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Sunday, Aug. 5, 2001

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

When love breaks down


Yes -- I was beachball-eyed with love.

In fact, when we first met, I couldn't take my eyes off her. So I pledged my devotion and we traveled everywhere together, merrily rolling over the hills and valleys of life. Rarely have I been so happy.

Then -- slowly -- the years took their toll. She began to age. She lost some of the pep of her younger days. She lost some beauty too. She remained steadfast and responded eagerly to my every request, yet . . . I couldn't help it. My eyes began to wander.

Then she began to list some minor aches and pains. A persistent cough in the morning. A stiffness in her movements. Nothing too serious, but . . . I felt our once-close relationship had reached its limits. Better to end it now while she still had the looks to catch another man. So I did what I thought I would never do.

I dumped her.

That's right. I said, "Sayonara" . . . to my car.

Yet I have not flirted with newer models. Instead, I have remained auto-less, just another plodding pedestrian in Japan's commuter hell.

That I have lived without a car for five years pushes my U.S. family into mental somersaults. Like many Americans, they tie cars to personal freedom, picturing themselves as modern day cowboys astride Saturns and Windstars instead of ponies and quarterhorses.

If they're not inside a building, they're inside a car. Anyone who lives otherwise, they feel, needs to have their gears checked.

"What do you do," a sister asks, her eyes big with wonder, "When you have to go grocery shopping? Do you have a friend drive you or what?"

"No . . . ." I brake into my answer as I watch her suspense increasing. "I . . . simply . . . walk."

"Arrgh!" Her tongue flops out and her eyes roll like panels on a slot machine -- as if her head was roped to a blackboard being fingernailed by Catwoman.

"The store's not so far. Only six minutes."

"Arrgh!" She starts to slobber.

"Of course when it rains, I use an umbrella."

"Arrgh!"

This last revelation about life sans wheels is too much for her. Her head droops and the slots come up -- What else? -- lemons.

Twenty years ago, when I first arrived in Japan, my sister's attitude would have been my own. How was I to live without a car? I felt my entire life had been jammed on idle.

Then I spied my first Japanese streets -- busy with autos, scooters, and bicycles, every vehicle bustling the wrong way (on the left side!) often down two-lane roads not much wider than double beds, hemmed by open gutters and walls on both sides -- and I thought:

Hmm. Maybe I can live without a car.

But by now Fate had her evil eye on me. I ended up in Kumamoto, where the shortest distance between two points proved to be a curlicue -- one that was best traversed in a car.

My baptism into Japanese traffic was brutal. I spent more time in gutters than a bowling ball. I slipped off ribbon-like roads straight into rice paddies. I stalled my car in places so vital for local commerce that every vehicle in Kyushu has honked at me once.

Yet, I adapted. And soon the stop-go scooting about changed from a horror show back into a Wild West romp. I was a cowpoke again, atop my Toyopet, yahooing to adventure through the roads and alleyways of Kumamoto. Driving became a gas.

The Toyopet passed on, and I fell in love with a diamond blue Nissan.

When I moved to Tokyo there was no question whether I would bring my darling car. Why get Vegematicked into a train each day, when I could drive to work? After all, didn't a car guarantee:

1. I would get a seat each day?

2. I could stretch without clubbing my neighbor in the jaw?

3. I could ride the whole way without having to inhale someone's breakfast breath?

4. I could crank my music till the road began to bounce?

So my very first Tokyo morning I hopped in the saddle and drove the 58 km to work . . .

Taking me only two and a half hours to arrive.

Tokyo streets grow traffic lights like weeds. This wasn't driving; it was block-by-block property appraisal -- with every block looking exactly the same.

So in no time at all I was weaned off the roads. My dear car spent her days snoozing in a parking space, only being roused for weekend jaunts out to a restaurant or a store.

The lack of action seemed to wear her down and she struggled to perform. I felt sorry for the old gal.

Till I got the bill for the biennial auto check. Then I felt sorry for me -- paying so much for a luxury I hardly used.

Hence, I made the full leap: from tires to feet, from road to rails, from stick shift to commuter strap.

Sure -- at times I miss it. Sometimes, as I mount a staircase rivered with hot, sluggish pedestrians, I sigh and hunger keenly for my old car. Not so much to drive, as just to lay on the horn and scare the beans out of people.

"The city is no place for an automobile," my wife will lecture. "Besides, your car was over the hill. You were smart to get rid of it."

Then she coughs. Our eyes meet in an awkward silence that she rushes to break.

"Just don't," she toots, "let it give you any ideas."



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