Context: I had to get a driver’s license in Japan. I wouldn’t own a smart phone for another two years, so I navigated by drawing maps on paper ahead of time.

Originally published on May 29th, 2012

Having an American driver’s license automatically qualifies one for an international driving permit (issued by AAA). The Japanese government apparently trusts in our own licensing procedures enough that holders of said permit are allowed to start driving from day one, even if they’ve never done so on the left side of the road before. A risky decision, if you ask me, judging from the preponderance of foreigner-caused accidents. But for whatever reason, that trust is limited to a single year. After that point, simply renewing the international permit is not good enough, which means that foreigners who would like to continue driving must apply for and obtain an official Japanese driver’s license. Easier said than done.

My own permit wasn’t set to expire until August, but the length of the process and rumors that during the summer the DMV is lousy with frustrated JETs struggling to succeed before the deadline made me decide to tackle the challenge early. The first step involves getting one’s foreign license “translated” at JAF (Japan Automobile Federation), which is essentially Japan’s AAA. The office is on the outskirts of Sendai, and I’m proud to say that I found my way there without a GPS of any sort and with only one of my patented hand-scribbled maps of the neighborhood. After correctly identifying the convenience store that I used as a landmark on the map, I parked, started walking, and realized that my map didn’t quite communicate the scale of the area, which meant that it was about a two mile walk. It would have been shorter if I had been able to cut straight through a strangely placed military base, but the camo-clad guard and barbed wire fence made me reconsider. So I took the long route along the perimeter of the base and received dirty looks from the soldiers running on the other side of the fence. I usually stare back angrily when stared at in this country, but not this time.

I reached JAF without causing an international incident. There, they basically charge $40 to look at your license and write down your birthday and address on a separate piece of paper. While there, I also bought the regrettably unnecessary English version of Japan’s “Rules of the Road.” It’s mostly full of common-sense stuff (“Roads are slippery when wet!”), but admittedly, it does explain a few of the more cryptic road signs, like the one that means “Road only open to three-wheeled vehicles weighing less than 500 kilograms with two or more passengers, one of whom is handicapped, on Sundays and the Emperor’s birthday, but never during a leap year.”

license road sign

The next step was one of several trips to the Miyagi DMV, also located in Sendai. I really shouldn’t complain about my own travel time, because some people have to come from hours away and stay the night, but I will anyway. For some reason, (I want to say…xenophobia, but it’s probably just a lack of demand) they only offer the 30-minute window between 1:00 and 1:30 Mon-Fri for foreigners looking to get licenses, so I took a half-day of vacation time and headed to Sendai around lunch. The large gray DMV building was just as imposingly dreary-looking as its average American counterpart, with the comically dreadful and familiar sight of unnerved people waiting on unreasonably long lines for far too few clerks. On the eastern side of the building, a throng of nervous 20-somethings sat around waiting for their practicals to begin.

Fortunately I didn’t have to wait on any lines and went straight to a secluded back office, one broom closet of which is reserved for foreigners and their matters. Day One at the DMV only involved filling out applications. The man designated to assist foreigners in this process is named Mr. Masatsugu. A long string bean with a lazy eye and a penchant for repeating himself and blinking uncomfortably often, he’s known to pretty much every assistant language teacher in Miyagi prefecture, as he essentially serves as the first gatekeeper on the treacherous path towards obtaining a license. He ran through each question about five times in extremely slow and broken English despite my insistence that Japanese was fine. It took about an hour for him to establish my entire travel history since obtaining my American license, which was necessary in order to confirm that I had had it in America for at least a single, uninterrupted one-year period. Should I have failed to meet that requirement, I would have needed to slap a mortifying “new driver” sticker on my car here. Thankfully, Masatsugu was genial and quirky. With the application out of the way, I made an appointment for the following week to take the tests. Unfortunately, Americans are required to take both a written and a practical test (Canadians are exempt from the more troublesome practical; something to do with Canada’s overall willingness to accept Japan’s driving standards when Japanese try to get Canadian licenses, whereas, as expected, our 50 states, each with their own standards, have not done that. So no reciprocity).

Day Two started out well. I passed the eye test no problem, and the written test was a joke. Hopeful native drivers have to answer 100 extremely technical multiple choice questions, but foreigners have only ten true-false questions, complete with illustrations. A rare time when low expectations/standards of non-Japanese work in our favor, indeed. My questions included, “One should heed the instructions of traffic cops,” “One should slow down so as not to hit old and/or crippled people who are walking in the road,” and other such brain-teasers. While waiting for the practical (and it was a long wait, because naturally, native drivers get priority in the queue) I commiserated with the other foreigners who were there that day. I met a gregarious young woman from – I want to say Tennessee?- who came to Miyagi with her missionary group for some long-term 3/11 disaster relief effort. She and the others told me how many times they had each failed the practical and how strict the proctors are, so by the time it was my turn, I knew I had no hope of passing.

The test course consists of a few straightaways, turns, a traffic light, and an s-curve, but the most infamous challenge is known as “the crank.” Drivers must navigate through two extremely tight right-angle turns without bumping the poles around the edge or falling into the surrounding gutter. Backing-up up to three times is permitted, but each time costs valuable points (one starts with 100 points that are reduced with each mistake; 70 are needed to pass) and bumping the poles results in immediate failure. Interestingly enough I had no trouble with the crank. What did me in was a list of minor issues so long that the proctor said my final point total was “near zero.” I looked right and left when I only needed to look left. My right turn was a bit too tight. My hands slipped from 10 and 2 to 9 and 3 at one point. I was on the left side of the right lane instead of the right side of the right lane before making a turn. “But you handle a car very well!” he said. “Have you driven before?” “Yes, for the past 8 years.” I went home feeling frustrated at the prospect of having to return a week later and drop another $50 on application fees (requisite for each testing attempt).

But I did return, with a bit more swagger this time, now that I knew what to expect. I had drilled the five or so big mistakes from last time into my head over the past 24 hours, because while the disappointment I felt with myself for failing was pretty soul-crushing, it would be that much more shameful to fail again for the same reasons. I paid the money, took the eye test again (but not the written test? They think my vision might have degraded over the past week but that I haven’t forgotten how important it is not to run over crippled people in the road?), and challenged the course for the second time. The fact that I had a different proctor was a little distressing, because he wouldn’t notice how diligently I corrected my previous mistakes, but I was still feeling confident. When he started enumerating an entirely new list of screw-ups at the end of the test, I thought I was toast, but he passed me. It was probably just to fulfill the “pass-one-foreigner-per-day” quota that we all imagine they have.

Anyhow, my experience was not nearly as bad as it could have been. I’ve heard anecdotes about people who don’t manage to pass until their fifth or sixth attempt and others who resort to dropping ~$1000 on a training course that doesn’t even assure victory. I drove away proudly that day, that much closer to personhood and with that same distinct RPG-character-building feel that I first experienced after leveling up from bicycle to car many months ago.



Context: Three months after moving to Japan; SK was my American neighbor/buddy

Originally published on November 3, 2011

A few weeks ago, SK took me to his favorite public bathhouse (or “sento”) in the area. For 500 yen, one can enjoy a shower, a variety of baths, a sauna, a standing tanning bed (more of a tanning closet, I guess? You step inside a giant tube) and when you’re done, there’s a cooldown area out in the lobby with snacks, drinks, ice cream, a bunch of crane games, a vending machine with cold coffee in squat glass bottles, and bookshelves full of comics to read (consuming food/drink, standing in the cancer-machine, and playing crane games requires additional $$$). On top of all that, this place is in the same parking lot right behind my new favorite store, Mandai, which is a massive second-hand store divided into the four essentials for human life: clothing, video games, toys, and comics. Everything there is super (relatively) cheap, and they’re basically willing to buy anything that fits into any of those categories from you pawn shop style, although usually it’s just for pennies (yen-nies). But still. Pretty great. Essentially, if I’m ever fired, or if my apartment burns down or is destroyed by Mothra, I will take up residence in this bathhouse for 500 yen a day, spending my days browsing Mandai and my nights soaking in the baths.

Back to the baths. First, you sit down on a stool in front of a shower cubical and wash up, because nobody’s there to bathe in your grease and dead skin cells. After that, there’s the normal hot bath. Like a hot tub, except that you’re in there with mostly out-of-shape, naked old men (women if you’re a woman; they require you to make that determination). They’re not all out-of-shape though. Some are young and virile and rippling with muscles, but still naked. They’re the worst, because then I realize that everything is relative and that to them, am the out-of-shape, naked, old man. Then there’s the salty mineral bath, which leaves me yearning to return to the beaches of SoCal from whence I sprung forth 22 long years ago. Then the icy cold bath. With a water temperature set exactly at 33 degrees Fahrenheit, you’re not actually supposed to get into this bath. It’s just there for you to splash cold water on yourself after coming out of the 194 degree sauna (I’m lying about the 33 degrees, but the sauna has a thermometer inside to remind you how dumb you are for being in there).

I thought I was a cool cat strolling into the sauna like a man who definitely likes to sweat with other men, but after five seconds my sinuses started burning, which I’m assuming is the body’s way of telling the brain that the current atmospheric conditions are not conducive to human existence. But I couldn’t run out like a wimp. There were shriveled old men and gap-toothed children in there, casually watching the baseball game on the mounted TV. If I were to leave so quickly, they would no doubt turn to each other, burst out laughing, and start commenting about how pathetic foreigners are. So with my neurotic tendencies fully in charge of my decisions, I sat there for six whole minutes, enduring what I imagine the cartoony Christian version of hell must feel like. At the six-minute mark, though, I ran out faster than you can say “I think my senses of smell and taste have been literally burned away by this experience,” which is actually plenty of time to leave a room. Point is, you’re not supposed to dive into the icy cold bath, but I was badly tempted to break protocol.

denki hell
I guess it was kind of like the Buddhist hell too, which apparently involves a giant bowl of ramen.

Then there’s the outside bath (rotenburo). It contains the standard hot water, but the shape of the bath itself is different. Part of it is a three-foot deep pool whose perimeter is formed by real rocks, and the other part is a section with water is only two inches deep. I can’t be sure, but I think you’re supposed to lay down in that section- a hypothesis supported by the presence of rocks that were shaped and positioned like pillows. The nice thing about the outside bath is that you can feel the breeze, see the stars, and in the winter, you can apparently sit there while it snows, which will almost allow me to fulfill my dream of becoming a macaque.

denki macaque
 The shaggy fur locks in the heat – another strategy I plan to emulate this winter, by never shaving.

Finally… the denki furo. Those of you with no knowledge of Japanese- go ahead. Take a stab. I’ll give you a hint. Furo is bath. So what does denki mean? Is it… “delightful relaxation bath”? “Lukewarm bath”? “Couples’ bath”? Nope. It’s “electric” bath. “Whoa. Hold the phone. You’re telling me this bath is heated by the power of electricity? How novel! What an interesting place Japan is!” No. Not even close. The denki furo is unique among the bathhouse attractions, because instead of trying to passively kill you with coldness or heat (as the ice bath and sauna do), it actively tries to get the job done by running electric currents through the water. I saw the sign. I even managed to read the first bit with my incredible third-grade literacy. “Electric Bath. Do not enter if you are afflicted by any one of the following 32 medical conditions: heart murmur, epilepsy, pregnancy…” I was unable to decipher the other 29, but I figured everything would probably work out in the end.

So I entered the deceptively innocuous-looking waters of the denki furo (it was unoccupied! I can’t imagine why the crowds weren’t lining up for this one) and immediately felt a painful, buzzing sensation around my left wrist and right middle finger. With electricity coursing through my body, it took a few seconds longer than it should have to realize that the pain was localized precisely where my steel Swiss Army watch and college class ring were. Moving as quickly as my partially-paralyzed limbs allowed me, I lifted my forearms out of the water and removed my conductive bling, placing them on the rim. But my left wrist still felt an inordinate amount of unpleasantude upon being placed in the water. Ah. Of course. How silly. It was the wristband that held the locker key inside it. I removed that as well and was finally able to enjoy this torture device as its creators intended.

The bath itself is a depressed rectangular prism (physically, although it might be emotionally depressed too considering its lot in life) with a safe zone running down the middle, lengthwise. The electric current is weakest in this safe zone, because the electricity emitters run up and down the long sides of the rectangle, mounted on the walls. If you stay in the safe zone, you only experience a mild tingling. It’s sort of like, “Hey, who’s tickling me all over my body? This isn’t my fetish!” Pressing your body up against one of the electric walls is asking for it. I accepted that challenge, but my heart started hurting when my chest was about four inches from the wall, so, having at least a few things to live for, I couldn’t find it in myself to proceed.

The most “fun” way to “enjoy” the denki furo, however, is to sit in the safe zone while sticking your limbs into the danger zones. Since extremities don’t contain vital organs, there’s little danger of death. If you move your feet towards the walls, it instantly feels the way it does when your foot has fallen asleep and you’re trying to wake it up by walking around. Like the pins-and-needles sensation, followed by pain. Except only the pain part. Hands experience a similar sensation. If you’re feeling really brave, you can stick the whole appendage into the danger zone. As you do, you’ll feel your muscles tighten up and convulse, until the arm/leg is completely locked in the flexed position. At that point, you can’t extend the elbow/wrist/knee/ankle. The only ways to regain control of the limb are either to pull it out of the current with another limb or to just stand up. If one found oneself with every limb was locked into the danger zones. I guess one would fall on one’s face and drown in two feet of water?

I’m sure if I could read the rest of the sign, the absurd health benefits of this thing would become clear, but until that point, I will continue to consider it a fun way to flirt with death.

denki bath

Japan 2017

This past May, I returned to Japan for the first time since 2013. The exclusive tour of the Shonen Jump office makes it count as a “business trip” for tax purposes, right?

Shonen Jump HQ Office!


Office Perspective #2


In state of mild shock at actually being in SJ office


Original inked draft of a My Hero Academia chapter!


My Hero Academia “U.A.” pin from Shonen Jump Shop in Suidobashi


You know a series has made it when it has gummies


Writhing pile of quasi-tame deer in Nara


Canal in Kinosaki Onsen


Had a ryokan bath all to myself


Urinal on a boat to Miyajima


Itsukushima Shrine Torii


Sign should know I never run


Coolest Jizo around


View from top of Miyajima


Furry visitor at Fushimi Inari


Tokashiku Island, Okinawa