If you’re a tourist in want of a taxi in Kyoto, look for a three-leafed clover. All the cabs have them, painted on the lamps on the roofs. On holiday in Japan last month, I found myself looking for the lucky four-leafed car in the fleet. There must be one, I kept thinking, as I did on childhood picnics when we peered into the grass for the four-leafed clover that would bring us good fortune.
The Japanese are superstitious about driving. At the cubbyhole shops by the city shrines you can buy silk good luck tokens. For “Long Life”, “Happy Love”, “Exam Success”, “Good Childbirth,” and, overwhelmingly, for “Safety Driving”. At every temple and raked rock garden I found myself stroking these little silk toggles with embroidered knots. Would this charm bring me the luck of the kami — the Shinto deities that sleep in trees and pools? Would 100 yen in the coin box buy me Zen at the wheel?
The week before I flew to Japan I failed my driving test. I went off on the day with a grimly cheerful “Seventh time lucky.” I’ve done all the luckies. Third time lucky, fourth time lucky, fifth time, sixth, seventh.
The test examiners never say, “You’ve failed.” I’d rather they did. Get it over in one blow. Instead, they say: “That is the end of the driving test, Laura, and I’m sorry to say that you have not been successful on this occasion.” I tell myself every time that I won’t be a wimp. But around about the “I’m sorry to say”, the lip trembles, the nose runs, and there I am sobbing in a Vauxhall Astra in a Banbury car park.
“Drive on when you’re ready, Laura,” say the examiners after they’ve watched you botch a manoeuvre: the parallel park or reverse-around-a-corner. I’ve failed twice on the corner reverse. Up and onto the curb, hands shaking all the while. I’ve also failed on undue caution, undue haste, the reverse bay-park, and driving too slowly around a roundabout.
“Drive on when you’re ready.” And I do. I lick my wounds and pay my £65 for another test.
There’s a parable told by the Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenko about a young archer. He takes two arrows from a quiver, but the master stops him. “A beginner,” says the sage, “should not hold two arrows. You will be careless with the first, knowing you have a second. You must always be determined to hit the target with the single arrow you shoot, and have no thought beyond this.” What would old Kenkō make of my eight arrows?
At Kinkaku-ji — the Golden Pavilion — in Kyoto I bought a charm. I’ve tried practice, application, perseverance, calming breaths in the test centre waiting-room. Now for a prayer to the gods. I didn’t chose “Safety Driving” or “Exam Success”, but a little blue tag which promised “Victory”. It seemed to have the right samurai spirit. My charm is embroidered with arrows.