Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Driving Test and the House on the Hill

January 17, 2006

Now that the "Indoc" class is over (and we both have the "official certificates" to prove it!) we're allowed to get our Japanese driver's licenses. So at 9am, we joined our classmates again at the Fleet and Family Services Center for a two-hour cram class in Japanese driving rules. Neither of us was really into it, as we'd both managed to catch a nasty cold. FH was especially sick, so he went back to the Navy Lodge, but I sat through the class (he leaves shortly on the ship, but I really do have to be able to drive before he leaves). Our instructor's English was a little hard to understand through her very heavy accent, but she obviously took her job very, very, very seriously. She told us a few horror stories, and the point of each seemed to be that she blamed herself for passing the lawbreaker, and that somehow, each offense was ultimately her fault! She assured us that she rarely passed even half of the class the first time around, as she did not want all those deaths on her conscience if we were bad drivers. Needless to say, I was glad I'd studied the driver's manual and the color sheet of Japanese road signs.

After an hour lecture, we were to sit through two short films before the written test. I expected something along the lines of the "Blood on the Highway" films we were shown in Driver's Ed back in high school, but instead, these films reflected what was important in the Japanese culture. Both were American English films, filmed in Japan, but the main point of the films was not "you might get hurt or die." Instead, the moral of the story was that if you don't drive responsibly, you will bring intense embarrassment to yourself, your family and your country--a very Japanese attitude that embarrassment is worse than maiming and disfigurement!

I aced the written test (thank goodness for studying!) and was told to return at 1:10pm for the driving test. Our Fearful Leader watched me buckle in, check my mirrors, and start the car. She immediately made a note, then reached across my chest to turn on the headlights (not required, but essential in her mind, I guess!) I was as nervous as I was the first time I took my driving test, repeating my "remember this" list in my head. "Remember to stay on the LEFT side of the road. Remember that the turn signal is the wiper switch and the wiper switch is the turn signal. Remember that the triangle sign means STOP here, not yield. Remember to watch for pedestrians. Remember that the stop line in front of the crosswalk at an intersection only means stop if there are pedestrians present or a triangular sign. Etc." Didn't help that Fearful Leader kept making little gasps and notes, even when I was driving slowly down the center of the lane (no, not the center of the road!) The final part of the test involved reversing the car into a very narrow perpendicular parking space ("Remember to tap your horn before reversing!") The whole class was standing in front of the Safety Building, watching....and I've never been a big fan of reversing. After cracking my right elbow against the window (automatically turning my body to look over my right shoulder dontcha know...) I got turned around the right way, arm across the back of Fearless Leader's seat, blew the horn, and began to back up. No, too wide. Forward and try again. Wait, is the nose of the car going to hit that parked car? I'm crooked. Try again. Curseword. Ooops...does she know that word? Curseword, yes she does.

I didn't pass.

The only consolation for me was that only about 6 people out of a class of 14 passed the first time around, and I was told to come back on Friday to try again. I got my "learner's permit" for "on-base only" driving and the admonition to practice backing up. Although that sounds a little tough to do, it wasn't such an obstacle as you might think...because we bought a car! Yes, we are the proud owners of a very narrow, beat-up little Mitsubishi "beater" for the grand total of $750. We still have hoops to jump through, such as the base-required insurance, Japanese Compulsory Insurance, the compulsory and expensive inspection and emissions test, and the city requires a parking registration of about $40 per year that proves every car owner in the city has a legal place to park his or her car. But we now have transportation and that's a happy thing. I will still ask the housing folks for some assistance figuring out the bus routes, as I am a firm believer and supporter of public transportation. I'll send a photo of our little beat-up baby soon!

That afternoon, I went back to the housing office to look at more houses as fast as possible, since we had to make the decision about whether or not to take base housing by noon on Wednesday. I'm not sure I mentioned how we meet the agents. The housing office sets up the meeting, and the prospective renter goes out the back gate of the base and waits on the street corner. A car pulls up with a smiling face, and off you go. Too many people were being taken to the wrong house, so now each person is given a car color and a license plate number, to ensure we will see the house we expect to be shown! I was grateful, as I had a realtor pull up, open the door, and gesture for me to get in--but it certainly wasn't a beige car with license plate 10-83! The agent tried to insist, and I was relieved when a young couple came running up, aplogizing for being late, and jumped into her car. My agent showed up a couple of minutes later. Who knows though...maybe I would've liked looking at the first house, too!

House #3 was a bust. Suffice to say it was a pretty drive, but a hovel of a house. Brilliant photographer though! The agent seemed apologetic from the moment he picked me up, and I think he knew it was a rat trap and was embarrassed to be wasting his time and my own. Very nice man though.

Time for House #4. The real estate agent was the first woman agent we'd had, and I enjoyed her beaming smile and the mariachi music she had bouncing through the car when she picked me up. Ms. Agent drove up a winding road, past a shiny chrome-trimmed supermarket and a "sushi-go-round" which she pointed out with enthusiasm to me on the way out and again on the way back. Seems Americans are well known for liking the "sushi-go-round" restaurants, where the chefs prepare lots of different little plates of sushi, and send them out to the customers on a conveyor belt, or little boats travelling around a canal, or on toy train cars on a circular track. The customers pick up anything that comes by and strikes their fancy. The meal cost is figured out at the end by counting the little plates each diner has stacked beside him or her. The plates are color coded, with white ones being only 100 yen (about a dollar).

We climbed and climbed (anything worthwhile in Japan...) passing lots of little shops and folks out walking the steep streets. The narrow lanes made me gulp, especially when we passed a city bus by a hair, but Ms. Agent knew what she was doing. Then we turned onto the steepest, narrowest street I've ever been on. I was sitting in the back seat, and my view through the windshield was basically straight down--like cresting the top of the big hill on the rollercoaster in that hanging second before you plunge down and down and down. We didn't. Plunge, that is, but only due to the great brakes on her excellent little car! I think she heard me whimper, because she turned around and beamed at me. "Two way!" she exclaimed happily. Yep, she meant that this road, so narrow I wasn't sure we'd keep both side mirrors, was a TWO WAY street! We stopped at a stop sign (miraculously, I thought!) and went another 25 yards before she suddenly pulled the car into a little opening between a stone wall and a house, and we were on level ground again.

House #4--the House on the Hill--has a little yard and a little fence, and a couple of happy trees (one very Japanese, with each branch its own "level") and two camellia bushes in flower. It sits very, very close to its neighbors (as all city houses do) but due to the slope, one side of the house looks out and over the roofs, and there is even a little slice of harbor view. It's a great mix of contemporary comfort and Japanese traditional style. The entryway is small but airy, as it's open all the way up the staircase to the second floor, with the little hall railing forming a tiny second floor gallery. There is an altar space and carved main beam in a tatami room at the front of the house. There is a large, open living/dining room which leads right into the large (!) kitchen, all of which have nice wooden floors. There's a tatami room at the back of the house as well, and both that room and the living/dining room have sliding glass doors leading into the fenced and secluded yard.

The bath room is traditional, with the shower head and spigot separate from the short, deep soaking tub. Both toilets (both downstairs) have the electric seat warmers, and both washbasin mirrors are heated so they won't fog up. Upstairs there is one tatami room, as well as two rooms with hardwood floors--one of which has a balcony from which one can see that harbor view. There's even a little tiny room specifically for holding a wardrobe, as closet space is rather non-existent in most Japanese homes. At 1316 square feet, it's not as big as Dream House or House #2, but the House on the Hill has plenty of space, some traditional Japanese elements, and it's in great shape. Ms. Agent performed an intricate 37-point road turn in the narrow, one-lane driveway (shared with the house behind) and stuck her nose out into the two-way luge run that thinks it is a residential street. I thought I might have to pedal, but her workmanlike little Japanese box car chugged its way back up that hill, and I sighed with intense relief as the truck pointed down the hill in our direction turned away at the stop sign mid-slope. Heading back down the twisty roads to the base, I realized that the two lane thoroughfares were MUCH wider than I'd thought on the way up! I knew I'd have to come back to this house with FH, to see what he thought. It's not as traditional or as wonderful as Dream House, but it's a ten-minute commute, and there is a bus stop two blocks away (if you have rock-climbing equipment). It doesn't have the shrine and the teeny fish pond and the lantern of House #2, but it's nowhere near as shabby, and it's not facing an industrial area. We'll see.

Tune in tomorrow to hear more about The House on the Hill, House #5, the decision about base housing, and much more!

1 comment:

Mary Witzl said...

Reversing is something I'm crazy about either, so I'm glad I never had to do this! Cycling around Japan was hair-raising enough for me.

Just looking at that little bathroom with its pink tiles and that typical only-in-Japan plastic-stone flooring, I felt like sighing from nostalgia. I had roughly the same type of bathroom. But two toilets, each with a heated toilet seat, is luxury indeed!