over his shoulder at me and said, "GET. OUT." which I was only too happy to do. He then proceeded to read the riot act to the Chinese guy, who didn't even have a chance to get out of the car. From what we could see/hear, standing about five meters away from the car, it was clear that this particular instructor had tested this guy before, and none of his advice had sunk in. "THIS is your MIRROR. You need to LOOK OUT THIS WINDOW to SEE this mirror BEFORE you turn..." etc.)

On the fourth day, when I went to the passenger's side, the instructor had to think for a minute before he told me: "Pump the brakes when you slow down, to keep better control." I smiled and nodded, thinking a) this car has ABS, and b) if that's the only advice, I damned well better have passed. There were eight people testing that day, and only two of us got our licenses. When they read my name, I reacted with great joy, while everyone else golf-clapped (thinking, damn, I gotta do this again?)

By the way, taking the practical test cost ¥3600 each time. So, I spent ¥14,400 (about $120) plus another ¥2000 processing fees to get my licence. Now think about that poor Chinese guy who had to take the test 14+ times...