Thursday, April 13, 2006

Driving Practice

Owning your own car in Tokyo falls somewhere between a luxury and an eyebrow-raising absurdity. Cars themselves aren't that expensive, but parking spots run around 20,000-40,000 yen per month in most parts of Tokyo proper. (That's, like, $200-$400 a month, eh.) You can't use them to commute to work, since your daily parking fees would probably run you more than your salary. (Unless you're some bigshot executive who gets a paid spot in the office building's lot.) And Tokyo's mass transit system is extremely comprehensive.

So I've lived in Japan for eight years and my old driver's license from California is long expired. I've never needed a Japanese DL, but once in a while, it would be nice to have. Like if you go on a vacation to a spot outside of Tokyo. But it's not the easiest thing to do.

Brits and Aussies have it easier - they can usually get their current driver's license translated to Japanese, take it to one of the driving test centers, and get it transferred over to a Japanese license with little more fuss than a few hours of paperwork. But for those of us from countries who drive on the right side of the road (unlike Japan), they generally make you take the written and driving exam.

I'm confident behind the wheel, but when the wheel is on the right hand side of the car, suddenly I am out of my element. I drove a bit (sans license) when my GF and I took a trip to Hokkaido and rented a car. I frequently messed up the turn signals and wipers because they're also on the opposite side of the steering column. Driving on the long, straight, low traffic Hokkaido roads and highways was generally no problem, but at least once my old driving habits asserted themselves at the wrong time -- I made a left hand turn out of a gas station into the right-hand lane. I.e. the one with oncoming traffic -- in this case, a semi-tractor trailer heading straight for us. It was several hundred yards away and I quickly adjusted into the correct lane, but it freaked out the girlfriend and gave me something to think about as well.

Obviously, I need some practice driving in the cars and on the roads here before I will be ready to take the exam. I could join one of the driving schools here, but those cost $3000 or $4000 for their one or two-week classes, which is a lot of money and time off from work. I know how to drive, really! I just need to practice these few little specifics.

Tuesday after work, I found a possible cheap way for some basic practice. I went by a game center to kill some time before visiting Bar Jack for the poker game, and spotted...

... this new Driving School game!

It's not terribly exciting, but instead aims to teach presumably grade-school age Japanese kids the basics of driving. Maybe even replacing expensive driving schools? Who knows what Sega is after.

Anyhow, the game is a cheap way for me to get some basic practice in the reversed layout of Japanese cars, and start retraining my habits of what lane to enter when making turns and which hand to use to set the turn signal. It's still weird to change gears with my left hand. I doubt I will be ready for a manual transmission for years.

There's a series of basic driving lessons, starting with very simple tasks on a driving course much like those at the driving schools. If you pass one lesson with a score of 80 or above, you proceed to the next one. If you fail it, you have to pay another 100yen to take it again. You can also get a printed memory card that keeps a record of which lessons you have passed, so when you come back later you can feed your card in and start from the next lesson instead of the beginning.

The controls include pretty much everything from a real car. You even have to fasten your seatbelts, and there's a key ignition to start the thing up. There's no HUD to show your speed, so you have to practice looking down at the dashboard to see your speed, lest you exceed the posted limit and lose points. I'm grateful there's no stereo system in the dash for later lessons to test your ability to pay attention to the road and switch the radio station to J-Wave simultaneously.

I've only done the first two lessons, so I suck. But compared to 300,000yen for driving school, this should be a bargain.

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