Into Higher Gear

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February 11th 2002
Published: November 11th 2006
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I passed the half-year mark being here in Japan a couple of weeks ago, and I marked the occasion with a pretty momentous change. I decided to follow in the footsteps of nearly all the JETs who live in the boonies of Japan and purchase an automobile. On the advice of a friend, I came upon a used car dealer with impeccable English who had the perfect car for me. It was a white Mitsubishi Minica, 14 years old, but well maintained by its sole previous owner. It is several steps up from my dearly departed Chevy Nova merely by virtue of its A/C and digital clock. Oh yeah, the fact that the car goes from 0 to 60 in ten seconds instead of twenty is another small improvement The car cost me about 800 greenbacks plus another $500 more for registration and other fees I don’t understand. This being Japan, I had no choice but to pay the entire amount in cash the moment I picked up the car. It felt a bit weird carrying around $1400 in my wallet, but I am not terribly afraid of robbery. The rice paddy farmers don’t tend to be the thieving sort.
Once I had a car, it was high time to learn how to learn. As you may or may not know, the Japanese people drive their cars on the left side of the road, like Britain, and unlike the rest of the world. In the two weeks I have been driving, I have only erred once. Without thinking, I pulled out my car into the right lane and spent several precious seconds in a state of oblivion before eying a car on the other side going the same way I was. Like a burst of lightning, it hit me that I was following American rules and I did a quick U-turn. Several minutes, my heart’s pounding began to subside, and I was able to breathe easily again. I still fear sometimes there will be a sudden burst of light, headlights blinding me into confusion, horn beeping like an exploding A-bomb, a driver frantically trying to warn me of the certainty of impact because I was lost in another world.
Since I got the car, I have driven more than 400 kilometers, or for the metrically deprived, 240 miles. Believe me, that is more by necessity than choice. It takes nearly an hour to reach the nearest major city in my prefecture, a grand 50,000 in population, and twice as long to get to the prefectural capital, home of most of my Japanese friends. Exacerbating the excessive driving is my notoriously impoverished sense of direction which unfortunately followed me here, and tends to add a good half hour to every new journey I make. I am seriously pondering becoming like every other Japanese person by buying a cell phone. I still don’t like the idea of always being contactable, but driving kind of makes it a necessity if I don’t want to drive around in endless circles.
Driving in Yamaguchi Prefecture is far easier than New York or Boston due to a lack of population, but it does have its difficulties. The roads of Japan are narrow, winding, and hilly. They are often wide enough for cars in both directions only if the two vehicles are virtually touching. The speed limit is usually 35 mph, but most drivers rev it up to a whopping 50 mph! For the moment I still drive slower than most as I adjust to roads on the edge of cliffs that drop off hundreds of feet on each side, mercilessly climb up and down mountains, through endless tunnels, and border the edge of the sea. It makes for incredible scenery: the endless rice fields and orchards that dot the prefecture with the Sea of Japan and picturesque islands to the immediate west.
What would driving be without a trip to the friendly neighborhood gas station? In Japan, that is certainly not an oxymoron. In my neck of the woods, there is only full serve so I pulled up to the pump and opened the gas tank, then sat back and relaxed as the attendants washed my windows, threw away my garbage, and filled up my tank. Upon topping it off, I paid the guy and the attendant rushed to get my change, returning with apologies for having kept me waiting. As I pulled out of the station, the attendant waved his white flag and shouted to me the road was clear and it was safe for me to go. Such service can almost make you forget prices are more than double the U.S. Almost.
Besides the gas, there are lots of other expenses. Biannual inspection is mandatory and exorbitantly expensive. If your car is in perfect shape, expect to pay about 500 bucks. If anything is wrong, even a missing bulb or broken wiper, the price goes even higher. Fortunately, my car underwent inspection merely two months ago, freeing me from the obligation for the duration of my stay here. I pay mandatory insurance, about 50 dollars a month, which covers my passengers and whatever I hit, but provides nary a penny for either my car or me. Any incidents and it is back to hitchhiking.


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