The Snowflake Quest  a.k.a.  finding a car in Japan

After a year of trudging down the cement streets of Japan, waiting for the crowded, rain sweaty bus, and dashing for a seat on the train, Justin and I decided it was time to try another mode of transportation- the car. In Colorado, driving was one of Justin's greatest pleasures. Nothing gave him (or me) the same feeling as driving down the street with the window down and the radio playing. Once we moved to Japan, we decided to live frugally, and survive on our own two feet- literally. However, we noticed that our walks were getting longer and longer, until we were willing to walk for several hours to get to a new place. The public transportation system is fairly convenient, but expensive. If your destination is off the beaten track, you either have a very long walk ahead of you, or you must take a succession of transport modes and pay accordingly. For example, to go to Costco, we had to walk to the bus, take a long bus ride to a train station, take a ride on the train, and then wait for a 'pocket bus'. The pocket bus is a cute little bus that only goes a few places, but only charges a dollar (100 yen actually) to get there. This is a cheap ride- but, when you tack it onto the other bus ride and train, it suddenly costs quite a lot to go. Also, Justin started fantasizing about long road trips in America, until he was suggesting we fly home and drive halfway across the country for no particular reason. That seemed a little excessive, so we finally decided to get a car in Japan. Recent legislation forced foreign residents to replace an international driver's license with a Japanese license after a year of living here. Thanks to this policy, and the general excess of bureaucracy in Japan, the process of acquiring a Japanese license has been a long, never-ending process that still is in process- but Justin has thrown himself into it whole-heartedly. He has driven his bicycle across the whole of Chiba City from one end to the other, sometimes in the same day, in order to acquire the proper paperwork, translations, permits… The list is endless, and he's still not quite finished. However, a license isn't a very interesting thing without a car to drive.

In one of his school visits, Justin made friends with another English teacher. Initially he found him a little intimidating and taciturn, but he was persistent in trying to strike up a conversation, and so he got to know him a little bit. Specifically, I remember Justin telling me about how this teacher went all the way to Seattle, Washington in order to buy his housing materials because the cost was half that of the materials in Japan. What a clever guy! I thought, and promptly forgot about it. Well, Justin mentioned his car quest to this teacher, and he offered to take Justin car shopping! We had heard of one car up for sale by another Assistant Language Teacher that we were considering, but we weren't quite sure about it. The Shaken was almost up (absurdly expensive car registration that must be renewed every two years- for the minor fee of $2000 or so), the car was a 'k' car- (read, kid sized mini car), and it was a right hand side driver car with a stick shift. Ordinarily Justin is a stick shifting fiend, but when you're adjusting to driving on the left hand side, as well as driving in stop and go traffic, manipulating a stick with your left hand just sounds like one more hassle. Keen as we were to help out another ALT, we were unsure about buying her car, and wanted to look around a bit.

Sunday at 1pm, Justin and I ran out and hopped into this teacher's car to peruse some Japanese cars. First off, we noticed that this guy had 'Car Navi'- a ridiculously sophisticated computer GPS system combined with telephone book, map, traffic reporter and directing goddess. You can type in a phone number, place name, address, or type of shop, and the screen immediately shows you your destination on the map (or a list of possible destinations) and maps out the best possible route to get there. It takes traffic jams into account, so sometimes it will tell you to drive through side streets if it thinks that will be faster. It calls out directions (turn right at this intersection in 13 meters, it's on your left, the road turns to the left, etc. etc.)- of course all in Japanese. Justin loved it!

The first place we stopped at specialized in used Hondas. It had started to rain a little, so Mr. To--- got an enormous pale green umbrella out of his car trunk and insisted on giving it to us. He said his sporty raincoat was all he needed, but I still felt guilty. Luckily, a car salesman came skipping out with a heavy, plaid lot umbrella for him- but then I think he honestly didn't want to carry this thing around, because he shortly gave it to me. Justin looked at the cheapest ones, but he was soon swooning because he found a Honda Civic, the same line as his car at home. Of course, this car looked quite different from his, as it was a small scale boxy black thing.

He got into the car and looked around happily, no doubt envisioning driving down the streets of Japan. Don't you want to test drive it? Asked our friend. Justin shook his head adamantly, and told me he didn't have his International Driver's license with him. 'But why not?' I asked. He just looked at me- 'too much pressure!' I looked out at the congested, rush hour traffic cars going past on the street in front of the car dealership, imagined him sitting behind the wheel for the first time, with his teacher friend, car salesman, and maybe me all in the car with him, trying to turn out into the traffic. The thought was dismaying. It had a little dent in the side, but it was pretty reasonable and the shaken wouldn't be up for a while.

We decided to have them write up a sales paper detailing all the costs. Unfortunately the salesman was trying to woo a sulky looking guy who was considering an expensive sports car, so he wasn't all that interested in helping us. Our friend poked at him, and the salesman finally came and brought us some cold coffee in glasses with coasters and little plastic 'creamer' cups. I opened mine and waited for liquid to gush out- it was a congealed, bubbly solid at the bottom. I twisted and banged it about until it plopped into my cup, where I stirred it into congealed blobs. After some coaxing of the sulky guy and finally poking at his computer, he handed us a printout. Our friend said, ok, please give us a minute (in Japanese) and the guy left us for a minute. Mr. To--- shook his head, and pointed to some charges. 'I hate this' he said. What? We asked. Well, this is Japan, he said, these are 'hidden shop charges' under different names. Well, what is it for? Justin asked. 'I don't know, but I'll ask him about them.' He talked to the salesman for a minute and then said, 'yeah, these are just random charges. I could probably get him to drop this one,' he said, pointing to the paper. Justin and I looked at each other, feeling like small, furry land animals swimming with Japanese car dealership sharks. There was no way we could have done this without our friend's help. We chatted for a few minutes and then headed out into the congested traffic to find another place.

Next we found a used Nissan dealership. 'Where is your cheapest car?' our friend asked the dealership politely in response to their welcome. I was really starting to like his directness. The salesmen were wearing fuscia overall jumpsuits, with elasticized waists- which made me blink a little. They seemed happy to show us to a car, sitting in the back, surrounded by more expensive cars- the lone inexpensive car in the whole place. 'They would really like to sell you this one," he said. This Nisan (a 'Sunny') had extremely low mileage, and when Justin started it, it sounded pretty happy. But, it was also a very unbecoming shade of tan brown, with a mud brown interior, so I didn't really care for it. Also, the Shaken would be up in June, and if Justin and I wanted to drive around Japan our last month or two in Japan (when we'd likely have the most time) we would have to buy shaken and then, it would be expensive. The teacher got really excited though. Such low mileage! He thought this car was pretty nice, and it certainly was in great shape. Even though it was seven years old (old by Japanese standards), he thought it would run for another ten years. We agreed, and Justin said, 'well, if I were going to be here longer than another year, I would get this one, but…' I could tell he was still thinking of the Honda. 'you just like the Civic!' I teased him. 'no…' he said, but smiled. He was.

The next car dealership we stopped at was full of cars with cheap prices… and glamorously festooned with plastic festival decorations. It was also called 'Flex'- where you get to be the boss, or some dumb thing like that. I couldn't help but be skeptical. Our friend said, well… I don't know if we can trust this place, but we'll see. A sleazy guy with bleach red dyed hair came out, with that Japanese 'I wanna be a gangster but am not cool enough' look to him. Mr. To--- asked about cheap cars, and his boss came out, an even sleazier guy with a little beer belly and dyed hair. 'Ohhh, that's a little difficult isn't it,' said the boss man, and started listing full prices of all the so called cheap cars. Mr. To-gave us a look. The listed prices were cheap, but as soon as you add the dealerships heavy fees, they really added up to be more expensive than the nicer cars. Our friend started shaking his head, and saying, well, a little, well--- and we took off. Wow! I thought. Sleazy used car dealerships are a universal phenomenon- who would have thought it, even in squeaky clean, label conscious Japan.

The next place we went to was a Toyota dealership, and they had a plain, cream car, and were pretty straight forward. The sheet write up they did was full of fees, but the guy retracted them almost right away, and the car was actually quite reasonable. It also started up right away when Justin started it. It was a car, it would run, and take us around Japan… but its Shaken was also going to be up in November, giving us another problem. We kept looking. We stopped in one place with lady salesladies- one a hearty, plump lady in overalls, and a younger girl, also in blue overalls. We looked at one car, which was amazingly cheap, but when Justin started it, it shook and hiccupped. We imagined ourselves driving cross country, getting stranded in rural Tohoku- it wasn't an appealing vision. We shook our head, and tried one more car in the lot, but when we turned the key it didn't start at all. 'Oh!! Said our friend, after the car saleslady erupted into conversation, you can't start it.' What? We said, me thinking we were breaking some regulation or something by turning the key. 'There's no battery' he said. 'right….' We looked at each other out of the corner of our eyes. No wonder this car hadn't sold yet. 'Are you really interested' the lady wanted to know. We hesitated… Our friend made lots of 'Gosh, it's so hard to tell without turning it on' noises at the lady and she ran and got a strange battery device with lots of snake like cords and clips to give it a jump start. We started it, and it didn't sound terribly healthy, groaning when Justin accelerated. Clearly there was a reason it was such a bargain- and to top it off, it smelled like every other old, dying car we'd ever been in. Yuck… Visions of being stranded danced in our heads, and we sprinted away from the lot, shouting 'thanks, thanks' over our shoulders.

Next, we stopped at a place proclaiming itself a 'Used Car Gallery'. It looked dreadfully sketchy, but things were cheap. We pulled into the lot, which was very small, and had hardly enough room to walk through. There was an inexpensive Nissan though- and this one was red and shiny, a bluebird or something. Ooh! We thought. You never know. The 'part time worker' came out- and for the first time, I understood a little about the snobbery of Japanese people towards freeters (Part Time Workers). He had short overalls, unbuttoned, with a gold necklace on, and skinny, hairy legs. His face was thin and would have been attractive if it weren't for the absolutely genial shiftiness in it- and his hair was bleach dyed a weird shade between red and blond. He was friendly, at least, but when we asked him questions, he didn't know anything and didn't even have the keys to the cars. Turned out his boss had them- and he was out eating lunch. Mr. To-said to us in an aside 'Ah, so his boss doesn't trust him with the keys'. I almost laughed out loud- it was just such a sketchy place! The guy called his boss, and said that he would come back in fifteen minutes, so we walked around a little. There was also a crummy little boat, and even a water jet-ski for sale there, but I don't know if they would actually have floated if put to the test. There was a scruffy shack in the corner, presumably the office, with junk and lifejackets hanging all over it. As I glanced into the office, I saw an old 1970s style couch and shag carpeting- and a little fluffy brown dog, who popped up to look at me. He looked like he could use a bath. The salesman chuckled a little, seeming embarrassed, and brought us out some cold coffee in mini aluminum tins- vending machine coffee. He said, it's black coffee, is that ok? We said sure and took it, but somehow I imagined that black cold coffee would still be sweetened, right? It wasn't. I choked down a little and tried to smile. We paced around the car and saw against the fence, one feral black cat and her little kitten nested together in a tire. I wondered what happened to the rest of her litter, and tried not to think about it too much.

After a bit, the owner came shuffling around the corner in a big, ugly car, and we all were taken aback when we saw him, this big, burly guy who looked more like a gang boss than anything else. He had a half unbuttoned shirt and jewelry on his neck and big rings on his fingers, and dyed hair- and a little fluffy brown dog with a bright pink bow on its head on a string. It was too much. We said we were interested in checking out the car, but he seemed more interested in settling in the dog- but his lackey got the key purse, which he promptly dumped out on the cement and started rifling through, squatting down on his haunches. We tried not to stare at him, but it was a little strange. He finally found it and handed over a key. Justin put it in the lock, we held our breath as he turned on the car, and it started to shake unhealthily. We were disappointed, but also relieved- not to have to deal with this place to buy our car. We got back in the car and Justin sat there, agonizing over the cars we'd seen. He liked the Honda, but… Our friend said, "Well, let's try one more place, out near the high school. They have inexpensive cars."

So we drove for a while longer, passing rice fields, houses, all kinds of shops I'd never seen before, family restaurant chains, malls- it made me realize how confined we have been, only being able to get around by train, bus or on foot. I was gawking out of the window like a tourist, staring as we turned around every corner. We kept seeing places called 'Gullivers'- which looked like huge, warehouse, clown supply stored- but actually buy used cars and then resell them in other countries. (Or maybe they take used cars, and the owners pay money to get rid of them, I'm not sure). I started getting really excited, realizing how much more freedom we would have with a car. But, which car?

We pulled into the used car place, and it was such a relief after the seedy places we'd been. It looked like it had been converted from an old gas station, because half of the cars were under cover. Out friend said his spiel about us wanting a cheap car, just for a year, etc. The car salesman wasn't as disreputable as some we'd seen today- he looked like one of my fresh faced students with a slight rebellious streak and dyed hair. He smiled and started considering the different cars, pointing out their good and bad features. One looked really promising, and was very reasonable, but it had the seat on the left side instead of the right. Justin thought that would be even harder than a seat on the right and would make paying at toll booths incredibly complicated, so we passed it by.

We looked around, and then all of a sudden, the guy suggested this white, shining vehicle. We'd passed it by because the listed price was higher than our budget- usually the ultimate price is double the listed price, once you take into account fees and registration and shaken. But he said that the listed price was the final price, and we couldn't believe it. It was such a shiny car- a sports car, actually, which we'd never really expected to find. Justin opened its door and it was dark and cool inside. He put in the key and turned it and the engine came alive right away. I got into the passenger side. The stereo looked really fancy, and it had colored bars to show audio levels, and when we looked closer we saw it had a CD player and a MD player. Since we were planning on doing road trips, it suddenly seemed very appealing. Also, most of the cars I'd sat in had that disreputable old car smell, of decaying parts and old plastic seats. But this one smelled nice. Actually, when we opened the little glove box, we could smell women's perfume. Justin and I just looked at each other, picturing the cool Japanese guy that used to drive this car around with his girlfriend next to him. (The car salesman said the car had been bought at an auction, and the previous owner was a guy.) We turned on the stereo and leaned back a little in the comfortable seats, imagining taking this car on a trip through Japan. It seemed too nice for us, but it was actually cheaper than almost all of the cars we'd looked at- and shaken had just been renewed, so that wouldn't be a problem. It's nice! Said our friend… I agreed, standing outside the car, touching the smooth paint. Even the mirrors were pretty. I like this one, I whispered to Justin. We wondered a little about the lower price, but they said it hadn't been in any accidents. When we looked at the engine, we could figure out why it was so cheap- though it was the most powerful engine we'd looked at that day, it wasn't the vrooming powerhouse that you might expect with such a car. No doubt the guy who had it decided to exchange it for something with a big monster engine. We also saw that the battery was in the back, which seemed strange to us, but the salesman said that Nissans sometimes do that to ensure that the car is balanced.

We had a paper written up detailing the costs, and asked about closing hours before leaving. I looked back at the car as we were leaving. Could it be the one? We got into our friend's car. He had a German car- an A===, and when I asked him what other types of cars he'd had, he said, oh, I always buy these cars. He said that when he sells it, he'll get hardly any money out of it, so he wants to keep it forever. I can see why, after all this hassle. We decided to go to a restaurant and compare all the car papers, to try and come to a decision. There was no way we could have done this by ourselves, and even once we buy the car it will take two weeks to get all the paperwork straightened out, so with our vacation plans, we had something of a time crunch.

We went to a 'Japanese family style restaurant' with a Dennys atmosphere- mostly because it had a convenient parking lot. We sat down, and ordered food- I ordered a big bowl of rice with seafood (crab, salmon, fish eggs, shredded egg, shrimp) and pickled ginger on top, with a side of miso soup and cabbage pickles. Justin and Mr. To---- got a set meal, with udon noodles in broth, a bowl of rice with sashimi, and a custard soup, and some fried, battered tempura. There was a big hot water pot at the table, with dark oolong tea. We shuffled through the papers, and Justin asked our friend about charges and differences between them, and then we looked at each other. The Nissan looked better and better. It was the second cheapest car. We hadn't started the Honda engine, we weren't sure how well it ran, but it had a few dings… The Nissan was only a few hundred dollars more, and came with a nice stereo, ran well, and was both comfortable and attractive. We were nodding, and Mr To-tapped the paper. This one? He asked. 'Yes,' we said. After asking us a few questions (when, how much money we could put down) he left the table to call the car dealership. (It's quite rude to make phone calls at restaurants, on the bus, or on the train- there are usually rules against it.) A few minutes later, he came back and made the thumbs up sign to us. 'It's all set!' he said cheerfully. And it only took us 6 hours. We were drained, but excited. It all seemed so unreal.

The next day was Monday. Justin went to work and his co-workers were worried that he was buying a sports car. Oh, don't you need to practice more? They said. We're used to people worrying about our safety, but sometimes it gets old- after all, Justin has been driving for over ten years, it's not like he's a new driver. Recently in the news there has been a scandal about a disturbed 12 year old Japanese boy who attacked a 4 year old with scissors and then pushed him off the top story of a building, killing him. In response, a politician in charge of some committee on juveniles made a public statement that the parents of this boy should be beheaded and dragged through the streets. In his reasoning, someone must be punished, and since the boy is too young to be tried as a criminal, his parents should be punished for his crime. In his next breath, this politician said that the biggest crime problem was posed by juveniles and foreigners. While many people were shocked and horrified by his comments, foreigners are often treated as societal children, which can be frustrating to those of us who have thought of ourselves as adults for years. Newspapers often seem to delight in reporting crimes committed by foreigners, even though they are comparatively rare. It can be discouraging. But through this process, even faced with the mountains of paperwork and some blatant discrimination against foreign drivers, Justin has been determined.

However, on his way home on Monday, Justin was discouraged again. He went to our landlord to sign up for a parking spot, and they told him that the lot behind our house was full, so the only available spot they had was an eight minute walk away from our house. He came home, and we decided to try some comparison shopping. We walked to the lot, but passed all these other parking lots that didn't look full, with other companies. Isn't this the real estate agent across from our apartment? I asked, looking at one for Cox Agency. Yes, said Justin, and we walked back, and went to the real estate agency. We were nervous because real estate agencies can often discriminate against foreigners, but the older man there was surprisingly polite when he understood what we wanted. Unfortunately, he didn't have any nearby parking lots with available spots. We were heartened by our successful communication, so we went to all the agencies in the area. One place in particular was very helpful and friendly, and their lot was actually a little cheaper than the one we'd been offered, and only 3 minutes away. But, it's down the hill from our apartment, and might be difficult to get the car to, given the traffic on our road. Today Justin will leave work at lunch, sign up for a parking space (necessary because you must prove to the police that you have a spot for your car, and register the car and its parking spot with them - which of course costs money), and later, meet up with Mr. To-to take one last look at the car and sign the papers.

In my exuberance over our car, I decided it needed a name- and since it's such a glistening white color, and has a pointed tail fin, I thought Snowflake might work. Justin says I must be excited, since I named it before we even got it home… I think he's right. I'm not sorry we waited so long to get a car, but I think we're ready to feel more independent and really get to see Japan away from the railway stations and bus stops. There's a lot out there, waiting for us. I'm looking forward for seeing it, with Justin… and Snowflake.


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