“Illiterate foreigner drives car into oncoming traffic.”
That’s what I assumed the headline would read on tomorrow’s Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper. Maybe it would have just been a byline below the fold. Either way the cause was clear: I was just not satisfied merely inconveniencing people with my everyday blunders. To really put lives at risk I had to get behind the wheel of a car.
You don’t have to go far in Japan to find yourself stranded with no help in English. A gorgeous boat ride through Yanagawa was plenty of Japanese-speaking-only tourism, in theory. The gondolier who led us through the old canal town was a wonderful singer and quite funny, or so I had to assume as everyone on the boat laughed at what I assume were his jokes. Perhaps he simply filled the 70 minute ride with quips about my appearance and manners. Either way it was an awesome trip and I have so far managed to avoid falling into a river (this time).
But to really strand ourselves we decided to take a trip to Yakushima, an island 4 hours by ferry south of the southern tip of Kyushu. For that trip we had the chance to take the rocket-foil, a sort of jet-powered ferry on stilts. It cut the travel time in half, or at least it does if you can get a ticket. If it is sold out, then you need to spend 10 minutes at the ticket counter trying to understand the “standby” system using the Japanese you mainly learned from “Detective Conan” cartoons, the same Japanese that usually begins to fail when you try to explain that you would like a bowl of noodles, but you don’t want the side of pickles.
At least it gave us the chance to tour Kagoshima a little, which Annie describes as “the Alabama of Japan.” (Apologies to those of you who have to live in Alabama). The place has a distinctly southern feel and even led a rebelling against the government just after the American civil war. Just to the south are the mountains where the real “last samurai” held out in his battle against the Meiji restoration.
My grade in Japanese 201/202 might not have been stellar (aside: I never actually looked up my grades so I don’t know) but at least I learned enough to know when my standby number was called, or even that they were calling the numbers in the first place.
Upon arrival was the real test – negotiating a car rental. I got all the basics until we got to the “menseki.” What the hell was a “menseki”? The rental car attendant obviously couldn’t pantomime the words, so it had to be complicated…thank goodness for the iphone. I guess “loss-damage waiver” wasn’t included in my beginner Japanese course.
When I told my friends that I was planning to rent a car, they all told me that the attendants would stand in the parking lot waiting for me to turn out of the parking lot and laugh when I turned on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal. No amount of warning helped. I did and they did. Having repeated the same error over and over, I now have the cleanest windshields on the island of Yakushima.
Driving on the other side of the road is not as funny, though – in fact, it activated a sense-memory of driver’s ed. I literally felt like I was driving for the first time. Abject terror is the feeling of suddenly seeing a pair of headlights coming right for you in the right lane around a curve, only to realize that you are on the left side. That’s probably what Annie felt when, trying to turn off the windshield wipers I had accidentally activated for the 8th time, I casually turned right directly into oncoming traffic.
So far, we are still alive. But tomorrow is another day.