Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The "Necessary Evil" Driving Test

Stew received a Pink Slip two days ago.  No, not the dreaded "you've lost your job" pink slip, but a coveted Sakura pink slip declaring that he passed the notorious Japan driver's license road test.  Stew passed, while I (Lissa) failed.  More on that in a moment.

While we've shivered through February, walking back and forth in 35-mph wind gusts to and from the bus station and the train station...we've eyed the mini-van that sits parked beside our house.  This van is a fairly aged specimen, a non-descript 1998 Toyota Noah mini-van.  But it's ours to use, and since we just finished 8 years of life in China with no vehicle, we have been itching to drive it.

Our "Noah" mini-van, seen from the living room window
Not so fast, however...

Though we went to the AAA in Tennessee last fall and obtained "International Driving Permits" that were good for a year, these became utterly worthless once we landed in Japan.  Instead, we had to apply for a full Japan driver's license, a process that took approximately 6 weeks from initial application to the date of the road test.  Stew and I went online and studied up on the licensing process.  Kind friends took us on 3 separate excursions to the JAF (Japan Auto Federation):  first to submit an application, then to return with a missing document, then back a third time to pay fees and take a written test.  The written test was simple enough; we both passed, so we booked the date for our driving test.

A "forbidden" photo of the driving course

The driving test is the bane of an ex-pat's transition to Japan.   Instructions are given entirely in Japanese.  The cars are outfitted with seeming dozens of rear-view mirrors, all pointing this way and that.  This myriad of mirrors exists for the examiner (versus the driver) whose job it is to catch the driver "out of position" at any point on the driving course:  along the road, through the "crank" of simultaneous 90-degree turns, the narrow S-curve, and through intersections.  Intersections are marked with white solid "stop" lines well before the actual intersection.  In the middle of the intersection lay triangles or other shapes painted on the road, which the driver must proceed past/along/through  in a precise fashion.  Suffice it to say that the driving test involves a laundry list of anal-retentive driving protocol: one enormously intimidating challenge.

Stew and I were the last of 18-20 people to test that day.  We spent the morning in a little booth, watching all of the other drivers attempt the test.  Anticipation built as we watched others make their way through the driving course, and each time one returned to the booth, we craned our necks to see whether that driver earned a "pass" or the more frequent "fail" slip.

Lissa's is on top; Stew's on the bottom.
Yes, I failed.  I made a lane-change rather late and reached a full stop at the intersection, with the front of the car breaking the plane of the white "stop line."  No touch-down for this girl.  In effect, I'd illegally entered the intersection.  I chalk it up to my inexperience of left-side-of-the-road driving, an unfamiliar vehicle, a lack of Japanese language, and paranoia from too many off-set mirrors flashing images across my view.  Stew, on the other hand, "aced" the test and joined a very elite club of Foreigners Who Pass On The First Try.  We guessed that around 35-40% of test-takers that day passed the driving test.  What we didn't know until much later, was that the majority of them were repeating the test for the 3rd or 4th time!

Thanks be to God, we are "mobile" now because one of us passed.  This obviously boosts our morale, giving us the ability to go where we want to, when we want to, without begging rides, paying expensive train fare, or enduring motion sickness-inducing public bus rides.  There was only one remaining hiccup to resolve at the end of the day.

Had we mentioned that it's been cold here?
The van's battery was rather "dead" and in need of recuscitation before we could venture out on a maiden voyage....  Ah well, after 3 months of sitting still in an outdoor parking spot, what could we expect!