Dreaming Big in Japan

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mendou Kusai

The Japanese have a great turn of phrase that quite accurately sums up my approach to life for the past year:  面倒くさい  (mendou kusai), or "I can't be bothered!"
I'm a bear who cares! [or] I'm a bear. Who cares!?
This leads, inevitably, to lots of loafing around. But, said loafing was getting unusually difficult because we only had a set of chairs around the dining room table at which to loaf. Plus, the average daily temperature (inside our rental house too!) has been hovering around freezing, with nighttime temps dropping low enough to freeze our water pipes a handful of times every week. They might still freeze even if they were inside the house, but since this is Japan, the water pipes are actually outside of the house mounted on the wall. They are just there in all the elements, mostly because I think Japanese carpenters do not want to take the time to drill holes in the wall studs to pass the pipes through. Some of our wiring is the same way, inside and out, just tacked onto the wall. It sure makes the whole building process faster and cheaper, but at what an aesthetic and functional cost!

The solution to both these conundrums (and these two only!) was made apparent on a trip to the mainland, during which time I tested for my Japanese Driver License. I failed my first attempt at the driving test with flying colors...but more on that later. And so, as a consolation prize, we undertook a hasty remedy involving a healthy dose of retail therapy.

We would later stumble upon a nice bakery with a variety of beautiful and elusively-vegan breads, then find our way to a shopping mall and even take in a movie at some giant gigaplex, but before that we stopped at a second-hand store. We remembered a few items we could make use of, but such purveyors of others' trash seldom reveal the treasures we seek. Yet, lo and behold! Under a heap of lesser cushions and couches-without-legs laid buried a stout sofa suitably appointed for cradling my loafing loaf. We rescued it from its shoddily upholstered captors and proceeded to put it through the paces of a rigorous snuggle test.

This seat of love amply fits this loving couple side by side, but once alone and reclined across both cushions, my legs dangle over the side. And we now know the reason this otherwise prime specimen of functional furniture may have been pawned off in the first place: the cushions slip and slide right off the frame when put under any weight. However, we have a couch now, whereas we did not before. Recline and Rejoice!

The second dilemma revolved around my feet. I am ostensibly endothermic in relationship to my surroundings, whereas my better half conversely displays exothermic properties. But isn't that the way it always is...I'm hot and she's cold!? We have a heater, of course, but it is only big enough to slightly warm the room we are currently in. There are portable versions, either electric or kerosene fueled, to accompany one as one moves around one's domicile, but the cords are short and electricity is astronomically expensive (and nuclear in origin) in Japan, and the kerosene heaters vent right into the room you are in. This necessitates opening windows every few hours to let the carcinogenic smoke escape, with the added bonus of losing all the heat previously generated. Thankfully, there is another option (not passive solar design, as our rental hardly faces the sun at all) and that is a kerosene heater with an external flue which vents smoke outside. We happened to purchase one before the disaster last year, during a half-off-end-of-winter sale. We installed it last November and have been burning 36+ liters of kerosene per week (at approx. $60 per refill) to slightly warm two small rooms. This does not include the bi-weekly refill we need to keep the bathtub hot water heater fueled... 

Compound this silly equation by the absurd fact that most buildings in Japan lack insulation (I have yet to hear an explanation as to why) and we end up with a room dropping to or below outside temperatures (how is that even possible!?) the moment the heater is stopped. Thankfully we can hibernate the night away under warm futons, but during waking hours it is a struggle to stay warm.

See: painted particle board, air and dry wall. That is ALL!

Bottom to top: flue, fuel intake, 90L kerosene tank on blocks!

We employ the layer method quite effectively, with often double digit figures layered between us. Oh, and 'someone' sticks self-adhesive pocket warmers all over her inner layers. While I am usually warm enough, recently my feet feel like I am playing shuffle puck with two blocks of ice. So, after we procured the aforementioned sofa, we found ourselves in an offensively large, yet well heated, shopping mall particularly in a 'Village Vanguard' which turned out to be the only place in our little corner of Japan that sold big fluffy slippers. We scored some kind of cartoon character themed slippers, which I care to know nothing about because anime is just dumb, but they are severely plush and severely warm.

Three-toed sofa sloth in its natural habitat.
Having finally warmed my little piggies, I had a week to digest the absurdity that is the Japanese Driver License (DL) examination process. First of all I had to pay, not do it myself, to have my Colorado license translated into Japanese. Then I had to lay down over $50 in fees to submit my application for a DL. Michie came with me and helped answer a slew of very detailed questions, like when, where, how long and in what make, model, and country of manufacture, of car did I take my original driver's training. Then they asked me how much I paid for the training. When I told them with a huge grin that it was free through my high school, the pencil pusher across from us let out a wild expletive of disbelief as his jaw audibly dropped. You see it costs upwards of $4,000 (yes, four thousand) to take a driving course in Japan. These course are administered exclusively by private companies 'licensed' by the DMV, which refers perspective drivers to said companies. If you are Japanese, essentially, you will never pass the DMV's tests if you cannot show proof of purchase of driving school instruction.

While foreigners in Japan face an astronomical amount of discrimination, institutional and otherwise in our daily lives, we have one loophole to our advantage when it comes to getting a DL. Most countries have a treaty with Japan to allow their citizens a Japanese DL upon the simple translation of their origin DL. The US, however does not have such a treaty because Japan is basically like a petty child. Each of the 50 states in the US has a different procedure for foreigners, including Japanese, to secure a DL. As such, because all states will not conform to the standard Japan demands, Japan chooses not to make any accommodations for US citizens. At least that is what some government minister officially stated in a press release. Anyway, US Americans, have to pay their way through an oppressive bureaucratic maze, with another 'official' at every turn to collect 'fees' for encrypted instructions to the next 'official's' desk.

So, once I managed all of this, I had my interview. Then I was told I had to come back another day next week, because who would even think to register for the driving test and TAKE said driving test on the SAME day? What kind of world would that make any sense in, the pencil pusher questioned. So, I came back, registered again, took a vision test, and a 10 question paper test. I got one wrong, but they refused to tell me which one, because in what kind of a world would we tell students the correct answers to test questions they failed, so they can learn from their mistakes and ultimately become safer drivers? This all took about a half hour, then the waiting ensued.

 After two hours of watching ALL, without exception, even for the last minute arrivals, of the Japanese students getting to take their driving test, the proctors called out the handful of foreigners present. There are two saving graces of the whole experience. The first is that since we do not yet have our Japanese DL we have no legal DL to drive on the real roads in Japan (despite our international permits) so we only needed to take a course test, and no road test. The second was that the proctor took us in a car before our test began and personally drove us around the course in a practice run that we would have to mimic on our own. Such graciousness began and ended there! There was no explanation of what was being checked for, only where to turn for the next test. In the end, this turned out not to be a test of actual driving skill and safety awareness, but rather an exact aping of what the proctors quickly did one time without explanation.

Other Prefectures in Japan allow test takers to walk the driving course hours before there are cars whizzing around it. They also allow a translator (self-provided) to ride in the back seat, to convert the vague Japanese instructions to whatever your native tongue may be. They also provide study materials and maps of the course before the driving test. Miyagi Prefecture, wherein I currently reside, neither supports nor condones any of the above subversive behaviors. The common consensus among all the foreigners I met over the duration of this ordeal was that all of these ludicrous requirements and prohibitions were in place to exploit and extort as much money as possible out of us. Since we did not have to take out a sizable loan to finance our drivers ed classes in our home countries, our respective DLs were seemingly deemed both qualitatively (not Japanese) and quantitatively (massive amounts of money) inferior to their four-grand Japanese counterparts.

However, despite weeks of training (read: no instruction, just admonishment when you do something wrong, without knowing what was wrong since it was never taught) and loads of cash in outlay, the average Japanese driver is no better prepared to be a safe and skilled driver once they finally get a DL. They too must mimic the exact course, without deviation. It comes down to a game of memory, and of convincing your muscles to repeat certain prescribed actions from rote on command, while constantly checking the proctor out of the corner of your eye as he violently assaults his clipboard with ferocious jabs and slashes of his pencil.

So, needless to say, it is a scam. Plain and simple. But all the best scams the world over are government sanctioned, are they not!?

I digress. As mentioned much previously, I failed the first test, because, and I translate and quote "American roads are sooooo wide, huh. Our Japanese roads are sooooo narrow. You Americans do not know how to drive on narrow roads."  Other than a wide left turn (we drive on the left here) out from a narrow driveway that I know I fudged, I was told I failed without any real explanation as to why. I had to go back to the office, re-register (paperwork and all) and pay another $50 for the next test.

Now, it would be bad enough to make the long trip and fail the first test if you lived on the mainland. But, since all travel to and from our home involves a ferry ride both ways, one trip involves up to two extra days of traveling and gasoline and waiting and hotels and food expenses and so on. If we did not have to wait two hours before the foreigners got to go, I could have been out in time to drive 50 minutes back to the port at Ishinomaki and catch the last ferry of the day at 4:10pm. The ferry and island part, we knowingly and gladly brought upon ourselves, but the abusive amount of waiting at the DMV was definitely perpetrated against our will. 

So, we stayed at a hotel, because it is too cold to sleep in the car, like we are wont to do in the summer. Once home, we had a week of refuge back on Ajishima, protected from the madness of the world by a massive moat of saltwater on all sides, and a lock on our front door.

I spent a lot of time reflecting on my few known mistakes and visualizing every turn and procedure, from the 'baby check' (making sure no errant babies have crawled under the car while parked) before even getting in the car, to the final parking brake and supplicating gesture of inferiority and spoken plea of unworthiness and expression of gratitude to the proctor for whiling away so much of his precious time on such an undeserving peon. These are the things that get a passing grade. I decided I would never grovel, so I contrived a farcical ruse whereby I would over exaggerate every gesture and as sarcastically and condescendingly as possible speak the rote parts of the scripted conversation between the pencil pushers, the proctors and myself. They would have the satisfaction of seeing a foreign fool apparently fumble his way through an intentionally complicated maze and I would rest assured knowing that I never really gave in to their expected demands of self-deprecation.

 After a week of peace, I hopped onto a ferry bound for the mainland, this time alone, without my trusty sidekick. They wouldn't let her do anything anyway, plus she had to work and earn money for me to burn up in gas and hotels and DMV revenue stamps. Oh, I forgot to mention that I had until Feb 22 to get my Japanese DL. This is because my international driving permit would expire then, and legally I would be driving illegally after that. So, I needed to get this all done as soon and as cheaply as possible. This time I brought lots of money, lots of snacks, changes of clothes and a determination to pass the second test, with a healthy realization that I would likely need to find room and board near the driving center, just in case.

I failed the second test. Who would have thought? I made wide left turns the first time, so the second time I may have overcompensated by taking a left turn too close to the curb, as I can only assume by the proctor literally jumping out of his seat, hanging from the handle above the door and screaming 'watch out!' I know I didn't do anything wrong, or anything worse than the average Japanese driver does on a second by second basis when they are 'driving.' I realized how startled he was, and I may or may not have done the same thing again at the next left turn. Regardless of my intentions, he freaked out again and started defacing my poor helpless report on his clipboard. I did a damn fine job on that course that day, but I still failed.

Back into the office, new paper work and receipt of payment of another $50 in hand. Thankfully, I got the last slot for the next day's test. At least I wouldn't have to waste a night at a hotel between test days, but I started to anticipate living out of my backpack for the next couple weeks. I would have to buy my cup ramen in bulk and go to the coin laundry every other day if that was the case. But, I was mentally, if not spiritually prepared for such an event.

One more thing before I get to the third try. The proctors usually have the next foreigner in line ride in the back of the car during the current test. I actually got to ride with this poor guy from Iran who understood no Japanese at all. Not even numbers (the turns were numbered) or left and right. It pained me not to translate for him into English, which he spoke very well, but that was strictly verboten. He rolled through traffic signals, missed almost every turn, went off course just to get back on course and actually crashed into a wall. Good thing I buckled up for safety.

After I took care of the paper work and paid the second time, I saw that guy moping about the waiting room. I asked him if he had a few minutes and I offered to explain what the proctor said and what was actually expected. I drew up some detailed maps of the corners of the course, and laid out what the proctors refused to. He seemed to feel better about it all after a good chat.

I came back the next day refreshed and focused. I did the preliminary paperwork, then waited a long time for my turn. I visualized the entire course and every action start to finish including getting handed the 'pass' card from the proctor at the end. I was mid course on another visualization when all the other foreigners, some back for the fifth and sixth time, came to the waiting room. The same Iranian guy sat next to me and he showed me a satellite image from google maps of the course he cleverly downloaded. We talked a little about the test but then spent the rest of the time just chatting away about life in general. We were having so much fun that I didn't hear my name the first time and once I realized I had to go, I really felt I would get more out of talking with a fellow human being than being ignored by a seemingly feelingless robot. But then the Iranian guy was called to ride in the back while I drove this time, so I thought that should be alright. I was hoping that I had chalked up a bit of good DMV karma for helping him out. I did all the stuff I was supposed to do, got in the car and rocked that test like it had never been rocked before.

The proctor, the third one I had, and by far the nicest, and possibly even a real human being, said to me after I pulled into the final parking spot, 'Mikkeruson-san wa totemo jouzu deshita,' or 'Mickelson-san you were totally perfect!' I could not believe it and I expressed my concern to him, but he assured me I had passed, and I got the card to prove it. I did not see how my friend did next, but he did fail again. I was too elated to notice anything else. I looked at the clock on my way back into the lobby, and noticed I had several, many hours in fact, to wrap it up here and catch the last ferry home. Unbeknownst to me, the waiting hadn't even begun yet. 

I made it to the foreigners office through what looked like a broom closet door, handed in my 'pass' card and was given more paperwork requiring more revenue stamps. Bastards. I had to pay to take each test and, finally, to pay for passing the last one, or pay for the actual license as the case may well have been, but the pay-for-passing scenario fits my depiction of moral bankruptcy on the part of the DMV much more deliciously!

Many stamps and a lighter wallet later, I handed my paperwork in and was told to wait an undisclosed amount of time. It ended up being two and half hours give or take, while Japanese folks who came after I did got to go ahead of me. After all the Japanese had been processed and sent along their way, I was finally called, along with the only other foreigner to pass that day, a really cool woman from China. Thankfully, we ended up sitting next to each other in the waiting room. I thought she was Japanese at first only because her Japanese was really really good. We chatted and waited and waited some more. It was her fourth or fifth time taking the test. But finally, we were called. My picture was taken and I had my license within another half hour. All it cost me was a few ulcers, a bit of my dignity and a couple hundred dollars instead of several thousand.

By the time I made it out to my car, the time was exactly one minute before the last ferry would leave the dock for home, but that ferry was a long ways away and it was rush hour. So, I slowly drove back towards Ishinomaki, spent some time in a video arcade, had a nice vegan meal at a real Indian curry restaurant and pulled into an internet cafe parking lot around 8pm. In Japan, internet cafes are often very elaborate affairs with individual booths with doors and walls. The idea started before the advent of the internet, so the remnants remain and entail a small library's worth of Japanese comic books, or manga. Students and, not surprisingly to me anymore, businessmen and housewives, will pay for a couple hours so they can catch up on their favorite manga stories, catch some rest in a reclining chair or on a mat in their booth. There is an all you can drink soda fountain, that also dispenses coffee, tea, corn chowder, tomato soup and slushies. Some cafes have showers, billiards and darts, and a full menu of Japanese comfort food (read: nothing vegan!) delivered right to your booth.

Thankfully, they had an overnight package for 12 hours at about $25, which is a far cry from the triple or even quadruple price of an average hotel, per person. However, there is not a lot of privacy, nor a lot of room for someone two and a half times the size of the average Japanese person, for whom the booths were originally intended. I stayed in another branch of the same cafe the night before near the DMV, but this one in Ishinomaki was much better. The other branch had 5 non-smoking booths next to the smoking booths. In Japan, people smoke like chimneys like they did in the 50's and early 60's in the US. Even doctors and nurses and government health officials do as well. They don't care because they do not know any better. I digress again...the Ishinomaki branch on the other hand, had a handful of smoking booths in a secluded room with a separate ventilation system. It was fun to drink fizzy pop and hot salty seaweed tea until I fell asleep.

I got up in time to drive ten minutes to the port and catch the first ferry the next morning. I can imagine that internet cafe coming in handy in case we ever miss the last ferry home in the future. Once back home the first thing I was greeted with was my neighbor and some random workman who couldn't wait to tell me that someone crashed into our house. That's right, while I was spending the week at the DMV learning how to fake my way through a driving test, someone drove a truck into the side of our house! They mashed up the wall a bit, and tore the stove pipe chimney of the side of the bathroom wall. This shook the stove pipe inside loose too and rattled our bathtub heater up a bit. Other than that everything was ok. Our neighbor, who happens to be the foreman for all the workmen cleaning up the island after last year's disaster, slapped some grey silicone caulk all over the white wall (read: no sense of aesthetics despite being a carpenter by trade) and called it waterproof. Oh, well, it is a just a rental...

A few days passed, and Michie had to work some night shifts, so I had an ample amount of time to unwind and decompress after the frustration of battling with the worst bureaucracy I have ever encountered, worse than the US, and worse even than in Germany, where I lived, worked and studied for a while, and where one in two of all workers is a bureaucrat. It was nice to kick back on our new sofa with my fuzzy bear-like slippers warming my toes and to hear nothing but the wind and see no one until Michie came home later on. That is my idea of peace.

As a reward or maybe just to eat some chocolate, Michie whipped up a snack last night comprised of brown-rice based cornflakes folded into melted dark chocolate and left too cool in little mounds. We wanted to eat them as soon as possible, so we put them outside to harden in the subarctic weather. Michie heard some rustling outside but thought it to be the wind. Once our cravings got the best of us, she went outside to gather our treats only to find a feral cat licking and pawing at our glorious chocolate. It got all but six mounds which remained unmolested and unslobbered upon. Less is definitely not more when it comes to chocolate, but at least we had a sweet treat. And what an ending to a couple weeks' worth of ordeals. 

Now let peace reign until our next trip to the mainland. 

I really only intended to show off my new slippers not to bitch and moan about all the cultural idiosyncrasies here, but it does feel good to vent. And I should have broken this into more than one post, but, afterall, mendou kusai!!!