Akashi is a city almost-to-Kobe if you are coming from the west along the coast of Japan. It boasts a beautiful bridge to Awaji Island, some castle ruins, and its own style of takoyaki.
It is also the home of the driver's license center for Hyogo prefecture. So for some of us, it never mattered what Akashi had to offer. We were going to hate it anyway.
You can't associate a place with a long, painful drive, terrible wastes of time and vacation days, personal failure, and utterly ridiculous rules... without a little resentment.
I went back again on Thursday, to do battle with the beast.
Every time I had to go to Akashi (and take the requisite entire day off work, because it just takes that long), I labeled it on my calendar. My first attempt at the driving test was called "AKASHI - the practical" ... the second attempt was called "the finale" (aren't we hopeful!)... and the third attempt, "the charm" (as in, ", third time is").
I packed lighter for this go than ever before, since I would be carrying it all the whole way, rather than just putting it in the car. I had previously overpacked in a sort of heinous way, taking my heavy computer and all manner of things to do to the center, therefore condemning myself to carry them around on my back through the walk-through part of the course. I was much more judicious. Wallet, yes. Book, yes (but just one paperback). Notebooks, no, dictionary, no, camera, hell no, who wants memories of Akashi?
After managing to choose the wrong rain-fighting option (I really thought the poncho would work on a bike), and managing forget my paperwork (requiring another bike trip back to the apartment after getting off the bus at the post office, to which it traveled all of 50 meters), the morning was off to a splendid start. I roped the Other Georgian into driving me to the train station and at least managed to have nice conversations all the way there while my pants dried in the car.
The rest of the trip was more or less successful, only taking the wrong bus from Akashi station once. I made it to the testing center in the nick of time (according to the clock; the test starts at 12:55.. you can walk the course from 11:45 or so until then. But for some reason you have to be there between 10 and 10:30) and took my place on the seats in front of the endless test video, to read of course. I did watch some of the video and by now was able to decipher some of the information contained therein. They list some of the automatic fails for the test, such as "driving in the wrong lane," "running a stop sign," "collision or near collision with other vehicles on the course," and generally "being all over the road." They might have said something about "not looking at the correct mirrors in the correct order," too. "Not wearing proper shoes" was another part of the video (Jermaine-hostile shoes only!).. I walked the course twice at 11:45, then went in to treat myself to some mediocre (I'm generous) DMV-cafeteria soba noodles.
At test time, I was last in my section of line. This gave me the benefit of not having anyone ride along as passenger for my trial (you can sit in the back and observe the test of the person ahead of you in line). But also meant I had to wait a bit longer before my turn. Although I knew that this time I really had the test in the bag (after spending an hour with my good ol' driving instructor chanting "1, 2, 3, 4" as I checked each of the looking spots in the correct order for each type of turn again and again), I still found myself experiencing that very special brand of anxiety that brings its friend nausea along to hang out. I briefly considered throwing up in the grate drain to one side of the course 'road,' but decided against it.
The first girl received her talking-to inside the car while still in the driver's seat. That means fail. The guy ahead of me drove with such caution and ginger care, but I was worried for him because for all his fearful slowness, he didn't always check the bike spot right before turning, and goodness knows that'll disqualify the shit out of you! In the end, he was "too slow." Yes really. Fail. My turn.
I was passing the hell out of the test, and I knew it; I wasn't even rattled when I saw the lady making notes on the clipboard, even though writing = mistakes, generally. I could afford a few points. Things got dicey in the crank turn, as I reversed three times and was convinced right at the end that I was caught between the curb and a fourth reverse (4 times will disqualify you... one is fine, but two or three just loses you points)... although I made it out of there, I was scared that my point loss in the crank would cripple me right into a failing score. That's basically the end of the test, though, and it's a good thing, because my confidence was slipping.
I pulled carefully up to the finish curb and resignedly pulled the break, put it in park, turned off the car. "Lemmon-san," she began, and I turned my plaintive eyes on her, ready to hear my new set of "advice" about this test.
"Could you get out and come around to this side?" she asked. I blinked. That totally means pass (so long as you exit the car properly-- to see that last bit is why they do it). I exited the car properly and came around so she could tell me I'd passed. Happily returned inside to wait with the only other dude who'd passed that day (he turned out to be a friend of a friend, and resident of Himeji, so how about that?). They brought us upstairs at 2:30 and gave us a piece of paper that said we'd be getting our licenses at about 4:20, after the processing began at 2:40. I shrugged because at least the waiting was worth something now.
The man told us to be there at 3:30 and that we had free time til then. The Other Guy Who Passed pointed out that this suggested they were running almost an hour behind schedule. They had mentioned that they had a "lot of people" that day.. meaning, I guess, first-time drivers who had passed. We didn't have anywhere else to go, so the guy and I sat there for a bit, until another officer-looking man appeared and had us fill out a form. A lecture began to take place in the area right in front of us, but we were ushered into the photo booths along with about ten people who did NOT look like fresh drivers. We then waited another few minutes, paid our fee, and were handed our licenses by 3pm. I guess they rushed us to the front of the process since they were already running behind and would rather deal with us separately than along with the batch of newbies.
Whatever the reason, we were actually released an hour and a half earlier than we normally would have been. I was so happy that by the time we had bussed back to the train station, I felt like making something of this "vacation" day I'd had to take for this, so I parted with my new Himeji test-passin' friend and followed the signs that said "Akashi Castle Ruins."
Because, you know, castle ruins? Are kind of my thing.
Akashi has a gorgeous park. I was sort of sad I had tossed the camera. It had forest paths and ruins and athletic fields and ponds, and lots of kids and old people and dogs, and even one making-out couple (a rarity here). I felt like I kind of came back to myself there, because it was like (and not like) Centennial park in Nashville, and it was also just my kind of thing. At some point, upon hearing the ke-chi-ke-cha of trains at the nearby station, I actually began to sing out loud ("Train in the Distance"). I'd been really anxious and sad since returning to Japan, but being able to get out and explore just a little bit made me remember better why I wanted to come here in the first place, and why I put myself through the silly mess of dealing with Akashi too.
In the stone walls and bike trails and wooden benches, from the top of the castle-not-anymore-a-castle, with a view of the ultramodern looking Awaji bridge, treetops, the train station, ships on the water, and mountains beyond, I found it in my heart to forgive Akashi for our past encounters.