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How to get a perfect score on your driving test (on the third try)

February 9, 2010 1 comment

My apologies for a long absence from blogging. To put it succinctly, this had been the winter of my discontent. Three great shocks and one personal upheaval later, I feel things are getting back on track.

That personal upheaval – beginning a new and considerably more demanding position at work – has kept me away from the blog. Not that there has been much good news. But more of that to follow.

What has gone well, now that I’ve had a chance to settle into my new job, is that I finally made it in for my third driving exam, only three months late. And as I’ve found, the Japanese say “third time’s a charm” for a reason.

So here, in short, I offer you the most important things I’ve learned:

First, a word to the wise: if you suspect you’re not going to make an appointment, it’s better to change it than to be stuck going in at 8:30 in the morning to make a new one having missed it.

The biggest factor in your success, whether on the first try or the last, is that you’ve unlearned everything you had expected a driving test should be. Your mindset going into the test determines your success far more than simple driving skill, because skill is not what’s being tested. The Japanese driving exam is neither subtle or nuanced. Silky starts, gentle braking and smooth lane changes will kill your chances of success.

The most important word to keep in mind for your test is merihari. Your driving style must be deliberate. When you complete a turn, your hands return the wheel to center, not inertia. When you change lanes, you do so having signaled well in advance, and you do so abruptly, not gradually.

The examiner wants to feel your knowledge in the seat of his pants: be unambiguous. Hit him with a sledgehammer. When you accelerate, make him feel it. When you brake, make it obvious. When you stop, let the nose of the car dip a bit. Announce to him: “Yes, I have stopped, thank you very much.” Don’t crawl along between turns. Get up to speed, and then slow down when you get where you’re going.

As a test taker, your natural reaction is to be overly cautious in all the wrong ways. You want to crawl along. You want to sit at clear intersections. You don’t want to screw up. But in the eyes of the examiner, your hesitation is a mistake. Yes, when you come to an intersection, visibly move your head both ways, check your mirrors, but then, when you can see you’re clear, just go. Moving to the side of the lane, your instinct in a test will be to do so slowly and gently, drifting along. What you should be doing is showing your confidence: turn on your indicator, look over your shoulder, and then move with authority. You own that lane.

Let your interaction with the instructor reflect that. When they tell you to make a turn, give them a strong hai and repeat what they’ve told you. Show them that you’re mentally in control. If you’re timid on their test course, imagine how they think you’ll behave on a real road.

And keep in mind as you prepare for the test, when you look at the map, when you visualize your course, that you are not doing this test to demonstrate your profeciency in operating a motor vehicle. They don’t ask you to do a J-turn, you never even need to put your car in reverse. You are being tested on your ability to follow the idealized rules of the Japanese road. This is why lane placement and turns are so critical, because Japan’s academic driving style differs so much from other countries.

Practically, a few points are critical: When you turn left, hug the curb. Unless, of course, that left turn is immediately followed by a right; then make sure you proceed straight into the instersection and delay your turn such that you align your car beside the center line from the moment you enter the intersection. You’re showing anticipation of your driving path, and this is key.

Likewise, when you turn right, start from the far right, move straight into the intersection, delay your turn and align your car with the far left of the lane. Don’t cut the corner – go straight, turn sharply. A right followed by another right, naturally, should do the same, but align with the right hand side of the following lane.

At a controlled intersection, proceed quickly with a glance to either side, or come to a stop, depending on the indication. Stop forcefully if you must. At an intersection where you have priority, slow to glance to the sides, but don’t crawl. At an intersection where you do not have priority, or at blind corners, slow to a crawl, but do not stop unless there is traffic. Demonstrate to the examiner that you understand how to proceed through the intersection, and do so with your right foot. Being overly cautious shouts “I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing,” which is not what you want to say during a test.

Finally, understand that this is all a lot to take in. You will probably not pass on your first test. You may very well make a stupid mistake. Don’t become disheartened as I did. When you first take the test, even if you’ve taken lessons, you may only focus on what not to do. But if you focus on what to do – to embrace the blunt-force method of driving, and focus on demonstrating rather than simply doing – you’ll realize that you can control much more than you think.

And as you walk back to Futamatagawa station (for those of you who, like me, live in Kanagawa), you’ll not be looking at the people driving by and wondering what they knew that you didn’t. Because you’ll have a shiny new green striped license in your wallet.

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A word to the wise…

October 29, 2009 3 comments

If you are planning on relocating to Japan and you’d like to drive, don’t take residence in Kanagawa.

Today, among my group of seven, seven people failed. I was the closest to passing, as I actually made it to the end of the test, and was told I failed by the slimmest of margins. On two left-hand corners, I turned wide by 10 cm. And prior to one left hand turn, I was 60 cm from the curb as I approached the limit line, rather than 50.

I was lectured about the importance of preventing cyclists from entering my blind spot. I don’t know many bicycles
That are less than 60 cm wide.

What I do know, is that in Tokyo or Chiba, many attempting license conversions pass on their first attempt. In Kanagawa, I have heard only anecdotal evidence of such, and it seems doubtful. Futamatagawa’s reputation seems to be well deserved. I may well pass on my third attempt. But if I do, that would still be beating the average.

Having invested ¥32,000 so far – most of that flowing into the coffers of the prefectural police – I’m not giving up yet.

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Coming attractions

October 27, 2009 1 comment

With my work in a transitional phase now, I’m happy to report I’ll have a bit more time to squeeze out some new content. Coming up shortly:

Thursday will see a post on my (hopefully successful) driving exam, and a guide on how to beat the system and pass on your first try.

Sunday will be my visit to Tokyo Motor Show. Look for a two part wrap up, with a feature on concept cars and green technology, and a review of the new models.

Part three of my kei-car series will follow with photos from the show floor, and a summary of new and significant models, as well as some innovative features, and hopefully, some hands on experience with the MiEV and Stella EV.

Also, a poll: As always, I’m looking for your feedback. I’d love heaps of happy repeat visitors, and to be blunt, I have more inclination to write than I actually have time. Just ask my wife! So help me out, and comments are deeply appreciated.

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How Not to Get a License in Japan

September 29, 2009 1 comment

There is, scattered over the web, quite a large amount of information which can assist the resident alien in procuring a Japanese license. From many sources too – I’ve found gems from JET, prefectural governments, JAF (Japan’s FIA affiliated auto federation) and even a few blogs.

Much of it has helped, but it hasn’t saved me from missteps.

There are a startling number of hoops through which one must jump before obtaining that little plastic card. But these are not an obstacle for the organized, thoughtful person.

The obstacle is that nobody has told you what not to do. And thus, an abbreviated list of ways not to get your license:

Don’t be American. Or be from outside Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or Korea. Those blessed few have the luxury of exchanging their license in a straightorward manner. Yanks and the like go through a lot more.

Don’t decide not to buy the book. JAF’s “Rules of the Road” is officially unsanctioned, but in reality, the questions on the “knowledge check” and indeed many of the illustrations come right out of the book. And you’ll need to know them. Just buy it, even if someone said you won’t need it.

Don’t believe it when people tell you the written test is a no-brainer. It is short, but what you may find, depending on the version, that it’s filled with trick questions. The format is true-false, and some questions are written to be as confusing as possible. Which means you doubt yourself on the easy ones. A guide: if it seems reasonable, but involves a specific detail, it MAY be false. If it’s obviously true, it really is true. Don’t overthink anything, and do your research.

Don’t be late. Check the reception hours, and go early: even if you’re on time, they may have already reached the limit of the number of people they’ll take for that day.

Here’s some do’s:

Get your picture taken there while you wait. It’s the same price as at photo booths, and you’ll have plenty of time.

Bring a friend to translate the first time you go. Once you get your application in, it will be more or less smooth sailing, but before they give it to you, you may have to answer some tough questions.

Save your money. Pass the knowledge check on the first time, or you’ll pay the ¥2,400 processing fee again. Tale a weekend driving course there as a walk in, and you may wait, but you’ll get solid instruction for ¥5,000. If you can’t understand some Japanese, look elsewhere – Koyama driving school offers English, but at ten times the price.

Forget everything you know about driving: Ride the lane lines. Turn slowly, accelerate quickly once you’ve completed your turn, brake stongly and deliberately. Don’t use your mirrors: Move your head. Smooth is not the object – you want to show the instructor your thought process. Most important: Be methodical, and keep your hands moving on the wheel.

Since my appointment us due to be rained out by typhoon, it will be a while before I cam say how it wen’t. But don’t be surprised if I tell you I need to drive it twice!

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Just a preview of future delights!

September 27, 2009 Leave a comment

A new beginning, and a return to blogging – with what could hopefully be described as altruistic motives. There is a lot of content forthcoming, and I’m anxious to get cracking!

There are three central aims to the first phase of this blog:

Firstly, to document the process of 外免切替 (gaimen kirikae) or foreign license exchange. This remains for me a work in progress, and your results will vary (greatly). But while I scoured the web and the blogosphere for resources (and found a very few helpful) I’m looking to document the process extensively, with lessons learned and as many insights as I’ve managed to glean.

Secondly, I’m looking to share the ins and outs of buying, owning and maintaining a car in Japan. Having just begun the process, I hope to capture it with all the triumphs and tears, and hopefully share a few insights along the way.

Lastly, expect to begin to see features on what this blog was created for – documenting automotive life and culture in Japan. There will be motorsports coverage, new car reviews, events, recommended drives, motor shows – all the things I’ve been doing for years, but have selfishly kept to myself. Coming soon, expect to see a retrospective on the Japan Grand Prix (and how watching it on TV this year compares to seeing it in person) along with coverage of the Motorsport Festival Odaiba, the Tokyo Motor Show and the opening of Nissan’s swanky new global headquarters.

So watch this space! And if you like what I have to say (or not), want to have your say or have something you’d like to hear about, I’ll see you in the comments.

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