Recently in Japan Category

Windy Day

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A dust devil spinning itself three stories into the sky above the grocery store.
A hundred seagulls facing into the wind as they bobbed on the choppy water.
Dozens more gulls swishing in the wild winds over the harbour.
A mountain of full-grown trees being brushed by the wind like a Kansas wheat field.
A man holding a slice of tin roof to keep it off the power lines.

It was that kind of windy today. 

On the Roads

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Yesterday at driving school, we went out on the real roads with our new learner's permits. I expected this to be a brief circle around the school, but it was a gorgeous drive along the coast. We did it three times in three hours and each time was better than the last. 

Learning to drive on the narrow roads in town, where there are pedestrians, garbage trucks, bicycles, no sidewalks, and just enough clearance for two cars is quite an interesting challenge. Not at all like driving in the US. I successfully avoided everyone yesterday and plan to continue that success.

Tod pointed out that in our first session yesterday, we each had a department head instructor at our side. In the subsequent hours, it was regular instructors. The newest drivers get the most seasoned instructors. It makes sense. This school really does know what they are doing.

Going to Driving School

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Whooo! Watch out on the roads; we have our learner's permits now.

Three weeks ago, after a year in the countryside with only bicycles and busses for transportation, Tod & I enrolled at Kamogawa Driving School. Our neighbor, who runs the Korean restaurant, heard we were considering it and insisted that we set a date and she would drive us there. 

So we did and she did and there we were on October 29th, forking over 300,000 yen each for a full driving course. It seems like a small fortune for re-learning a skill we haven't used in almost 20 years, but it turns out to be a very good education. On the same day you hand over the cash, it starts off with a bang! It was a bewildering and unexpected few hours as we had a lengthy but rapid explanation of the program, a psychological driving aptitude test, and our first classroom lesson. 

We decided to dedicate ourselves to doing this as quickly and efficiently as possible. Three weeks in and we've completed the first half of the course and passed our exams for the learner's permit yesterday. We began Stage 2 classes today and go out on the real roads on Tuesday. If we keep up this pace, we should be ready to take our final licensing exam by the end of the year. We are feeling pretty proud of ourselves.


About the School

If you are considering driving school for yourself, let me tell you a bit about the program and the school because the Kamogawa Driving School website is only in Japanese.

First, Enrolment

It is a little tricky; you can't rock up any old time to register. Be sure to call 04-7092-0894 to book your registration date and time; intake happens three times a week. Plan to spend at least three hours on the day. They will tell you what you need to bring, including an official copy of your juminhyo from the city office so that is an errand you need to make before you go.


The Program & Schedule

The course of study is divided into two parts: Stage 1 pre-permit and Stage 2 post-permit. Pre-permit is two tracks happening concurrently: 15 hours of driving practice on the school's course and 10 hours of classroom time covering topics from traffic signs to road safety. At the end of the first part you take the internal exams and after you pass, you take the official exams for the learner's permit (kari menkyo).

Stage 2 is again a two-track system with 19 hours of driving on the roads and in simulation, plus 16 hours of classroom time that includes first aid training, car maintenance basics, and lots of information about accidents and insurance.

The whole thing is very Japanese. Bells and chimes announce the start and end of each period and you are not allowed to get up from your desk or out of your car until the bell rings. Each student has a planning book to track progress; in it every class, driving hour, or test is stamped by the teacher. There is also an official record that the school keeps and a booklet of driving tickets. All of these are color coded by course: yellow for MT, pink for AT, green for motorcycles. You choose your schedule a visit or two ahead from a complex calendar of classes, exams, and driving days. Fortunately, you can take the classes in almost any order.

The Teachers & Facilities

I like all of the teachers at the school, a crew of middle-aged men, some of whom have been working at the school for thirty years. One is a graduate of the school and his original teacher recently retired.These guys work really hard and share the burdens of car and classroom teaching plus admin stuff like the shuttle bus schedule and pick-ups. I think I've had them all either in the classroom or in the car by now. Each one brings his own personality - strict, chatty, factual, fanciful, curious, jaded - but they all deliver good instruction. They've even been fixing my bad driving habits.

There are three classrooms at the school, a lounge space, and a couple of special testing rooms, as well as the office. They have a fleet of manual and automatic transmission cars, and exotic stuff like motorcycles and big trucks. One afternoon I shared the course with a huge forklift!

The driving course is a pretty standard layout with a railway crossing, a traffic signal, a hill, tight curve practice, an obstacle with cones around it, and lots of intersections with stop signs, blind spots, and different right-of-way scenarios. I've been around and around it and it hasn't gotten boring yet. 


The Textbooks, Training, & Exams

There are two main books - theory and driving. The theory book is translated into English so I study the theory in English before class, which makes the Japanese lectures & video materials a lot easier to follow. The teachers always point out the details that are likely to be on the test, so understanding the lectures is key to passing the written exams. 

The driving book is only in Japanese, as is the verbal instruction from the instructors when we're in the car. This is a good challenge for me, sometimes, when the teacher gets deep into some intricacy of practical driving. Thanks to having driven in my distant past, the basics are already in my grasp and I am understanding most of the instruction clearly. A lot of the nuance is directed to passing the practical exams. There is a specific way to get into the car, adjust the seat, and turn your head to look in the mirrors, for example, otherwise you get points off. 

The written exams can be taken in Japanese, of course, or in English (and maybe Chinese and Korean as well). Tod is passing the Japanese ones with no problem; I am sticking to my mother tongue for tests. They are not nearly as awkward as I expected. I had heard horror stories about the rotten translations, but with a few exceptions they're perfectly understandable normal English. In fact, I think the Japanese is just as convoluted - these are meant to be trick questions sometimes.

Kamogawa Driving School is registered with the prefectural police and licensing center, so they can administer all of the official exams excepting the final paper test. For that, you go to the Licensing Center in Makuhari, 90 minutes away.

The Other Students

There are three main groups of students: 18 year olds getting their first driving lessons; elderly drivers taking their mandatory over-70 driving classes; and foreigners. Lots of foreigners! Many foreign ladies, as it turns out, and we gravitate into a loose community. We talk to one another, offering encouragement and even hugs. Women support one another across national boundaries and language barriers. It's good.

My Recommendation

I would recommend the school to anyone with the time and money to do the course. The staff want you to pass the exam and want to keep Kamogawa's roads safe. They work hard for you, and if you put in a good effort you will succeed! 

And if you need a ride to registration, I want to pay forward the boon my neighbor did in kicking us out of complacency and into action, so call me!

OMG, Mould

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This September was the rainiest one on record, which was really bad for our house and all the stuff in it. When we returned after visiting family in the US for a month, our home was completely coated in mould.

The kitchen counter was green. The bedframe was sprouting three dimensional orange mould. The futons went to the dump yesterday and floor cushions were trashed. All of our clothes were musty, the shoes mildewed, leather goods dotted with mould.

For the last ten days Tod & I (and friends helping with supply runs) have been combatting the mess. We've washed every wall, floor, and window with vinegar and tea tree oil or bleach. We tore out and replaced the floor of the bedroom closet. Every dish, pot, pan, appliance, and utensil has been scrubbed, along with all the cabinets they live in. We replaced the wooden spoons, cutting boards, oven mitts, laundry baskets, trivets, and chopsticks. We have washed and dried epic quantities of laundry.

We've been sleeping in the upstairs office/studio because it was only lightly affected. I was able to wipe off the white, powdery mildew form the furniture and vacuum the floors and call it "good enough". It's not stinky or damp up there. When we can get the downstairs bedroom back to a reasonable level of must, we will buy a new futon and bedframe. 

Today, the first truly sunny day since we got back, was devoted to airing out the contents of Tod's closet. I broke three laundry poles this morning. Tod has a lot of clothes. There wasn't enough room to air the winter coats; I am hoping for a another sunny day soon. The sun is fading now and I don't think the clothes are fresh yet...

We still have a fair amount of cleaning, repairing and replacing still to do. I am seriously considering another radical decluttering. I never want to have to wash all this stuff ever again. It's depressing and tedious. If you find my mood sour next time you see me, check for mould in my head.

8 Streetlights, 12 Spiderwebs

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I love walking in the night. Tokyo made me forget the beauty of darkness, but the countryside has awakened my enjoyment of evening calmness. It isn't pitch black, even on a cloudy, new moon night,  but photos don't capture the dull glow of sky, the faint reflections in the rice fields, or the shy blinking of fireflies. On my way from Satoyama Design Factory to home last night, I watched my feet on the grey paths, observed the diffuse glow of distant windows behind heavy mist, and counted the sparse streetlamps. 

Changes of Season

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Before we left Tokyo seven months ago, I had a concern about the seasons, of all things. After almost 18 years in the city, I was tuned to the nature there and the procession of plants and weather created a visceral annual timeline for me. If I moved somewhere else, I'd lose my sense of time and it would take years to get it back and, and, and...panic.

And yes, it is true. I have no clue yet about whether I can plan for sunny days this month or what weather is heralded by iris or whether the plums bloomed at the normal time or not. The general brush of the seasons is different here. We're only a couple hours away from Tokyo, but the southern Chiba mountains are a different ecosystem entirely.

I love it. I swear that every day I go out walking, I notice a flower suddenly in bloom everywhere, a caterpillar cruising along, grasses rising up from the verges. There is myriad detail in this parade of nature - so much richer than the city where everything was planted on purpose. Here, layered over what Nature does on her own is what man does with Nature - preparing, planting, maintaining. 

So in this first year of living in the country, I am observing and recording without understanding or anticipating.  Someday, years from now, I'll get it all put together into an internal calendar again. Until then, taking it one day at a time is not as disorienting as I thought it might be.

New Year's Walking

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At midnight, we visited Fudoson temple with Chris and Elli. We rang the big bell - nobody was counting the tolls, I wonder if we got to 108 - had some amazake, listened to the monks chanting Sanskrit and Japanese blessings, then stepped into the temple to greet the gods there. That was pretty special, it's unusual to be invited into the sanctum itself. The monk greeted me with "Happy New Year" in English, which brought a smile to both of us.


This afternoon, after a slow morning and a breakfast that might as well be called lunch, we were ready to move a bit and we walked up from home to Futatsuyama, where we'd been told there was a beautiful view. There is and my snaps do not do it justice. 

You can see clear across our valley, west to Miura and Yokohama, northwest towards Tokyo, and south to Oshima. We even glimpsed Mt. Fuji in the haze of clouds.

Our house is always invisible. It is odd, actually. You barely even see it as you approach it on the road and it seems to hide behind hills and trees in all photos and vistas. You can't see it here, but we know it is on the other side of that hill in the foreground.

Corner Cow

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This is my friend and neighbor, Corner Cow. She lives at the dairy next door and watches over the intersection from her hilltop stall. From the road below, I greet her, talk to her about the weather, and sing her songs. She knows my voice and turns to watch me pass. She sniffs the air when I bring visitors to meet her.  Yesterday she heard us all coming along the intersecting road, laughing, and turned herself halfway around in her stall to see what we were up to. Good cow.

The dairy is closing next month and Corner Cow will go to another farm. I hope she remembers our meetings.


Courtesy Call

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Our local policeman, Matsuda-san, dropped by this afternoon. He spoke in gloriously slow and clear Japanese to welcome us to the neighborhood and make sure that he had our details for his emergency book. We've had these courtesy calls in Tokyo,too, but this one was a little special.

"If you ever have any trouble, like robbers or an accident or anything, give me a call," he told us. "But we don't have too many robberies around here. Do be careful of the wild boars, though. If you see one of those, run away."

Gotta love country living.

Takezawa Demystified

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Our questions about the mysterious Takezawa of the abandoned house were answered yesterday by Kawakami-san, who runs the gas station and LP gas business in the village.

Takezawa moved down into town and lives in a nice, new house near the barber shop. He truly did abandon the house with no further thought of it. Kawakami-san, who brokers the informal real estate deals around here, asked if we wanted to rent the ruins. Hmmm....

And the question about how the mail got through? Chris posits that there was a truck-accessible track that would take you in pretty close and the mailman walked the rest of the way from there. I guess we'll check that out next time we go up there to explore.

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