Getting a Japanese Driving License

My friend Umer, who is Pakistani, was pessimistic.

“Why don’t you just wait until I get a car and then you can practice at night when there is no one on the roads? You are going to fail. Everybody fails, let me tell you. You cannot pass the driving test. The rules are so hard, I met some girls who had failed so many times at the driving test center. Inshallah God willing I will get  car next week and you can start practicing.  ”

Well I would still be waiting because Umer still hasn’t got the car! But he was quite supportive, if pessimistic. He already passed his test exam and got his Japanese driving license (for foreigners) – the 国際運転免許証。This coveted card will allow you to drive a car in Japan, your foreign license doesn’t count (at least the Kenyan one doesn’t).

Before you can get the driving license, there are a few prerequisites. Like having at least 3 months driving experience with your foreign license. And once you bring all the required documents, you can get to exchange your driving license for a Japanese one without doing any test if you are citizen of Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal,the Republic of Slovenia, the Principality of Monaco South Korea, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Taiwan and United Kingdom. As a citizen of the esteemed republic of Kenya, I had to undergo a 10-15 minutes driving test to qualify for the Japanese driving license.

Being in Ishikawa Prefecture, I researched and read up on all the requirements for converting my license to a Japanese one. There was a lot of useful information online, including a step by step guide. I read it diligently, I gathered all the required documents and went for my first appointment.

The first time I went to the Unten Menkyo Center,  I went with a Japanese friend to the second floor were they handle foreigners driving license matters. I presented my documents: passport, residence certificate, translation of driving license, actual driving license… The guy at the counter couldn’t believe we were still using passport-sized licenses with glued-on photographs. I did a separate post on it here. If @Ukenyatta is reading this, please tell him we need digital DLs. Update: I have heard the new DLs are indeed, digital-sized but I guess I was a few months too early to get mine?

The Kenyan Driving License vs a "normal DL"

The Kenyan Driving License vs a “normal DL”

When he was through turning the DL over and over, he then looked at the translation. According to my Kenyan DL, I am allowed to drive class B, C and E. Yes, I am allowed to drive a manual lorry, your average Mitsubishi Canter. Yes, I did my driving test on an an actual lorry whose controls (clutch, brakes, accelerator) I could hardly reach while still seeing out of the dashboard because the seat couldn’t be adjusted; it was an old lorry. How I passed is er.. a miracle but suffice to say my test involved starting, driving for about 2 minutes along a straight stretch, and stopping.

The Japanese guy at the counter was surprised I could drive a lorry haha, but I have not driven one before and since the test. Anyway, my documents were all in order and I was asked to set a date for the practical test. My Japanese friend would later get very busy and so could not take me (I suspect his girlfriend is keeping him busy 😉 ) so I set up an appointment  and decided to go there by bus.  There is a bus that goes there from Kanazawa Station only twice a day, once in the morning and once at noon. I called Umer and we went together.

I had read online on how to pass the test. When driving keep to the left of the lane about 30-50cm from the white line; when turning to check for pedestrians/other cars before changing lanes or turning you should exaggerate your motions; brake down hard when slowing down; be sure to indicate 30 meters before a turning; stop before the line; stop and count to 3 at any stop light; etc. I had read them all and I was confident. Umer’s doubts could not get to me. The online comments giving a pass rate of 30% did not faze me. After all, I had driven for about a year in Nairobi’s rough streets, and several times I had been downtown in some crowded streets with those awful Githurai buses where not many Nairobians dare drive (the East of Tom Mboya Street). I have reverse parked in tiny basements.

But I failed the first attempt.

It was after the test that I realized it is not about knowing how to drive, it is about following the very persnickety rules. When you do the test, there is a route that you have to follow and a new route is set out everyday. The route will make sure to test your control on the S-curve, the crank, how you do left/right turns, traffic lights, maneuvering around road constructions, broken-down cars in the middle of the lane etc.

The first time I was doing the test, I had not mastered the route. Umer and another Egyptian guy (his name is Amr and I don’t know how to pronounce it) I met at the center were quickly trying to give me tips to crack the course. I was panicking. If you have not mastered the course, the examiner who sits beside you on the passenger seat can give you directions (in Japanese!), but the driving track is a bit small so you might not get enough time to switch lanes before stop lights etc. I was driving in the middle of the lane, like any normal driver in the real world does, so that was my biggest failure. When doing the test, you drive so far to to the left that the driver’s position is almost at the center of the road. When coming out of the crank, one of the rear tires got off the road and at the sound of it, the examiner groaned out light; I had failed.

A typical driving test track in Japan

A typical driving test track in Japan

I booked a date for a repeat exam a week later and went home feeling dejected. Failure is not easy to deal with but I was determined to pass the next time I went. Umer advised me to take a class at the practice center just next to the test center and I booked for two hours on the morning of the test. Driving tests are usually in the afternoon. Umer was supportive as usual “Don’t worry even if you fail, you can come again and again, they can’t stop you from trying again”. But I was determined it would be the second and last time. I did two hours of the practice session, driving very very left, looking not just at the mirrors but over my neck, stopping long enough at a stop light, etc.

When my name was called on the public address system that afternoon, I had already mastered the course over lunch hour. It was a straightforward course that day. I was confident. I was ready. I checked under the car for any children or pets hiding there before and after the test. I craned my neck at turnings. I kept 30-50 centimeters from the left. I smoothly snaked the S-curve and the crank, I kept 1 meter away from the broken car when passing it. I could hear the sound of the examiner ticking away as I passed the test and oh what a sweet sound of success! When I finally parked the car at the end of the test, the examiner said, Kyoo, Ok! (Today was Ok!). I remembered to look under the car even as I walked away from it.

Later, I noticed that the exam card on which our photographs are stuck has about 20 slots! I passed at the second attempt. However, I know met who were failing their 4th attempts, and I have heard a record 33 attempts!

Ah, the sweet freedom that comes from having a license to drive and go anywhere you like. But wait, I still need a car. That is secondary though because after all, I am in Japan, the home of half maybe more of the world’s motor-vehicles.

My advice to anyone who wants to get their Japanese driving license, take the practice classes! A little expensive but worth it!

Waiting for Sakura

For a short time in Japan during Spring, the cherry blossoms bloom and the streets are bathed in pink flowers. Sakura, it is called. Japan can be incredibly picturesque and now the trees are on the verge of flowering, so we are all eagerly waiting for the beautiful flowers and their fragrance to accompany us on the walks along the rivers, across the streets, and through the roads.

Sakura

Sakura

To be honest, this post will be a rumble of disorganized words and I am writing it more for me and less for the reader. March has been a long month for me in some ways. In April, I move to the university where I will spend the next 3 and a half years, up in the mountains. I spent my holiday trying to work on “projects”; progress has been slow and painful but nothing good comes easy, right? When I was not “working” (the definition of working has been very loose indeed), I was studying Kanji, going through marathons of watching series and movies, reading a few novels, taking very long walks, jogging till my ankle hurts, working on getting a 6-pack (so far we are 2 in, 4 more to go), discovering new bookshops, hanging out with obaasan-tachi from church, making a new Ethiopian friend, having lunch at a Korean restaurant, meeting a Japanese artist, having dinner with friends, planning on attending the Rugby 7s Series Tokyo edition etc ; oh wait, I have really been a busy body.

Korean food, it was delicious

Korean food, it was delicious

More pictures over at Instagram.

Anyway I am glad Spring has finally arrived, the sun is out, the temperature is getting warmer, and the cherry blossoms start blooming next week.

Here’s to a beautiful Spring.

Movie Reviews: The Interview and The Memoirs of a Geisha

For the last few weeks, I did not feel like writing and even if I wanted to, I couldn’t muster enough will to actually do it. Was it a writer’s block? I don’t know.. Writer’s blocks are for actual writers and I am your ordinary blogger. Whatever it was, the end result was an ignored blog and I have had to brush away the dust and sweep away the cobwebs on the walls (and this is not the only wall with cobwebs insert sly grin but I digress) before I could begin writing.

I will review two movies that I have had the pleasure of eyeballing in the last few weeks that I have been on holiday. A lot has happened, including a heartbreak (sob sob but they say better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all, no further details to be divulged though), new friendships, I finally got my Japanese driving license (I have to do a separate post for this!), an English test (sometimes I get a flare of anger because they made me prove my English proficiency, after receiving at least 18 years (8 primary-4 secondary-4 undergraduate-2 master’s) of education in the language, people should learn how the world works. Half of Africa speaks English, the other half speaks French with a few exceptions like Ethiopia, Angola etc (deep breath, namaste,deep breath namaste) Okay I have calmed down..  But let us get on with the movies, shall we? Enough segue, sexy as it was.

The Interview

The Interview

The Interview

I wouldn’t have watched this movie had it not caused such uproar among some people; who seriously threatened to blow up theaters if the movie was shown in the said theaters; and who were possibly so offended that they hacked into the Sony network revealing emails among executives, movie plans, costs and such other information. I must confess I don’t understand their outrage, unless they view Kim Jong Un as their god which they perhaps they do.

An American journalist finally gets an interview with the dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. (By the way Kim Jong Un if you are reading this, you can hack my blog but please stop firing test missiles into the Japan sea; I quite live near the said sea.) This could be the great interview that makes the journalist’s career, a break from interviewing celebrities like Eminem who confesses that he is gay which explains his homophobic lyrics. So off he goes to North Korea but of course the CIA uses this chance to give him poison with which to kill the dictator and save the people of North Korea. What follows is a tragic comedy of events, the interview finally happens.. but does he kill the dictator like planned? Things go wrong horribly but in a stupid and comical way, if you have 112 minutes to spare, please yourself. But if you don’t have time, you will not have missed anything if you never watch this movie. Trust me.

The Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha

I am living in Japan and had never watched this movie until 3 or so weeks ago. I have seen some women dressed in kimono and with powdered faces and guessed they were Geishas but I had no insight into the culture. According to Wikipedia, Geisha (芸者 ?), geiko (芸子) or geigi (芸妓) are traditional Japanese female entertainers who act as hostesses and whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music, dance, games and conversation, mainly to entertain male customers. Everything entertainment except anything sexual.

Memoirs of a Geisha follows the pre-world war II story of a young girl in Japan whose family has “sold her off” together with her sister because the family is unable to take care of them. Sayuri is trained as a Geisha and joins this admired yet lonely profession; a Geisha is not permitted to marry. She falls in love with a man whom she cannot marry but carries on her life, becoming the most sought after Geisha in the city. This happy setting does not last, the war soon sets in and everything changes.

With American soldiers full in the city streets, and with the harshness of war, many women claim to be Geishas but sleep with the soldiers for favours, money.. in short prostitutes. The Geisha profession is no longer respected. Sayuri has to do manual labour during the war; until the man she’s in love with finally comes looking for her, he needs a favour from her. Would she take up the shamisen (traditional musical instrument) once more, wear the kimono and make up once again, and be a hostess to one of the Americans who could possibly finance his business that had collapsed in the war?

It is an engrossing story, watch it if you have the time.

Yes, You Can Get Newborn Stuff From OLX

Two years ago this month, my son was born. I can’t believe it has been almost two years already; watching  a baby grow is the very definition of time flying. I remember being so excited as his expected date of birth grew closer and closer, and I made a mistake a lot of first time mothers make, buying a lot of unnecessary stuff and lots of brand new clothes.

Cute newly born baby

Cute newly born baby

I was working at the time (up to the 39th week!) and so I didn’t have time to go to Toy Market or Gikomba or wherever people go to buy baby clothes at a bargain, so I bought my clothes online from smartbaby.co.ke (for some reason, they have closed shop?). They were brand new so a little expensive. In my excitement, I bought a lot of size zero clothes (newborn clothes), and he outgrew them in a week! Forget a month, literally one week. By the second week, we couldn’t squeeze him into size zero clothes.

Yes it is safe to buy second hand clothes for babies because the first baby would have barely worn them (given their growth rate), and all you have to do is wash (and bleaching is optional) the clothes, rinse them in a gentle fabric softener, dry, iron them and put them away in the baby bag/closet awaiting the arrival of the little one. Sigh, writing this brings back memories of J as an infant, I miss him so.

Anyway, no need to drag your pregnant self (and darling you do drag yourself along :D) to a crowded market to shop, do it online via a site like OLX.  A search for baby clothes on OLX reveals traders selling “mtumba camera” baby clothes for as low as Ksh. 100 each. “mtumba camera” means they are barely used, high quality clothes.

Baby clothes on OLX

Baby clothes on OLX

And baby clothes are not the only things you can buy on OLX, you can get everything that you do need from the website. Baby cot, baby basins/baths, bibs, toys, strollers, car seats, books (in my enthusiasm I remember also buying lots of books to read at bedtime for the baby, which I did all of twice in these 2 years) etc. Just make sure to not commit payment before you can see what you are buying, and arrange to meet the seller at a safe and public location.

Some of the things on sale on OLX are also brand new stuff, such as diapers and diaper bags. So go ahead, order anything and everything you need for your newborn from olx. Just type into the search box and the results could surprise you!