Thursday, October 22, 2009

Licensed to Drive

I've been really behind on life in general lately, so of course my blog follows suit. So, let's catch up!

The day after coming back from Goza beach (see previous entry), I braved transferring my American driver's license into a Japanese license. It is a little bit backwards, but when you first come to Japan you can use an International Driver's Permit from your local AAA office. All you have to do is pay to get it and stick a passport size photo on it, and you're 100% legal to drive in most foreign countries. Mine expired in August, so I had to get a real Japanese driver's license. Many other countries can just go in for an interview and change their license without taking a test, but Americans have to take a 10 question True or False test (in poorly translated English) and then a shortened version of the Japanese driving test.

People make a lot of noise about this and say that it's a huge deal. And it is a little bit, because most everyone that I know had to take the test multiple times before passing. After asking for lots of advice from previous test takers, I armed myself for success by choosing the easiest testing center (or most lenient to foreigners might be the most accurate) and wearing a suit to the testing center to assure the examiner that I was taking this seriously. Oh, and I should also add that to get this appointment I visited my local police station 4 times, got some Japanese translations of papers, got a letter from the MN DMV because I had renewed my license in July while I was home and it didn't look like I had my license for longer than 3 months, I didn't have the right size photo for the application, etc. etc. etc.

So finally I was there, thankfully with the help of a Japanese friend since I don't speak enough Japanese for the interview portions of the test. So first I turned in all the paperwork that I spent the previous month collecting and waited. Then I had an interview about what my driver's education classes and driver's test entailed and then I waited. Then I took a 10 question True or False test that was a bit harder than I expected, so I was a little nervous while I waited again. I took an eye test and correctly identified the "blue" and red lights. And waited. Then when I found out that I passed the written portion, they explained the driving course and told us to memorize it. Then I ate lunch, walked the closed course outside to get a feel for it while driving, and waited nervously as my friend had left for the day (noticing a trend here?). Finally was the driving section of the test. There were only two foreigners there that day taking the shortened test, me and a Chinese woman who understood even less Japanese than me.

The Japanese eye test consists of a bunch of circles with a gap missing.
< -- You have to say whether the gap is up, down, left of right.

I was chosen to go first. You drive the center's car (on a closed course), which is regular size and has a regular size engine. Yes, I realize I'm revealing my lack of knowledge in the car department with that description! But it's noteworthy because I drive a Kei car, which is a smaller bodied car with an engine around 550CC (). Now that doesn't mean much to me, but I've been told that many 4-wheelers and snowmobiles in the use have the same size engine as my car! Still it was nothing near the size of my parent's Le Sabre or the Taurus I used to drive! So after looking under the car and doing some safety checks inside the car (and of course looking underneath and behind the car for small children and animals) I set off around the course.

Me (a little bling that day) and the car I bought last November.

You get one loop around the outside of the course to get used to the car and the brakes and then the real test begins. I overused my blinker because I had been told to signal for everything, so I did and he kept telling me I didn't need to signal for this or that. I went around a few curves and then had to speed up to 40 km/hr on a straight away...that's about 25 mph. The rest of the test was much slower than that even! You go through a bunch of turns and stops at the fake stoplight and crosswalks, go around a construction zone, and make turns with limited visibility due to "buildings" on both sides of the road. The most difficult is the special turns section, mostly to prove that you can handle driving on the narrow roads of Japan that sometimes look more like sidewalks than roads.

One is an S-curve with a narrow road and I know a lot of people make it through the curves and then fall off as they are turning left out of the curve. Somehow I made it (if you fall off the course, you automatically fail and can't finish the test) and then moved on to the "crank." It's two 90 degree turns on a narrow path with bars hanging down around course. Again I made it through (driving at well under 10 mph).

We stopped back at the parking space and though a long conversation with lots of drawings, I was informed that I don't get close enough to the left and right side of the lanes when making my turns so a little old grandma on a bike could come up and I could hit them (even though I looked over my shoulder and in my mirrors multiple times on every single turn!). Also, I had failed to realize that my side of the road was a two lane, so I had made all of my right turns from the left lane! Seems pretty stupid of me, but it's hard to tell on fake roads! I was sure I hadn't passed since obviously making a right turn (remember that's across traffic here) from the left lane had to be a huge no-no!

The Chinese woman took her test after me, and I was really glad that we were on a closed course! She was hitting the brakes pretty hard jerking the car and pumping them on every curve. She finally reached the S curve and completely went off the course before trying to turn left out of the curves onto the road again. The examiner got a little mad at her it seemed, as he scolded her for not stopping, backing up and trying again instead of just driving completely off the course! She didn't get to finish the test. While she was driving back to the parking space he started asking me questions about me being a teacher and how long I had driven in America before coming to Japan. Apparently he liked the answers to my questions because I passed!

I had to watch a terrible safety video and get my picture taken. I got my license handed to me the same day! It was a long day, but worth it knowing I'm a legal driver in Japan again! And much easier than I thought in the end after being nervous for weeks.

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