On the Roads

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Yesterday at driving school, we went out on the real roads with our new learner's permits. I expected this to be a brief circle around the school, but it was a gorgeous drive along the coast. We did it three times in three hours and each time was better than the last. 

Learning to drive on the narrow roads in town, where there are pedestrians, garbage trucks, bicycles, no sidewalks, and just enough clearance for two cars is quite an interesting challenge. Not at all like driving in the US. I successfully avoided everyone yesterday and plan to continue that success.

Tod pointed out that in our first session yesterday, we each had a department head instructor at our side. In the subsequent hours, it was regular instructors. The newest drivers get the most seasoned instructors. It makes sense. This school really does know what they are doing.


Going to Driving School

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Whooo! Watch out on the roads; we have our learner's permits now.

Three weeks ago, after a year in the countryside with only bicycles and busses for transportation, Tod & I enrolled at Kamogawa Driving School. Our neighbor, who runs the Korean restaurant, heard we were considering it and insisted that we set a date and she would drive us there. 

So we did and she did and there we were on October 29th, forking over 300,000 yen each for a full driving course. It seems like a small fortune for re-learning a skill we haven't used in almost 20 years, but it turns out to be a very good education. On the same day you hand over the cash, it starts off with a bang! It was a bewildering and unexpected few hours as we had a lengthy but rapid explanation of the program, a psychological driving aptitude test, and our first classroom lesson. 

We decided to dedicate ourselves to doing this as quickly and efficiently as possible. Three weeks in and we've completed the first half of the course and passed our exams for the learner's permit yesterday. We began Stage 2 classes today and go out on the real roads on Tuesday. If we keep up this pace, we should be ready to take our final licensing exam by the end of the year. We are feeling pretty proud of ourselves.

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About the School

If you are considering driving school for yourself, let me tell you a bit about the program and the school because the Kamogawa Driving School website is only in Japanese.  http://kds.tobiiro.jp/

First, Enrolment

It is a little tricky; you can't rock up any old time to register. Be sure to call 04-7092-0894 to book your registration date and time; intake happens three times a week. Plan to spend at least three hours on the day. They will tell you what you need to bring, including an official copy of your juminhyo from the city office so that is an errand you need to make before you go.

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The Program & Schedule

The course of study is divided into two parts: Stage 1 pre-permit and Stage 2 post-permit. Pre-permit is two tracks happening concurrently: 15 hours of driving practice on the school's course and 10 hours of classroom time covering topics from traffic signs to road safety. At the end of the first part you take the internal exams and after you pass, you take the official exams for the learner's permit (kari menkyo).

Stage 2 is again a two-track system with 19 hours of driving on the roads and in simulation, plus 16 hours of classroom time that includes first aid training, car maintenance basics, and lots of information about accidents and insurance.

The whole thing is very Japanese. Bells and chimes announce the start and end of each period and you are not allowed to get up from your desk or out of your car until the bell rings. Each student has a planning book to track progress; in it every class, driving hour, or test is stamped by the teacher. There is also an official record that the school keeps and a booklet of driving tickets. All of these are color coded by course: yellow for MT, pink for AT, green for motorcycles. You choose your schedule a visit or two ahead from a complex calendar of classes, exams, and driving days. Fortunately, you can take the classes in almost any order.

The Teachers & Facilities

I like all of the teachers at the school, a crew of middle-aged men, some of whom have been working at the school for thirty years. One is a graduate of the school and his original teacher recently retired.These guys work really hard and share the burdens of car and classroom teaching plus admin stuff like the shuttle bus schedule and pick-ups. I think I've had them all either in the classroom or in the car by now. Each one brings his own personality - strict, chatty, factual, fanciful, curious, jaded - but they all deliver good instruction. They've even been fixing my bad driving habits.

There are three classrooms at the school, a lounge space, and a couple of special testing rooms, as well as the office. They have a fleet of manual and automatic transmission cars, and exotic stuff like motorcycles and big trucks. One afternoon I shared the course with a huge forklift!

The driving course is a pretty standard layout with a railway crossing, a traffic signal, a hill, tight curve practice, an obstacle with cones around it, and lots of intersections with stop signs, blind spots, and different right-of-way scenarios. I've been around and around it and it hasn't gotten boring yet. 

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The Textbooks, Training, & Exams

There are two main books - theory and driving. The theory book is translated into English so I study the theory in English before class, which makes the Japanese lectures & video materials a lot easier to follow. The teachers always point out the details that are likely to be on the test, so understanding the lectures is key to passing the written exams. 

The driving book is only in Japanese, as is the verbal instruction from the instructors when we're in the car. This is a good challenge for me, sometimes, when the teacher gets deep into some intricacy of practical driving. Thanks to having driven in my distant past, the basics are already in my grasp and I am understanding most of the instruction clearly. A lot of the nuance is directed to passing the practical exams. There is a specific way to get into the car, adjust the seat, and turn your head to look in the mirrors, for example, otherwise you get points off. 

The written exams can be taken in Japanese, of course, or in English (and maybe Chinese and Korean as well). Tod is passing the Japanese ones with no problem; I am sticking to my mother tongue for tests. They are not nearly as awkward as I expected. I had heard horror stories about the rotten translations, but with a few exceptions they're perfectly understandable normal English. In fact, I think the Japanese is just as convoluted - these are meant to be trick questions sometimes.

Kamogawa Driving School is registered with the prefectural police and licensing center, so they can administer all of the official exams excepting the final paper test. For that, you go to the Licensing Center in Makuhari, 90 minutes away.

The Other Students

There are three main groups of students: 18 year olds getting their first driving lessons; elderly drivers taking their mandatory over-70 driving classes; and foreigners. Lots of foreigners! Many foreign ladies, as it turns out, and we gravitate into a loose community. We talk to one another, offering encouragement and even hugs. Women support one another across national boundaries and language barriers. It's good.

My Recommendation

I would recommend the school to anyone with the time and money to do the course. The staff want you to pass the exam and want to keep Kamogawa's roads safe. They work hard for you, and if you put in a good effort you will succeed! 

And if you need a ride to registration, I want to pay forward the boon my neighbor did in kicking us out of complacency and into action, so call me!


OMG, Mould

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This September was the rainiest one on record, which was really bad for our house and all the stuff in it. When we returned after visiting family in the US for a month, our home was completely coated in mould.

The kitchen counter was green. The bedframe was sprouting three dimensional orange mould. The futons went to the dump yesterday and floor cushions were trashed. All of our clothes were musty, the shoes mildewed, leather goods dotted with mould.

For the last ten days Tod & I (and friends helping with supply runs) have been combatting the mess. We've washed every wall, floor, and window with vinegar and tea tree oil or bleach. We tore out and replaced the floor of the bedroom closet. Every dish, pot, pan, appliance, and utensil has been scrubbed, along with all the cabinets they live in. We replaced the wooden spoons, cutting boards, oven mitts, laundry baskets, trivets, and chopsticks. We have washed and dried epic quantities of laundry.

We've been sleeping in the upstairs office/studio because it was only lightly affected. I was able to wipe off the white, powdery mildew form the furniture and vacuum the floors and call it "good enough". It's not stinky or damp up there. When we can get the downstairs bedroom back to a reasonable level of must, we will buy a new futon and bedframe. 

Today, the first truly sunny day since we got back, was devoted to airing out the contents of Tod's closet. I broke three laundry poles this morning. Tod has a lot of clothes. There wasn't enough room to air the winter coats; I am hoping for a another sunny day soon. The sun is fading now and I don't think the clothes are fresh yet...

We still have a fair amount of cleaning, repairing and replacing still to do. I am seriously considering another radical decluttering. I never want to have to wash all this stuff ever again. It's depressing and tedious. If you find my mood sour next time you see me, check for mould in my head.

Chocolate Cake, 1933 style

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"All About Baking", published in 1933, is an excellent primer on baking with lots of lost wisdom about how to prepare pans, to set baking times, and to perfect mixing techniques in the days before electric mixers. Doing this with a hand mixer makes it so very easy. Creaming butter by hand is a good workout I am happy to avoid.

This recipe produces a light crumb with a nice chocolate flavor. I frosted mine with buttercream and topped it with coconut but the recipe suggests a chocolate fudge frosting, which I'm sure would be delicious.

Chocolate Fudge Loaf
2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
2 ounces melted baking chocolate
3/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 325F /160C and prepare an 8x8x2 pan (or two round pans) with butter on the bottom and halfway up the sides, plus baking paper cut to fit the bottom. 

Sift the cake flour once, measure, then add baking powder and salt and sift together three times. In a separate bowl, cream butter thoroughly, add sugar gradually, and cream together until light and fluffy. Beat the egg separately until it is light and foamy, then add to the butter and sugar mixture. Beat well. Add the melted chocolate and blend until the color is even.

Add flour alternately with milk, a small amount at a time. Beat after each addition until smooth. Add vanilla. Spread batter into pan and bake for 1 hour.

Allow the cake to cool a bit, then turn out of pan to finish cooling. Frost with your choice of icing.

8 Streetlights, 12 Spiderwebs

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I love walking in the night. Tokyo made me forget the beauty of darkness, but the countryside has awakened my enjoyment of evening calmness. It isn't pitch black, even on a cloudy, new moon night,  but photos don't capture the dull glow of sky, the faint reflections in the rice fields, or the shy blinking of fireflies. On my way from Satoyama Design Factory to home last night, I watched my feet on the grey paths, observed the diffuse glow of distant windows behind heavy mist, and counted the sparse streetlamps. 


Pel, the cat who likes bread

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I went downstairs to get breakfast this morning and saw the door was open, Pel-style. She'd nested in the closet again and was still snoozing. When I came into the genkan, she didn't bolt the way she usually does. Instead she calmly tried to avoid me while still leaving. Hard to do in the hall, so I stepped into the engawa and she went out the door.

In the kitchen I discovered that she had attacked the baked goods. She savaged the tea towel that was wrapped around the banana bread I baked yesterday and took four evenly spaced bites out of the side. LOL. Also ripped through the wrapping of the baguette and tore it to pieces. So that was my breakfast and dinner plan shot to hell. I can't be angry at her, though.

I cleaned it up and as I walked back down the hall, she started meowing from outside the front door. Loudly meowing before we could see each other. Whoa, new behaviour. We talked for a minute, then I got her a handful of food. I put it in her bowl and she edged closer, but I was still too near. 

I did an experiment. I put a piece of cat food on my hand and reached out. She batted it off my hand with her paw (claws in). So she touched me! I repeated the experiment successfully then went upstairs, leaving the door open and inviting her in, if she wanted.

Which apparently she did want. First she was in the downstairs hall, rattling things around. Then she came upstairs, twice. Only as far as the door, but she saw me in the room. Didn't like it when I noticed her and she skulked back down the green stairs quick-like.

Later she was in the Pel Hotel, a box I set up for her in the sheltered porch. Then she was gone.

So much progress on this wet, windy day. I am sure it all revolves around food but never mind. I am going to imagine that she likes me a little, too.

Changes of Season

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Before we left Tokyo seven months ago, I had a concern about the seasons, of all things. After almost 18 years in the city, I was tuned to the nature there and the procession of plants and weather created a visceral annual timeline for me. If I moved somewhere else, I'd lose my sense of time and it would take years to get it back and, and, and...panic.

And yes, it is true. I have no clue yet about whether I can plan for sunny days this month or what weather is heralded by iris or whether the plums bloomed at the normal time or not. The general brush of the seasons is different here. We're only a couple hours away from Tokyo, but the southern Chiba mountains are a different ecosystem entirely.

I love it. I swear that every day I go out walking, I notice a flower suddenly in bloom everywhere, a caterpillar cruising along, grasses rising up from the verges. There is myriad detail in this parade of nature - so much richer than the city where everything was planted on purpose. Here, layered over what Nature does on her own is what man does with Nature - preparing, planting, maintaining. 

So in this first year of living in the country, I am observing and recording without understanding or anticipating.  Someday, years from now, I'll get it all put together into an internal calendar again. Until then, taking it one day at a time is not as disorienting as I thought it might be.

Accountability April Ends

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It was a mixed bag this month, with some goals me, others ignored and some good observations. I was aware of them and that was good. Here are my charts, which I posted on the fridge, filled in daily and backfilled after I returned from my travels in the US:

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I'm thinking about my goals for next month - I did pretty well on eating veg and not too many cheese toasts, but I really went all out with the sugar  with mutliple chocolate and other sweets every day - so cutting back is going to be one of the May challenges. 

And practicing my skills every day so that I hit each one at least once a week. That is the main thing I need to work on. I hope that a chart to track that will help me achieve it rather than feeling like a nag...

One Day, Two Renovations

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The kitchen floor: after, in progress, and before

Sometimes it pays to pay for help. I had my friend, Masa, come over in his role as handyman to help me out with fixing the kitchen floor today. We did the work in record time and I feel good for ticking this off my list of projects and for helping a neighbor earn a bit of cash.

I did the project planning, which involved not actually repairing anything but covering the sagging floor with fresh plywood and vinyl. It's an inexpensive, temporary fix. I opted not to nail or glue the new boards to the old floor. I know if we stay here more than a year or two, we will properly re-do the rotting floor. Taking up two subfloors would be a real nightmare, so for today I made a jigsaw of boards resting on the old floor and then sort of held it together with glue and vinyl. It's imperfect and a horror to any professional, but it sure does look pretty and the floor feels much more solid that it did this morning. It took us four hours, half of which was driving into town and shopping for the vinyl. Total cost including materials and Masa's time, under 20,000 yen. Win!

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Goodbye, ugly compost bin. You were an eyesore. I hope you have a happy new life with Masa.

As a unexpected bonus, Masa dug up the ugly, creepy compost bin from the middle of the yard. When I mentioned that was on my list of projects to do, he lit up. "Can I have it?" Yes, of course! So with my newly purchased shovel, he dug down 20 centimeters and pulled it out of the ground. The compost inside was a mix of nice dirt, eggshells, and cockroaches (ick). It will be really fine after I dig it into the garden. And now I never have to see that dreadful bright teal plastic bin ever again. I'll make a less obtrusive new compost heap somewhere more useful, like outside the kitchen door.

Next up: amadoi (not amido or amado, which also need attention) - the gutters.

Practice makes perfect, if you do it...

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Today, thanks to a friend's share on Facebook, I read a great article on practice and how simply practicing isn't enough to achieve mastery. I recommend that you read it here: Not All Practice Makes Perfect by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

I found the article to be simultaneously encouraging and discouraging. Their main take away is that practicing with focus and purpose improves your skills sometimes to the point of doing what might seem impossible or has never been done before. That's pretty cool and we see it frequently enough with people who break records in sports or invent new things. Practice and improvement is what brings them to greatness in their field. 

Encouragingly, what they call "purposeful practice" is perfectly possible for anyone who wants to do it. There are three main points explained in the article:

  • Make long term goals and reach them by taking baby steps towards them
  • Get feedback on your practice so you can adjust and correct for improvement
  • Move beyond your comfort zone to challenge yourself
I have done this recently with bicycling. 

When we moved to Chiba, I was petrified to ride a bicycle. Six months later, I find myself cruising along with more power and less fear. My long term goal is to be able to ride all the way to the beach at Kamogawa and back (about 16 km one-way). I'm not there yet, but I have hit a key intermediate goal of riding alone to the market about halfway to the beach. My baby steps included short rides to and from local spots like Satoyama Design Factory and the post office. Tod gave me feedback about how to ride more effectively - focus on cadence, make good use of gearing, and encouraged me to get out and ride to build muscle memory. His feedback helped me to ride to the market with Tod many times. I set and met another small goal when I climbed the biggest hill without having to get off my bike. We took a few rides off the usual route that I considered extra challenges to push me out of my comfort zone. And finally I got myself to the market alone. So now I need to break down the remainder of the ride to the beach into small steps. And after that, I will set a new long term goal - maybe a ride into the mountains. Eventually I expect to become a proficient and even skilled cyclist.

My biking example was done from necessity but it came naturally to create small goals along the way to a bigger one. I find it encouraging to see that this process works. Hurrah!

And here is where the discouraging part comes into play for me.

I do too many things. Thanks to years of experience, I'm adequate or even "pretty good" at many of them. Real mastery and skill, though, requires time. I can't see how I can possibly practice all my activities to a level of being properly skillful in them. There is always SO MUCH to practice, and I have trouble focussing when I do. If I am juggling, shouldn't I be hooping? I love to draw but certainly yoga is better for my health in the long run. Singing brings me pleasure, but wouldn't I be wiser to focus on a skill that could earn me an income? Anyway, because I don't practice anything with commitment and purpose, I have stalled on all of my things at a level that is becoming dissatisfying.

Should I make a decision to drop some of them? To specialise? Frankly, that seems boring. And that is my disappointment and difficulty.  If I stick to a wide range of abilities, I rarely get really good at anything. I have come to terms with that over and over and over through the years. Being a generalist has many benefits. Now that I find myself in close contact with people who have specialised in a craft (all of my incredible neighbors and collaborators), I am feeling inadequate. 

Can I just practice everything more, somehow? Maybe in rotation: Mondays for music, Tuesdays for yoga, Wednesdays for circus, Thursdays for art, Fridays for writing, Saturdays for... Is it possible to be that disciplined? What if I've forgotten something? I used to make jewelry, to cook, to edit video. How do backstage performance arts get practiced? Curriculum development? How do I fit in all the other things that require my attention like gardening or laundry?

Perhaps I need a time machine, extra lives and a clone. Or I could try to lower my standards and develop more patience.

Honestly, I am not sure what solution is going to be easiest to achieve: rigorous practice, impossible technology, or personal growth. Maybe I'll just go have a nap now.

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