An apology for my extended absence

Hi everyone. You may have noticed I haven’t written a new blog post in a really long time now. If you check this blog regularly, sorry to keep you waiting for so long! Part of the reason for the delay is routine: after a year of living in Japan, I have just about settled into one. Writing about my daily life doesn’t come very naturally to me, and unless there’s a major disruption to that pattern, like taking a trip to Kyoto, I don’t usually think “yeah, let’s blog about this!” (This is, admittedly, a pretty major deficiency in a blogger, and one I should be working on.) The other reason I haven’t posted in two months is that I’m writing a book.

You might be familiar with the phenomenon known as National Novel Writing Month, often abbreviated as NaNoWriMo. It’s a sort of personal challenge that writers from around the world undertake during the month of November.  Nope, I’m not really sure why it’s called “National” Novel Writing Month when it is clearly an international project (there are gatherings for the event in Tokyo and Osaka, for example, and that’s just Japan). But anyway, the goal of NaNoWriMo is ostensibly to write a 50,000 word, or roughly 200-page, novel within thirty days.

It’s now the 20th day of November, and my word count is sitting at about 30,000. Which means I’m running behind by a few thousand words!

The fundamental idea behind NaNoWriMo is that lots of people who want to write novels never give themselves a chance to do so, either because they don’t make the time to write on a daily basis, or else they spend so much time editing themselves that they never finish a first draft. While I do try to write every day, I am not the strictest self-disciplinarian in the world, and a lot of my daily writing is so scattered and fragmentary that it never amounts to anything. I am also tremendously guilty of over-editing, and can easily spend hours honing a single paragraph if I let my inner perfectionist run wild.

Since my bad writing habits are the very habits that NaNoWriMo is designed to help to curb, I decided it would be a good exercise for me this year. And so far the decision to participate has undoubtedly paid off. In the past couple weeks, I have written more than I wrote during my entire first year in Japan. I’m already nearing the hundred-page mark. Whether or not I actually hit the 50,000 word goal by the end of November is irrelevant to me at this point: what matters is that my novel, this system of ideas that’s been germinating in my head for a year now, is finally breaking soil and seeing the light of day. If nothing else, NaNoWriMo has jumpstarted the process that will eventually lead to the completion of a first draft.

There is precisely a 0% chance that the first draft will actually be completed come the end of November. This novel is a huge, monstrously huge, idea, and I imagine it will take me at least two or three months, writing at this pace, before I arrive at the end. And then who knows how long it’ll take me to edit the resulting catastrophe into something resembling a real book. It’s going to be a fairly massive undertaking, in other words, that will continue to eat up large quantities of my free time long after November is over.

So, as the novel steadily consumes my life and sanity, what will become of this blog? That’s a good question. I don’t intend to officially retire it until I officially return home, because as long as I’m living in Japan I’m sure there will be stuff I want to write about. For example, in December, I’m supposed to be Santa Claus for a bunch of preschoolers. That ought to be blog-worthy.

But I also don’t want to promise anything and fail to deliver. So from now on, this blog will be a TOTAL FUN MYSTERY SURPRISE. Who knows when the next post is coming? It could be tomorrow, it could be months from now, maybe there will even be two at a time… What little predictability this website ever had is now gone forever! My Poorly Titled Japan Blog is now a domain of chaos and anarchy!

Okay the reality will probably be infinitely less exciting than that sounds. But I tried.

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First Year Anniversary Post!

On August 1st, 2013 this blog experienced its one-year anniversary to absolutely no fanfare whatsoever. On September 5th I will have lived in Japan for exactly one year. I’ve decided to commemorate these two historic occasions with a celebratory post published roughly betwixt the dates. Kind of like a joint birthday party?

Like all good birthday parties, this one will be wholly devoted to shameless bragging about my myriad achievements. Achievement #1: writing FORTY (count ’em) blog posts over the past year. Okay, so this is hardly an achievement, and also I didn’t technically achieve it, since I’m way past the deadline with this post. Close enough. That gives me an average of one post every nine days. I really must have written up a storm those first few months, as my rate lately has been more like one post per period-of-time-it-takes-for-guilt-to-compel-me-to-write-again.

Achievement #2: Acquiring a Japanese driver’s license.

That’s right, I passed the test! It took me three tries in the end. You’ve already heard about Take One, so here’s a summation of the other two: A few weeks after my first attempt, once summer vacation was underway, I took a day off to travel up to the driving center. Unlike the first time around, I did not have a helpful coworker to drive me to the proper building; this time I had to walk to the center myself from the train station. Naturally, I got lost. I started to freak out about being late and missing the test, which would have made the whole day a huge waste of time and money. I asked some random lady for directions, and she actually insisted on giving me a lift in her car, even though it was only a few blocks away. It seems like every time I’ve asked a Japanese person for help, they have gone above and beyond.

I drove Course C. I didn’t have any trouble with memorizing the course, but was unprepared for one detail: unlike Course B, Course C has a special turn where you are not allowed to veer into the shoulder at all, or else you automatically fail. I was not expecting this particular hazard since it was never mentioned in the handbook I was given, although the ridged and red-painted asphalt probably should have been a tip-off. Anyway, I did a pretty good job overall and, like the first time, was expecting to pass, when I was informed of the fact that it is impossible to pass if your wheels touch the danger zone. Whoops.

My third attempt was the only time I was not expecting to pass. Did I ever mention that, in addition to the proctor sitting in the passenger seat, there is always someone sitting in the back seat while you take the test? When I took the test the first time, I took it with one other foreign guy; he sat in the back seat during my test, and I sat in the back seat during his. When I took the test alone (Take Two), they had a police officer sit in back. While in the back seat you are not allowed to speak or move, which kind of makes you wonder why they insist that someone be there at all.

On my third try, a middle-aged Japanese woman was taking the test with me. We drew straws, and I drew first place. I did not do particularly well—objectively, I’d call it the worst of my three attempts. Once I had finished, I sat in back for the Japanese woman’s test. My mouth fell open in astonishment somewhere in the first few minutes and I remained slack-jawed for the duration. This woman was a driving machine. She moved with a precision that was cold, clinical, and yet somehow graceful. Her head checks were works of art. Every blinker, every pump of the brake, was perfectly timed. A voice in my head began to shout, “No! You’re too good! Please, screw up, I beg of you!” But my silent cries for help went unanswered, and she completed the test with a flawlessly executed triple-doughnut.

We waited together in the empty hall for our test results. I was embarrassed to have put on such a shoddy performance. No wonder I had failed twice already; not even my best efforts could have lived up to this woman’s virtuosity behind the wheel. A police officer stepped into the hall, bearing results: I had passed. And she had not.

Though I am now in possession of a Japanese driver’s license, the test continues to haunt me. In a way, the Japanese driver’s test is a microcosm of life itself: an endlessly mysterious thing, seemingly arbitrary, ultimately unfathomable. We search for answers, for order in the chaos: Why did I pass? Why do others fail? Do I deserve this license that’s been bestowed upon me, when so many others go without? How do I use this blessing for the greater good?

Okay whatever, here’s a picture of the thing so you can laugh:

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Achievement #3: Completing James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji course.

It’s been a long time since I last bored you with kanji-talk. Fortunately for you, I don’t actually have a lot to say on the subject, except that I NOW KNOW ALL TWO-THOUSAND-SOMETHING COMMONLY USED CHARACTERS WOOOOOO!!!

Remember those glimpses of my kanji notebook I gave you guys forever ago? Well, I filled that notebook. Then I got a bigger one with smaller boxes, and filled that one. Then I got another one. I’m about halfway through Notebook #3 at this point. Allow me to show you a few pages.

IMG_0348 IMG_0347I did some calculations. There are 330 character boxes on each side of each page in this notebook. There are 30 pages (60 sides). Thus, filling one of these notebooks involves writing a total of 19,800 characters. I have filled one and a half.

So I guess that’s kind of a lot.

The next stage in my grand Learning to Read Japanese adventure is vocabulary. My vocabulary is still pitifully small, but hopefully new words will be a lot easier to remember now that I’m able to write them. I’ve been doing about a hundred flashcards every day, so we’ll see where that takes me.

Achievement #4: Gracing the television screens of Japan.

A while ago I participated in a karaoke contest.

A televised one.

I did so at the insistence of my colleagues at the Board of Education, who had heard me sing “Let It Be” at our old boss’s retirement party and I guess were inebriated enough at the time to think I was good. For some reason everyone in Japan, young and old alike, is familiar with the song “Let It Be.” It’s the only song I know that I know everybody else knows, so it’s become my default whenever I am called upon to sing karaoke (which happens more than you might think).

Anyway, when my coworkers heard that a karaoke contest was rolling through town, I was urged to participate. After some light coercion I acquiesced. I decided to sing “Let It Be” because I was too lazy to learn a Japanese song and couldn’t think of anything else. I mailed my application and tried not to think about it too much.

The day before the contest I received a postcard. The starting time of the contest was inscribed in bold letters: 3:00 PM. The place: the same area where the John Manjiro festival was held last year. I wondered when I was supposed to show up. I decided a half an hour beforehand should be good enough.

The next day I received a phone call from a mysterious number around two o’clock in the afternoon. “Is this Aaron Jansen?” an unknown voice spoke in Japanese.

“Um, yes?” I replied.

“This is the voice of your conscience speaking.”

“Really?”

“No. This is the television station. Rehearsal began an hour ago and we were kind of wondering if you were planning to show up ever.”

“Rehearsal?”

“Yes. Rehearsal. Like it says on the postcard.”

“What?!”

I searched my house for the postcard and found it amid a stack of mail on top of the refrigerator. “What are you talking about,” I began, “there’s no—oh.” Below the big 3:00 PM was a much smaller 1:00 PM with some kanji beside it that I determined, through the use of contextual clues, to mean something along the lines of “the time you’re supposed to be there, you idiot!!!”

“I’ll be there soon?” I said weakly. I hung up and called Jason to beg him for a ride.

Being more than an hour late for rehearsal did not turn out to be quite as unforgivable a sin as I thought it might be. It wasn’t like everyone was sitting around waiting for me to show up, at least. “Rehearsal” simply entailed each contestant getting on a little outdoor stage and singing a few bars of their chosen song. There were lots of people who hadn’t had their turn yet when I got there. I signed in, waited for my name to be called, and went up in front of an audience seated in folding chairs beneath big blue tents. The opening bars of “Let It Be” began to play. That’s when I realized something.

I do not know the lyrics to “Let It Be.”

It’s true. I know the melody, but up to this point I had relied entirely on karaoke screens for the actual words of the song—the parts where you don’t just say “let it be” over and over again. Somehow the idea that I would be participating in a “karaoke” contest had deluded me into thinking that a screen with lyrics would be provided, as is typically the case with karaoke. However, as I stood before the audience, the glare of the sun in my eyes, the opening chords of “Let It Be” drifting on the breeze, I realized that I was supposed to have actually memorized the lyrics. There was no screen.

Okay, I thought to myself. This isn’t so bad. The piano intro is kinda long . . . you’ve got at least, what, ten seconds? Fifteen? The lyrics aren’t very difficult, you could have chosen much worse in that respect . . . like Bob Dylan. Yes, in hindsight it’s a good thing you didn’t try to sing Bob Dylan. Okay, focus. Something about times of trouble. And, um, finding oneself in them? Yeah, that sounds about right. Oh weird, these lyrics are like a meta-commentary on my current situation . . . anyway, what’s the next bit . . . oh yes, Mother Mary—hey, maybe she’ll come and, like, whisper words of wisdom, that would be neat . . . oh, the piano’s doing that thing, that part right before he starts singing, umm . . . I guess I should just . . . let it be? Wait what does that actually mean? Why must you be so cryptic, Paul McCartney???

Let’s say things could have been a lot worse. For one, it could have been the real deal and not just a rehearsal. I could have frozen up and not sung at all. I could have bolted from the stage. Instead, I just mixed up the lyrics and sang them in the wrong order, and then my thirty second trial run was over, and I decided maybe it was time that I sat down and tried to memorize the song, since I was #8 in the official line-up.

When my real turn was up, the show hosts attempted to interview me a little bit on stage, thus giving me opportunity to embarrass myself on camera before I even began to sing. There are a lot of ways to ask someone about their job in Japanese, and I’m familiar with a few of them, but for some reason I had never before been asked, “Donna koto wo shiteiru no desu ka?” which literally means, “What kind of thing are you doing right now?” (Can you imagine a vaguer way of phrasing the question?) I was in the awkward position of understanding every word in the sentence, but not having any idea what the host guy was actually trying to ask me. What kind of thing I am doing right now? Well, I’m being interviewed, and then I’m going to sing!

So I stuttered a bit and then he reworded the question, and then they found some of my elementary students in the audience and asked them what kind of a teacher I was. The kids were like, “We’re six years old! We have no idea how we’re even supposed to respond to that! He’s nice I guess? TV cameras are scary!”

With that vote of confidence, I sang my song. Remembered all the lyrics somehow. Then I waited around for several hours in unbearable heat while the other forty or so contestants sang. In the end they handed out first, second, and third place awards and a bunch of tokubetsushou, or special prizes. I was a tokubetsushou. We of the Tokubetsushou Clan received mugs for our efforts. Although I was never terribly worried (there were many contestants who were much better at singing than me), I am quite relieved I did not take first place, since this contest was just the first round in a wider tournament, and the first place prize winner has to sing in the next round. I would much rather be done with this whole business.

The contest was not broadcast live. It was not broadcast, in fact, until today. Already it is impossible for me to leave my house without bumping into someone who saw me on TV and is very excited about it.

Well, that’s four achievements. Do I need a fifth achievement? Okay here’s a fifth achievement.

Achievement #5: Eating these pancakes.

IMG_0329It was a grueling ordeal, and some of the scars I gained in the process will never fade. But somehow, summoning the last of my strength and fanning the final spark of hope within me, I was able to consume this entire plate of delicious pancakes. Truly, a feat for the ages. Thank you.

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Movie Review: Kaze Tachinu

TheWindRises_poster2Two weeks ago I was able to do something I’ve always wanted to do: see a Studio Ghibli movie in a theater. Of course, I always imagined that if I saw one it would be in English, in an American theater. But on July 29th, 2013—that holiest of days—I was able to see a new film directed by Hayao Miyazaki in the original Japanese a mere nine days after its release. A celestial radiance descended on the cinema as I approached; the diaphanous forms of seraphim danced at the edges of my sight, their tintinnabular laughter ringing in my ears. Distantly, the music of John Tavener played.

Actually the theater was in a shopping mall, and we had to drive three hours to get there. I’m not sure why movie theaters are so scarce in Japan—or maybe there is just a dearth of them in Kochi. At any rate, it took me a week to find somebody willing to drive up to Kochi City to see the movie with me, or else I would have seen it on opening day.

The movie was not shown with English subtitles, so I probably failed to pick up on many of the plot’s nuances. But I was surprised by how easily I was able to follow the general arc, and by how often I was able to comprehend at least the essence of the dialogue. This might mean that my Japanese is improving, but more likely means Miyazaki is just a really gifted visual storyteller. Anyway, I am now eager to see the movie with English subtitles so I can see how radically I misinterpreted all the scenes.

And with that, it’s time for my review:

I’ve always wondered if Miyazaki could make a movie like this, and now he has. Kaze Tachinu (meaning, roughly, The Wind Rises) is a slow-moving, dialogue-driven, highly fictionalized account of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed the Zero Fighter during WWII. The story contains almost no children, no scenes of fantasy that happen outside the protagonist’s head, and very few action scenes. In many ways it is unprecedented in Miyazaki’s career. More so than any movie he has made, this is one for adults—not because the content is especially unsuitable for children, but because there is little that will appeal to them in the story.

The story follows Jiro from adolescence to adulthood as he works to fulfill his dream of designing a beautiful airplane. Miyazaki clearly thinks of Jiro as more of an artist than an engineer, and possibly identifies with him a great deal. Parallels can be drawn between Jiro’s career and Miyazaki’s as an animator: both men are driven, almost to the point of obsession, to create things of beauty. Perhaps out of sympathy (one hopes not out of blindness to his own faults), Miyazaki celebrates this impulse more than he criticizes it. The movie’s main subplot, about Jiro’s courtship of an artist dying of tuberculosis, contains subtle hints that Jiro may be squandering the time they have left together, but his lover Naoko is never less than supportive of his work, and their relationship experiences almost no conflict.

The movie is masterful as an evocation of time and place. In that sense it is comparable to My Neighbor Totoro, which recreated the Japanese countryside of 1958 in loving detail. Kaze Tachinu paints a much broader picture of life in Japan in the ’20s and ’30s, with cities, train car interiors, mountain retreats, tatami rooms, restaurants, and factories all rendered exquisitely, painstakingly; I imagine the movie will be interesting to many Western audiences simply for its depiction of a time in Japanese history when the roots of tradition were not buried so deep, and a man might wear a suit to work but change into a kimono at home. The movie’s meticulously rendered images of aircraft, real and imagined, reminded me of Porco Rosso, another movie in which Miyazaki allowed himself to revel in his obsession with planes. But the Ghibli film I recalled most while watching Kaze Tachinu was not even directed by Miyazaki. I was reminded of Grave of the Fireflies, directed by the co-founder of Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki’s mentor, Isao Takahata. That movie, also set during WWII, is a tragic examination of the effects of war on civilians, which Kaze Tachinu is decidedly not. But both films evoke the same time in Japanese history so vividly it is impossible not to feel a kind of connection between them.

Miyazaki’s directorial approach here owes a great deal to Takahata, who specializes in using animation to tell stories that are highly realistic—stories that might not, on the surface, appear to benefit from being animated—and lending them a hyperreal quality through expressionistic touches that would be impossible to achieve in live action. (In his film Only Yesterday, for example, first love is illustrated in a scene where the protagonist runs up into the clouds and floats all the way home.) Similarly, Miyazaki at several points in Kaze Tachinu brings Jiro’s dreams and fantasies to life, visualizing what could be captured no other way. The dream sequences make Jiro a richer character, but a curious omission from these dreams is guilt—or even an acknowledgement that the planes he builds will be used to kill people. I say “curious” because I honestly haven’t decided whether it was wrong of Miyazaki to make the movie the way he did. The rest of my review will probably be concerned with this question.

Kaze Tachinu is not a movie about World War II. It is a movie that happens to be set in WWII. Nor is it a movie about fighter planes. It is a movie about a man’s passion and his pursuit of that passion, which happens to be fighter planes. Not specifically fighter planes; that is unfair. He is a man who wants to design planes, who happens to have been born at a time when his primary option to pursue that passion is to design planes that will kill people. He didn’t start WWII, and if he doesn’t design the planes, no doubt somebody else will. That’s probably what Miyazaki was thinking when he said in a recent interview, “If we are to pursue Horikoshi’s war responsibility, we should rather condemn modernism, which laid the foundation for developing the airplane.”

And sure enough, Miyazaki’s movie does not condemn Horikoshi. It wants to celebrate Horikoshi’s design as an aesthetic achievement, a work of art separate from the context in which it was created. But can a work of art really be appreciated devoid of its context?

In order to avoid condemnation, Miyazaki avoids the issue of guilt altogether. This might befit a biographical film, since it is basically impossible to say whether the real Horikoshi experienced guilt or not—except Miyazaki takes enormous liberties with the details of his life elsewhere. Could he not have invented guilt for Horikoshi? But then, how likely is it that Horikoshi would have actually experienced guilt? Wouldn’t he have kept himself ignorant of the atrocities occurring elsewhere, like most people do during wartime?

Perhaps that’s what Miyazaki means when he criticizes those who debate over Horikoshi’s war responsibility, saying, “[B]oth sides don’t seem to be making an effort to capture the prevailing mood of the period.” It’s certainly possible that this “prevailing mood” he hoped to capture was one in which everyone passively accepted the war as a fact, went on living, and never stopped for a moment to examine their complicity. If that’s so, then he captures an uncomfortable truth so well, it made me uncomfortable. Jiro Horikoshi probably wasn’t a bad guy. He was certainly very smart and ambitious, and did exactly what everyone says you’re supposed to do: found a passion, worked hard at it, improved, produced something great. If he had lived in a different time and done the exact same thing, he would have been an unquestionably good man. But he lived during WWII, and indirectly caused the deaths of many people. Did he feel guilty? Should he have?

Miyazaki doesn’t answer these questions for you. Maybe his movie is evasive for refusing to provide answers. Maybe the movie is his way of asking the same questions. I do know that I will be thinking about Kaze Tachinu for a long time.

Note: The quotes in my review are taken from this article, which goes into further depth about Miyazaki’s intentions with the movie. An even more revealing article about Miyazaki’s thoughts on Japan’s involvement in WWII can be found here.

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KYOTO: Part III

Okay, time to wrap things up. Now that I’ve made you wait so long, you’re probably hoping for some kind of grand finale in which I risk my life rescuing Mike from the yakuza and receive the key to the city for my bravery. Unfortunately nothing like that happened. In fact, once Mike and I had gotten the hang of the various transportation systems around Kyoto we experienced nary a hiccup in our quest to see a bunch of famous old stuff.

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Thursday began with one of the most famous temples in all of Japan: Kyoto’s very own Kinkaku-ji, commonly referred to as the Golden Pavilion. Although a temple has existed in this spot since 1397, the building you see above is not very old at all (especially compared to some of the other buildings in the city), having been rebuilt in 1955 after being burned down by a monk suffering from mental illness. The pavilion gets its name, obviously, from the pure gold leaf that coats the exterior. I assume Kinkaku-ji is famous mostly because it is ridiculously picturesque, what with being right on the edge of an ethereally beautiful pond and being surrounded by immaculately sculpted gardens and all. It also has a cute chicken thing on the top:

IMG_1346Okay I guess it’s a phoenix. Thursday was still a bit rainy (the whole week was a bit rainy, since the Japanese rainy season doesn’t end until about mid-July), which caused my pictures turn out a little gray. But the rain also created mist, and mist automatically makes pictures a hundred times cooler, so it all worked out in the end. I really want to know how these monks get their lily pads to grow in such perfect clusters.

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IMG_1378LUNCH BREAK.

IMG_1366We supped at the first establishment we saw, since we had forgotten our umbrellas at the hostel and were getting quite wet. I tried some kind of udon dish, pictured above, because it was the daily special. The noodles were served cold, and there was just a little broth at the bottom of the bowl. On the noodles was a somewhat intimidating array of toppings, which I will list in clockwise order starting at twelve sharp: (1) wakame, a kind of seaweed, (2) umeboshi, or pickled plum,  (3) chopped green onions,  (4) okaka, which I guess is best described as dried tuna flakes, (5) tofu, (6) a little grated daikon on top of the tofu, (7) kamaboko, which you probably don’t want me to explain, (8) sliced cucumber, and of course, (9) the centerpiece, a whole egg, barely cooked. These are all pretty standard toppings for Japan; the only exotic thing about the meal was having them all together in one bowl.

Tangent Alert: I wonder how often Japanese people get salmonella poisoning. Because before coming Japan I was somehow under the impression that eating raw eggs would result in my immediate and painful death at the hands (flagella?) of vicious salmonella bacteria. Then I realized there are over a hundred million people in Japan gulping down raw eggs on a daily basis and none of them seem to be contracting terrible illnesses because of it. I’ve actually found I kind of like raw eggs, and I consume them every once in a while now, but there’s this lingering dread in the back of my mind that the Salmonella Man’s gonna get me in my sleep. Anyway.

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Next up was Ryoan-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple famous for its Japanese rock garden, pictured above. Zen gardens consist of: (1) a few rocks, (2) some moss around the rocks, and (3) lots of white gravel, which is carefully raked to suggest rippling water. They are not meant to be walked through. The garden at Ryoan-ji consists of fifteen stones arranged carefully so that, at most, fourteen are visible at a time; no matter what angle you try to view the garden from, it is impossible to see all fifteen stones at once. Impossible, that is, until you have achieved enlightenment. It’s a tradition to count the rocks while you’re admiring the garden, I guess to make sure you didn’t accidentally achieve enlightenment without realizing it. I counted only thirteen, so I must be particularly unenlightened. It started raining even harder while Mike and I were sitting on the temple veranda, so we ended up contemplating the garden’s mysteries for quite some time while we waited for the rain to abate.

I would be lying if I claimed to totally understand the appeal of zen gardens; I imagine to get the most out of them you’d have to be a Zen Buddhist, or at least know enough about Zen Buddhism to appreciate the philosophy and artistry that goes into arranging one. I honestly couldn’t tell you why the garden at Ryoan-ji is considered one of the finest in Japan, and I probably wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from any other zen garden, but I can’t deny there was something uniquely calming about gazing on it as the rain fell.

Our contemplation quota filled for the day, we ventured west to visit the poetically named Arashiyama (“storm mountain”) district, which is famous for its scenery.

IMG_1412 IMG_1421 IMG_1425 IMG_1426 IMG_1428 IMG_1429Hmm, I can’t imagine why.

Most of the above pictures were taken in and around Tenryu-ji, Arashiyama’s one famous temple, which was unfortunately undergoing renovations at the time of our visit. But everything around the temple was gorgeous, so I didn’t mind much. In the last picture you also get a little peek of Arashiyama’s famous bamboo groves.

DINNER TIME.

Mike and I went all out for dinner. We went to a sukiyaki place because I had been wanting to try sukiyaki for a long time, and discovered they also had a bunch of kaiseki options on the menu. Kaiseki is a style of traditional multi-course dinner which can be found anywhere in Japan, but for which Kyoto is particularly famous. Anyway, we ended up ordering a crazy mixture of sukiyaki, shabu-shabu (similar to nabe), and kaiseki dishes. I think we only ended up paying about $35 a piece, which is pretty amazing considering our table was barely visible beneath the avalanche of food. There were so many little bowls. Each of us must have had ten of these little bowls filled with weird sauces I had no idea what to do with. It was maybe the only dining experience I’ve had in my life that I would feel comfortable describing as “labyrinthine.”

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Pictured above: shabu-shabu (in the pot), plus a million little bowls.

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On the left, sukiyaki stuff frying. Again, bowls.

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Close-up of a bowl. I am pretty sure the bowl contained eel (the white stuff), eggplant (the green stuff), and mochi (the pink stuff), a kind of chewy rice cake. Plus two green beans and a sprig of something. There were lots more bowls like this, but I didn’t take pictures of them all, since I would have quickly run out of room on my 16 GB memory card.

IMG_1477And this is what you do with your sukiyaki stuff when it’s done frying. You dip it in a little bowl . . . full of raw egg. Mmmmmmmmmm. That’s how you top off a Thursday.

On Friday we took a day trip out to Himeji Castle, which is more than an hour away from Kyoto and also undergoing renovations, so you can’t really see any of it right now. But it’s perhaps the most famous and well-preserved castle in all of Japan, having remained intact since the 1600s, and Mike, not knowing when he would have the chance to be in Japan again, understandably wanted to check it off his list. So we went. And it’s a good thing we did, because if we hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have the following bizarre story to tell you.

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Here’s Himeji. Check Wikipedia if you want to know how it looks when it’s not just sketched lightly on the outside of an ugly protective structure.

It had decided to stop raining, finally, and had instead grown uncomfortably hot. Mike and I were working our way steadily through the parts of the castle that were open to tourists (the main building was closed, but we were still able to access certain side buildings). I somehow found myself in conversation with a stranger, a Japanese man who claimed to be traveling all over the country on his own. His reason for traveling I could not quite understand, but I was enjoying practicing my Japanese on him and tried to keep up the conversation. He asked me what I was doing in Japan, and I replied that I was working as an English teacher. At this he grew suddenly very excited. “A teacher! In that case, I have a present for you.” I found this response a little weird. I asked him what the present was. He told me he was keeping it in a coin locker back at the station, and invited me to follow him back. Mike was still with me, so I didn’t feel particularly threatened, but I was slightly freaked out by the fact that this stranger was telling me he had a present for me (he wouldn’t tell me what the present was) and wanted me to take a fifteen minute walk with him back to the train station so he could give it to me. I tried to weasel away from the guy by telling him we weren’t ready to go back yet, we still had things we wanted to see at the castle, which was true.

So then, of course, he starts following us around the castle. I keep trying to lose him by inventing new places we want to see, hoping that eventually he will get bored of following us and go back to the station by himself. Nope. He follows us around for at least two hours. Eventually I tell him we’re not going back to the station until after we’ve eaten lunch, hoping he will not be so bold as to suggest that he eat lunch with us, too. Another miscalculation: he immediately asks where we are planning to eat and if he can come along. At my wit’s end, I tell Mike to go find a street vendor and eat without us while I accompany the guy back to the station. Looking back on it, it probably wasn’t wise to split up, but I didn’t want to force Mike to take a totally unnecessary half-hour walk in the overwhelming heat.

I talked to the guy more as we walked to the station, and started to feel a little less worried. He didn’t seem like a bad person—at least, not the sort of person to pull a gun out of a coin locker and shoot a stranger in the face. From the sound of it, he was just sick of traveling alone for months (I think it might have been work-related travel) and looking for a companion. It still seemed pretty weird that we wanted to give me a present, though.

We arrived at the coin locker. My heart suddenly seized up. This was the moment of truth. Was he a psychopath? Were these my last precious moments of life? He withdrew a black bag from the locker, and from the bag took out . . . a bunch of identical CDs. “Take this,” he said, handing me one. “It’s a beautiful song by my favorite singer. Last year, I was very sick for a long time, and this song helped me get through it.” He started to choke up a little bit. “Thank you so much for letting me give this to you!” he said. “Please share it with your friends!” He thanked me a few more times, and we parted ways.

I couldn’t make this up, I swear.

I’m going to cut a few corners (and by corners, I mean temples), and skip straight to the high note on which our trip ended. The last thing of real significance we saw in Kyoto was a unique and difficult-to-describe “non-verbal performance” entitled GEAR, which was showing in a small theater near our hostel. In fact we were only aware of the performance due to a flyer our hostel had posted in the lobby.

The story of GEAR, according to the website, is as follows: “In the wastelands of the future, personified robots (Roboloids) continue to work in a former toy factory. And a doll appears that was once manufactured by the factory, ‘Doll.’ Through the gradual comprehension of and adaptation to the environment around them, Roboloids and Doll experience ‘curiosity’ and ‘playfulness,’ bringing them closer to human beings. But a small incident occurs and causes the large factory fan to short circuit, ceasing all electronic movement. All at once, the Roboloids stop moving. Doll is now left alone. Because of this shock, the ‘human heart’ within Doll jerks into movement. And desperate tears flow from her eyes. For the first time, Doll knows of the existence of tears. So Doll puts her whole body and soul into praying for the reanimation of the Roboloids. And then…”

How could you read that and NOT want to see it? The actual performance was everything I dreamed it would be and more. The plot was really a clothesline on which to hang the performances; each “Roboloid” (I’m pretty sure they were going for “Roboroid”) had a special talent: one was a break dancer, one was a magician, one was a mime, and one was a juggler. Also, Doll did ballet. Anyway Doll brought each Roboroid to life, and then he would do some break dancing/juggling/miming/magic, and then they all played around together for a while, and then there was a big crisis with the factory fan going haywire (it blew pieces of paper all over the audience), and then… actually I’m not even sure I could tell you what happened after that. It got very metaphysical. The toy factory set was full of odd details and moving parts, including a giant rotating gear in the center; it was easily the most impressive theater set I have ever seen from both a technical and artistic point of view. I dearly wish photographs had been allowed, but alas.

Anyway, it was a fitting end to a wonderful trip.

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KYOTO: Part II

The second day of my trip to Kyoto was by far the least successful, and therefore the easiest to write about. Through a combination of bad luck and sheer incompetence, my friend Mike and I were able to avoid seeing almost, but not quite, everything we set out to see. It was a day of hard lessons learned. Lessons that we probably should have learned prior to coming to Kyoto, like “everything closes at four in the afternoon.”

Things started off well enough. We woke bright and early and headed to Kiyomizu-dera, a famous temple not far from our hostel. (“Kiyomizu” means “pure water” and is spelled with the exact same kanji [清水] as Shimizu, the name of the town where I live; this is just one example of how the same character can have multiple pronunciations.)  Mike was largely responsible for our itinerary; being a history teacher, he had a lengthy list of historically significant sites he wanted to see, of which Kiyomizu-dera was one. The temple, located up in the mountains, is famous for its waterfall, which grants good health and longevity if you drink from it.

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Why exercise when you can just drink from this thing? I’m pretty much guaranteed to live to a hundred now.

Unfortunately while the fountain’s sparkling waters might grant long life, in the short term they brought nothing but misfortune. Mike settled on our next destination (I have forgotten where we were trying to go, exactly), and we took the train in its general direction; according to our sightseeing map, this temple of death was supposedly right next to the station, and we would have no trouble walking. Well, it turns out sightseeing maps aren’t really drawn to scale. Also it turns out that neither of us is particularly gifted with a sense of direction. Basically we walked in the exact opposite direction of where we needed to go for almost an hour, making all sorts of absurd squiggly circles through the neighborhood trying to find the thing. The particular neighborhood of Kyoto we found ourselves in was an unpleasantly industrial place, loud and dirty and, bizarrely for Kyoto, entirely devoid of temples. The day was extremely hot, and we were already quite tired by the time we realized our mistake and began our weary trudge back in the other direction. This is when we began to suspect that the map might not be the most accurate navigational aid. We were definitely going the right way now, and still we couldn’t see any temples! We stopped and asked for directions once, and the person recommended we find a bus stop and take the bus. But why? I thought. We’re practically there, right? We stopped and asked another person for directions, and received the same advice. I asked how far we had to go. “Oh, maybe five kilometers.”

At this point we were so fed up with this elusive temple that we decided to just go back to the hostel, get lunch, and rest for a bit. We concluded that perhaps Kyoto was not much of a walking city, and that we’d be better off trying to figure out the buses. We set our sights on Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion, perhaps the most iconic temple in all of Kyoto. Yeah, seeing Kinkaku-ji would make up for our wasted morning. By the time we figured out which buses we needed to take to get there, it was already getting on in the afternoon. We boarded the bus, happy to be back on track. An hour later, we realized that buses are slow. I started to feel paranoid, and decided to check Kinkaku-ji’s closing time on my phone. Whoops. Closes at four. We weren’t even halfway there, and it was past three o’clock. We began to search our maps and pamphlets for anything along the way to Kinkaku-ji we might be able to see; maybe we could get off the bus early. We located a castle in the area, and disembarked at a stop from which we could theoretically walk. Well, you know how walking in Kyoto goes. After a half hour of walking, we realized we would not find the castle in time, since the castle also closed at four. We decided to try to find a site that didn’t close at four. The only one that fit the bill was the Kyoto International Manga Museum, which closed at 5:30, but was probably a long way away, and once again we would have to walk. We decided to take the risk, hoping that our navigational skills had developed over the course of the day.

Surprisingly, they had. For the first time ever, we were able to actually locate something using nothing but a tour map and our own four feet. We had had to jog a little bit to get there by five o’clock, but here we were, at the Kyoto International Manga Museum, and by God we would have our thirty minutes of tourism!

Actually we wouldn’t because the museum was closed for renovation. And then it began to rain. At this point we just went back to the hostel and I showed him some of the stuff that I saw on my own the first day.

Wednesday was much better. Still a little resentful of Kyoto, we took a day trip out of the city to Nara, a nearby town so old, it was the capital of Japan before Kyoto. You may remember that Kyoto became the capital of Japan in the year 794. Nara was the capital for a period of about seventy-five years beginning in 710. Let us take a moment to reflect upon what an insanely long time ago that was. England in the 8th century produced the epic poem Beowulf, about warriors who hung out in mead halls. Warriors didn’t even have castles to hang out in back then; castles hadn’t been invented yet.

Meanwhile in Japan:

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IMG_1175They were making stuff like this. Todai-ji, the temple pictured above, was actually rebuilt in 1709 after a fire; the version you see is 30% smaller than the original. So, yep, the one built in in the 700s would have been even more impressive. Until very recently, even at its reduced size, Todai-ji was the largest wooden building in the world. The buddha statue on the inside is nearly fifty feet tall.

Nara is a really cool little city. The atmosphere is much more relaxed than Kyoto, there are parks everywhere, deer wander the streets. No, I’m serious. Due to association with some god or another, sika deer are considered sacred animals within Nara, and can be spotted all over the place. There are stalls where you can buy biscuits to feed them.

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And more wildlife in the form of Japan’s favorite bird, the crow:

IMG_1217Seriously, these guys are everywhere. This particular crow is perched along the road to Kasuga-taisha, a Shinto shrine with the dubious distinction of being not quite as cool as the path leading up to it. It’s a tough act to follow, though, since the road leading to Kasuga-taisha is lined with thousands of ancient stone lanterns and winds its way through a primeval forest teeming with shika deer.

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Mike really wanted to try some authentic Japanese ramen, so for lunch we found this place. It was indescribably good. I am especially fond of the Japanese tradition of putting boiled eggs in soup. There’s also some seaweed in there. All in all, pretty standard ramen, but absolutely delicious.

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Some further sights in and around Nara, for which I cannot really provide any context:

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Actually I can provide a little context for that last photograph. It’s the five-storied pagoda of Kofuku-ji. It is very famous, for reasons I cannot totally discern. It might be the oldest surviving pagoda of this height?

Okay. Because this second chapter has already taken me so long to put together, I have officially decided to tackle the Kyoto trip in three posts. This way you will not be kept waiting forever. So I will cut things off unceremoniously here, tease you with promises of a riveting final installment, and otherwise do a very poor job of bring this post to a close. Sorry.

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KYOTO: Part I

First of all, I apologize for taking forever to write about this experience. Upon returning from Kyoto I immediately threw myself into taking the driver’s test again, and basically forgot all about my blog for a couple weeks. I’m not sure how many parts there will be in this Kyoto series. Two? Three?? Four??? Okay, I highly doubt there will be four. I am mostly choosing to divide things up because I have about a gazillion pictures to show you and trying to cram them all into one post would be a little overwhelming, I think.

Last week I went to Kyoto for about six days to visit my friend Mike, whom I met in college. He spent last year teaching history in Bahrain, and arranged to stop in Japan for about a week on his way home for the summer. In the five days we spent together we managed to see an awful lot of the city and surrounding locales.

Kyoto was, for a very long time, the capital of Japan. And when I say long, I mean like, for more than a thousand years. (Japan has a rather longer history as a country than the United States.) The seat of Japan’s imperial court was moved to Kyoto (at the time called Heian-kyo) around the year 794 CE, and Kyoto remained the capital until 1868, when finally the seat of power was relocated to Tokyo. Kyoto still has tons of extremely old stuff and approximately infinity temples, making it a popular tourist destination for both Japanese people and not-Japanese people alike. If you were to conjure up a generic image of Japan based on postcard scenes, your mental image might not be too far from the reality of Kyoto.

IMG_0906To get there, I caught the night bus from Nakamura Station on Sunday at 9 PM. Now, the last time I rode the night bus was in Vietnam. That was an experience. They actually had tiny beds for you on the bus, which of course I could not fit into at all, and the narrow unpaved road winding through the mountains was incredibly bumpy, so I kept waking up every twenty minutes or so (resulting in four or five of the most vivid dreams I’ve ever had in my life), and the ride was fifteen hours long. In comparison, my experience riding the night bus in Japan was quite boring. I even managed to sleep while I was on it—a good six hours at least! Ho hum.

Don’t worry, this wouldn’t be an official Poorly Titled™ travel post without some transportation-related mishap. While trying to navigate to my hostel I discovered that the trains in Kyoto are not quite as foreigner-friendly as those in Tokyo; they are also just plain not as friendly. Getting around Tokyo by train is a snap, if you will recall. Kyoto, on the other hand . . . well, now I know why, when I talked to people who had been to Kyoto before, they all recommended that I rent a bike.

It wasn’t actually that bad; there was just more of a learning curve than I’d been anticipating. There were maps, but many were entirely in kanji, and I still can’t read kanji all that well. Somehow I was able to figure out which platform my train would be leaving from, but once I got to the platform, I realized there were trains going in either direction, and I wasn’t actually sure which direction I wanted to go. The signs on the platform were, once again, all in kanji, or else they were in English, but only told you the train’s final stop, which didn’t help me much, because I hadn’t bothered to look up any stations besides the one I was trying to get to! So I took the train going in the wrong direction. I figured out my mistake pretty quickly, though, and was able to get on the right one (after waiting about twenty minutes—Kyoto trains don’t arrive every ten seconds like the ones in Tokyo). The nice thing about trains in Japan is you can make as many mistakes as you want and you don’t have to pay anything extra, as long as you get off where you originally intended.

So I arrived at the hostel, but at this point it was about 9 o’clock in the morning, and check-in wasn’t until 3 o’clock in the afternoon. (Mike was not due to arrive until late Monday night.) So I found a coin locker down the street, stored my bag, and embarked upon some solo exploration.

IMG_0773This building was just around the block from my hostel. It is apparently the Gion Kaburenjo Theater. They do all sorts of traditional shows as well as modern plays. Gion is a district of Kyoto famous for still looking picturesque and historical, unlike many parts of Kyoto, and for having a lot of geishas walking around. It was, and still is, one of the most famous geisha districts in all of Japan.

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IMG_0864 IMG_0865 IMG_0787The district of Gion is structured around the Yasaka Shrine, which is where I went next. I don’t know if there is actually anything special about this particular shrine, but it’s the first one I saw in Kyoto. The first of many. So so many.

IMG_0804IMG_0815 IMG_0817 IMG_0822Out back they had this lovely little park. Can you spot the turtle?

I then wandered my way over to Kennin-ji, the oldest Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, originally founded in the year 1202. The shrines, I think you’ll be able to tell, tend to be a bit more gaudy, whereas the temples are, at least on the outside, more spare and elegant. Although sometimes the temples will have spectacular, highly ornate altars to Buddha on the inside.

IMG_0838 IMG_0839 IMG_0835IMG_0847 IMG_0851Pictured above is one of the less extravagant altars.

At this point I retraced my steps, picked up my bag from the coin locker, and checked in at the hostel. Mike still was not due for several hours, so I journeyed forth again into the wilds of Kyoto almost immediately. I saw two more shrine/temple things on my first day. I remember the name of only one. The first, I recall, had a really huge gate.

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And then you had to go up a bunch of steps once you went through the gate.

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Your reward for making it to the top was stuff like this:

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Hopefully someone will be able to remind me of the place’s name based on that description.

My last shrine of the day was Fushimi Inari Taisha, which is famous for two things: having a bunch of fox statues, and having a bunch of torii gates. Foxes are sacred animals in the Shinto religion. They can take on human form and use their magical powers to trick you, but mostly, I gather, they are wise and benevolent. They are associated with and often depicted as messengers of Inari, the god of rice, business, worldly prosperity, etc. This last bit explains the extraordinary profusion of torii gates at this shrine: each gate was donated by a Japanese business hoping to score good luck points with Inari. The gates form a path that must be at least a kilometer long, and that forks sometimes into multiple paths.

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Above: yes, those are all origami cranes.

A funny thing happened as I was walking along the torii gate trail at Fushimi Inari Taisha. It was getting late and I was about to head back to the hostel when I found myself drawn to a dirt path leading away from from the main shrine complex. I could not resist its pull. I soon found myself wandering through a bamboo forest, the quiet undisturbed but for the occasional flitting of birds. The path seemed to wind on forever, and it grew dark. Several times I almost turned back, but a desire to see where the path led drew me onward, until I came to this unholy gateway, and my descent into the abyss began:

IMG_1019I tumbled headfirst down the rabbit hole. I emerged in a strange and terrible new world where foxes in aprons reigned.

IMG_1018 IMG_1023 IMG_1113Their stony eyes leered at me from every corner. I tried to flee, but I had lost the trail in this labyrinthine sanctuary. A vortex sucked me ever downward, ever deeper into the foxy quagmire. Finally I found myself behind a building—alas, a sign of civilization. I could even hear people speaking inside. But the building did not appear official; it did not appear to be associated with the shrine. Was I . . . in somebody’s back yard? I heard a screen door slide open and I ducked behind a fox statue. Further inspection revealed that I had, in fact, found my way into some random person’s yard. I turned around and tried once more to locate the trail that had brought me to this eldritch place. Hounded by hallucinations, I floundered in the dark. I pinballed through a mist-wreathed bamboo maze. I knocked over gates, I tumbled over altars. I saw foxes change to men, men to foxes, before my eyes. At long last, I fell back to reality.

Then I went back to the hostel, where a few hours later I met Mike. We went to bed. The end.

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Driver’s Test, Take One

Sorry, the title’s kind of a giveaway, isn’t it? To everyone’s surprise, I did not pass the Japanese driver’s license test the first time around.

Everything prior to the test went according to plan. This past Sunday a coworker and her husband drove me up to Kochi so I could practice on the driving course (you’re only allowed to practice with someone who’s held a Japanese license at least three years). This was, of course, an extremely nice thing of them to do. Since I had no classes scheduled for Monday, I was able to spend the night in Kochi and take the driver’s test the following day. Luckily I was able to book an inn of sorts located immediately beside the licensing center.

Let’s rewind and talk about practicing on the course. When I showed up to practice, I was given three different maps labeled A, B, and C, respectively. The fun thing about the Japanese driver’s test is that the proctors don’t actually tell you where to go or what to do. An hour before the test they announce whether you’ll be driving route A, B, or C, and then you just have to go through the whole thing by memory. Which means that you should have all three routes pretty well memorized beforehand.

Practicing on the course is not free, I discovered. In fact, a half hour time slot costs more than $35. The routes are not short—each takes at least fifteen minutes to drive—and there are three of them. So I ended up paying roughly $70 just so I could practice on the course for an hour and have enough time to drive each route once. Unfortunately driving the routes while my coworker read the maps and told me which way to go didn’t seem to help me memorize any of them. I resolved to study the maps thoroughly before I went to bed.

My coworker dropped me off at my hotel shortly before dinnertime and returned to Tosashimizu. This is where things started to get fun. The hotel, while conveniently located, turned out to be run by this elderly couple who had apparently not had a lodger in several months, perhaps years. I met the old man first; before showing me my room, he sat me down in the lobby and told me all sorts of advice about the test. All sorts. For, like, an hour. This guy had seen a lot of people come through to take the test over the years, and he was very determined to impart every bit of information he had ever gathered about it. At this point I was pretty tired and hungry, and I wanted to go to my room, but the guy was nice and I appreciated his tips. Then he took me on an extended tour of the entire building, which must have lasted another half hour. This was all in Japanese, mind you, and while my Japanese is improving, I am still very far from fluent; he made some cryptic comments about how there were certain doors I should never use, and other doors I should only use at certain times, which I totally failed to comprehend. Finally, he led me to my room. At last, I could settle in and study those maps . . . or not, because he then insisted that I immediately go out and eat dinner, so that I could return and walk the driving course with him before nightfall. He gave me directions to a nearby convenience store, and I went to buy food.

When I got back, the front door was locked. I went around to the back door, which he’d shown me during the grand tour of the place. I couldn’t remember if it was one of the doors I should never use, or one of the doors I could sometimes use, but it was also locked so none of that really mattered. I went back around to the front and found a doorbell. I pressed it and waited a few minutes. Nothing happened. I pressed it again and waited a few more minutes. Nothing. I decided to camp out by the door, ringing the doorbell intermittently. After waiting about fifteen minutes, someone finally came to the door—the guy’s wife. She apologized profusely, led me back to my room, and told me she was making sashimi (which, in hindsight, is maybe why she took so long to come to the door). She really wanted me to try some of this sashimi. She came back a few minutes later with a tray full of raw fish for me. I thanked her, and prepared to dig in. Aw yeah, time to enjoy a meal by myself, alone, in my room, without company, in peaceful solitude . . . except, the old lady remained in the room, and started fiddling with the air conditioner. She fiddled with the remote control for about ten minutes trying to get the thing to start, gave up, and called me over. “I don’t have my glasses, I can’t read this thing! What does it say?” she asked.

“It’s in Japanese,” I replied. She went to retrieve her glasses. She also retrieved her husband, and for the next several minutes both of them occupied my room, taking turns fiddling with the air conditioner. They actually got the air conditioner to work once, and then accidentally made it stop, and then had to figure out how to make it start all over again.

They did eventually leave, and I ate. By this time it was already getting pretty dark; I immediately began to search the building for the guy so we could walk the course together. I followed the faint sounds of a television program to a mysterious door at the back of the inn, which, ominously, had not been part of the grand tour. Through the door I could hear the old couple chatting away over the television set. I called out. “Um, excuse me?” No response. I called three times, progressively louder each time. I wondered if maybe both of them were deaf, and they were just really good at reading lips.

I decided to go use the bathroom and come back in a few minutes to see if either had stirred. I found a bathroom nearby that appeared well-maintained; I used it and the toilet promptly flooded. I found the mystery door again and worked up the courage to knock, which finally got their attention. I informed them of the bathroom issue, and asked the guy if he would still like to walk the course, despite the fact that it was now quite dark outside.

So we walked the course, or rather, we walked the A route; walking all three routes would have taken forever. Unfortunately it was so dark that I probably didn’t get much out of the experience; I certainly didn’t feel any more memorized after than before. As soon as we returned, I got down to the real work of studying the maps and retracing the routes mentally.

The day of the test was probably less exciting than the day that preceded it. I showed up, signed in, met the one other foreign guy taking the test with me. We took an eye est and then a brief written test, which I passed. We drew straws to determine order; I drew first. Right before our one hour lunch break, we were told we would be driving course B. Now, you are actually allowed to walk the course during your lunch break, but here’s the thing—it’s your lunch break. There aren’t really any places to get food in the immediate area, either, so if you want to eat and walk the course, you really have to eat fast. Luckily the other guy taking the test had a car, so we were able to drive somewhere to eat and still had twenty-ish minutes to walk.

The test is kind of insane. Not only are the routes long and convoluted (and therefore hard to memorize), the proctors are notoriously strict, and there are very specific rules you are supposed to follow that don’t really have much application in real life driving situations. The proctor will get into the car first, for example, and then tell you it’s okay to follow. You must walk around to the front of the car, look beneath the car to make sure nothing is obstructing the wheels, walk around to the back of the car (on the left, so you’re staying out of “traffic”), do another wheel check, look both ways before stepping into the street, walk to your door, check both ways before opening the door, crack the door, check both ways again, and finally enter the vehicle (of course, there are no other cars around so all this checking is strictly for show). Once you are in the vehicle, you must immediately check that the parking brake is in place, before checking a long list of other things. The parking brake is the very last thing to be released before you start driving, and when you finish, you have to engage the parking brake before you do anything else. When stopping at stop signs, you must come to a full stop for at least three seconds. As a JET, I was given a manual of things to remember when taking the driver’s test; it’s easily more than a hundred pages long.

The surprising thing is, I did really well on the test. So well, in fact, that I was pretty convinced I was going to pass. Only one mistake stuck out to me: at one turn, I had forgotten to blinker thirty meters beforehand. I certainly hadn’t gone off the road or forgotten the course or anything like that.

After you finish the proctor is supposed to give you one piece of advice. Even if you do a bazillion things wrong, apparently they will only tell you one of those things. My piece of advice was: “When making left turns, make sure to always check your blind spot for bikes and motorcycles.” Upon receiving this advice, I thought: “Holy crap! That’s the worst they’ve got on me? I’m so going to pass!”

Well, we all know how this turns out. I’ve heard from many people that it’s impossible to pass the test the first time around, that the proctors aren’t really concerned with how well you do, they just want to instill the idea that the test is Serious Business and not just anyone can pass. Well, they’ve convinced me. This test is totally Serious Business.

The good news is that subsequent attempts to take the test should be much simpler. Now that I have a good feel for the course, I shouldn’t need to funnel any more cash into practice sessions, which means I can go up to Kochi solo. I also don’t need to take the written test again. So now I just wait for a day when I don’t have classes scheduled, take the morning train up to Kochi, take the test, and I should be able to return that afternoon. A day trip I will hopefully not have to make too many times in the near future.

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