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Feature - A land of paradoxes and reminders

A Whistler writer discovers the people and the customs in the land of the rising sun

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I didn’t share his confidence, it had been years since I wrote my driver’s test and over here even the signs are profoundly different.

We walked up to the counter, armed with my passport and all the proper documents, and after a few moments, the man said he needed proof that I had lived in my own country for the past three months.

I didn’t get it. I thought that something had been missed in the translation. I didn’t see the relation between that and applying for a driver’s license. Besides, my passport was issued at the end of August; this was now the end of November.

Then the chap realized the dates were okay and he shuffled me in for an eye exam and a photograph. "No smiling, Madame."

In half an hour I had my licence – without having written the test. My Japanese friend was most surprised. Apparently several of my American colleagues hadn’t been so fortunate. They were subjected to both the written test and the driver’s test; everyone failed the driving component a couple of times.

The expiry date on my licence is calculated in the Japanese imperial system, which calculates the years from the accession of the present Emperor, with each emperor assigned a special name. Currently we’re in the Heisei era. Official public holidays are dated to the Gregorian calendar that we use in the West, and traditional festivals use the lunar calendar.

Fukui is on the west coast of Japan. We get winter birds and winter weather from Siberia. It’s cold – and the houses aren’t insulated. I take a petrol can to the gas station, have it filled up with kerosene, haul it home, and pour it into a heater with hopes that I haven’t spilled any along the way. I’ve decided it’s a miserable way of keeping warm. I leave my toque and overcoat on until my place warms up.

One day, as I was whining to one of my American colleagues about the inefficiency of keeping warm, in a nation where efficiency is everything, she reminded me that Japan isn’t a nation of natural resources, and kerosene is much cheaper than electricity. I instantly felt quite ignorant about the country I had chosen to live in and it gave me one more reason to appreciate the country I come from.