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Japan Primer for the Mac Techno-Tourist

by Todd Ogasawara
05/27/2005

I'll guess that one of the most widely held stereotypes among western tech geeks (and if you have visited the O'Reilly Network website more than once on purpose, you are a tech geek) is that Japan is as close to Gadget Heaven as can be imagined. I was torn away from my brand new Apple Mac mini just days after receiving it (see the article Mac Mini Eye for the Linux-Windows Guy) to go Japan on a family vacation.

I didn't plan for a Mac-centric vacation, but the Mac mini I left behind crossed my mind more than a few times as I pondered the dichotomy of a culture of ancient traditions and neo-tech culture that seems to define Japan for many of us in the West (see Figures 1 and 2 below). I ended up looking for Mac things in Japan without having fully prepared for the task before the trip. This article emerged from my desire to help out other Mac tech geeks who find themselves in Japan wanting to take something back home for your Mac.

Disclaimer: If you note my surname (Ogasawara) and look at me (Figure 3), you might guess that I could speak, understand, and read the Japanese language. Unfortunately, you'd be wrong. This was also only my second trip to Japan and the first time I stayed more than 18 hours. So, the lessons learned are from a typical western tech geek in Japan. I'm not an expert on tech geekdom in Japan or international travel in particular. I hope other people who have tech-geek-relevant knowledge about Japan will share it here in this article's comments section. So, that said, let me tell you what I wish I had known before leaving the shores of the U.S. for the shores of Japan. I hope the observations of this novice Japan visitor resonate and help those of you heading to Japan in the near future.

Kiyomizu Temple gate near Kyoto, Japan Figure 1. Kiyomizu Temple gate near Kyoto, Japan.
Figure 2. A few mobile phone choices in Tokyo, Japan. Figure 2. A few mobile phone choices in Tokyo, Japan.

Powering and Charging Your Gadgets

Unlike other people (non-tech geeks), one of the most important travel-planning checkboxes is to make sure that every single gadget taken has some kind of power cable or battery charger. This means checking on outlet prong type, alternating current (AC) frequency, and voltage. The areas of Japan I visited had sockets for two flat blades like the ungrounded outlets we have in the United States. Since none of the outlets had the third grounding round prong we usually see in the U.S., the power strip I carry with me on trips did not fit any of the outlets in Japan. I carried a multi-nation socket converter, but for some reason, it could not deal with the three prong to two blade conversion. Fortunately, all of the electronic gear I carried (notebook PC, Pocket PC, three digital cameras, and a couple of AA/AAA battery chargers for the two MP3 players) worked with both U.S. electrical requirements (60 cycles and 120 volts) as well as the 50 cycles 100 volts I found in Kyoto and Tokyo. So, I never had to use the power converters I took to Japan. The only challenge was finding enough outlets to charge several gadgets or battery pairs simultaneously.

Figure 3. Todd and daughter in Japan. Figure 3. Todd and daughter in Japan.

Mobile Phones, Broadband, & Wi-Fi Hotspots

The next travel consideration that comes to this geek's mind is mobile phone service. This, it turns out, is more problematic than electrical power. The odds are that CDMA or GSM phones will not work in Japan for a variety of reasons. The list below provides information about international roaming and rentals from some of the larger U.S. based mobile phone carriers.

You can also check with your airline to learn if they offer a mobile phone rental service. As an example, the link below takes you to Japan Airlines' phone rental service site.

There are also independent firms that provide mobile phone rental services in Japan that you can consider. One of the firms I found on the web is:

Caveat: I did not try any of these mobile phone options. I spent the entire week there mobile-phone-less.

I did not have in-room wired or wireless broadband access in the three hotels I stayed in Kyoto, Hakone, and Tokyo. I blogged about this experience and got interesting and useful feedback from O'Reilly Network readers. You can find the blog entry and comments in: No broadband in Japan hotels, a glimpse of the future for the U.S.?

People and Language

Japan is approximately 94.5 percent the size of California. But, it has 3.6 times more people (127 million in Japan compared to 35.5 million in California). That's a lot of people packed onto the islands of Japan. The street scene in Figure 4 (below) is pretty typical of what I saw in the places I visited.

Figure 4. Ameyoko shopping district. Figure 4. Ameyoko shopping district.

As you might guess, if you don't speak or read the Japanese language, it is a little more difficult to do things in Japan. Fortunately, however, you can often find someone working in a store or even just standing nearby who can understand English and is willing to help you. The stories I heard from other travelers to Japan were uniformly ones of how helpful ordinary strangers were in helping them when shopping or traveling.

Getting Around

The easiest, and probably fastest, way to get travel within and between cities are the rail systems. The JR (Japan Rail) includes local rail transport as well as the famous Shinkanesn (Bullet Trains). In Tokyo, the Tokyo Metro subway offer another rail option.

The Metro subway announcements are made in both Japanese and English. The JR train announcements are only in Japanese. However, there were LED displays that alternated text in Japanese and English. One possible issue is that you might not be able to see or hear stop announcements when it is very crowded in the subway or train car. Speaking of crowds, you will often see uniformed men with white gloves at rail stops. Their job is to push people into the trains to keep the crowds moving and the trains on time.

The wall maps in rail stations sometimes have labels in both Japanese and English. However, some of these maps only the major stops have labels in both languages while minor stops have labels only in Japanese. If you have a Palm OS based PDA, Microsoft Windows Mobile based Pocket PC or Smartphone, Sony Ericsson P800 or P900, or Nokia Series 60 phone, I recommend downloading and trying Métro: The ultimate public transport guide for your PDA or Smartphone by Patrice Bernard & Frank Van Caenegem before you leave for Japan. This free mobile application provides maps and directions for over 300 cities worldwide.

Useful Tip: Ask the hotel desk clerk or concierge for a Hotel Card before wandering out of the hotel on your own. These cards have information about the hotel in both English and Japanese and can help you explain to someone where you are trying to return to.

Food and Beverage

Tech geeks everywhere live on soft drinks, snacks, and fast food. If this describes you, you will love snacking and sipping your way through Japan. Nearly every kind of food can be found in vending machines throughout the country (see Figure 5 below). I was amazed at the variety of carbonated drinks, hot drinks, juices, sports drinks, and solid food available from these vending machines.

Figure 5. Vending machines galore! Figure 5. Vending machines galore!

But, please don't let these vending machines distract you from the wonderful eating establishments of all sizes and prices in Japan!

Trash

Curiously, there are very few public trash bins on city streets, shopping areas, and other public places. When you find trash bins, there are often multiple bins labeled for recycling glass, paper, and plastic. I found myself carrying empty plastic shopping bags to store empty soft drink bottles, wrappers, and other trash that you create during the day.

Toilets

This may be a somewhat sensitive subject. But, since it is something everyone has to use sometime while in Japan, let's broach the subject of toilet facilities in public areas. The traditional Japanese toilet has no seat. One simply squats over it. Some people adjust to it. Some don't. If you cannot adjust to Japanese toilet, you will need to seek out what the Japanese call western style toilets in public restroom facilities. While all three hotels I stayed at had western style toilets in the guest rooms, these sit-down style toilets can be hard to find or unavailable in some public restrooms. However, when you do find a western style toilets, they are often what can only be called high tech toilets. Figure 6 below shows the controls on a typical western toilet.

Figure 6. A techno western style toilet in Japan. Figure 6. A techno western style toilet in Japan.

The Japan Times has an amusing commentary on the Japanese view of western toilets in this article: Put on your Nike shoes and 'just squat'.

Public restrooms rarely have paper towels to dry your hands. Most restrooms, however, have wonderful motion detecting hand blowers that stream air (usually cold) across your downward pointing hands. I also noticed many people carrying handkerchiefs that they used to pat off the small amount of moisture that the hand blowers might have missed.

Shopping

Shopping in Japan is an amazing experience. The attention to detail and customer service is beyond anything I've seen and experienced anywhere else. The store display of slippers in Figure 7 gives a small hint of the kind of attention given to shoppers and their shopping experience.

Figure 7. Slippers displayed at the front of a store. Figure 7. Slippers displayed at the front of a store.

Akihabara: Electric Town

Unfortunately, I did not plan on making an Apple Mac tour during my vacation time in Tokyo. So, I didn't get to visit the Apple Store Ginza though I later learned it was a tantalizing 8-minute walk away from the JR Line Yurakucho Station where I caught a train back to the hotel after dinner with friends.

But, no tech geek should visit Tokyo without taking the time to go to Akihabara. This Electric Town is comprised of several large cities blocks with hundreds of stores that sell electronics of all kinds. It is probably one of the most watched electronic spots in the world. It even has a couple of news blogs devoted to it.

I was fortunate to have a new friend from Open Source Japan accompany me to Akihabara and guide me through the maze of stores and, often, the many specialty floors within a store. Being a frustrated closet musician, I gravitated to decidedly non-QWERTY keyboards that might work with my new Mac mini (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Music keyboards on an Apple specialty store floor Figure 8. Music keyboards on an Apple specialty store floor.

Tip: It is tempting to buy many of the amazing items you see in Akihabara. However, here are a couple of things to keep in mind before buying some Akihabara widget.

  • Can you read the instructions in Japanese?

  • How do you know it works with your Mac?

  • How are you going to pack it and get it back home?

  • What will you do if it malfunctions and requires warranty maintenance?

The allure of the electronic gadgets in Akihabara comes mostly from their uniqueness. They have products there that you simply can't find in your local U.S. based stores. However, the another incentive to buy can come from lower prices even after going through currency exchange. Low price is not always the case, however. So, take the time to figure out currency exchange rates for items you might buy that are also available in your hometown.

Tip: Some stores in Akihabara are Duty Free shops where visiting foreigners can buy items duty free. You need to carry your passport with you to shop duty free. And, there is a minimum $100 (U.S.D) purchase requirement.

Figure 9. Mac minis in Akihabara. Figure 9. Mac minis in Akihabara.

I only bought a few gadgets from Akihabara that I needed for my new Mac mini setup (Figure 10) that were reasonably priced and easy to carry back home.

Figure 10. Electronic goodies from Akihabara for my Mac mini. Figure 10. Electronic goodies from Akihabara for my Mac mini.

Tip: If you cannot read Japanese, write a brief description of the item(s) you buy on the receipt right after the purchase. This may make things easier when declaring items on the custom form when returning to the U.S.

Final Thoughts

A little pre-travel preparation can make the tech geek part of your Japan visit a lot more fun and productive. I wish, for example, that I had allowed for some time to visit the Ginza Apple Store in Tokyo. However, even my mostly unplanned little tech geek excursions were great experiences. I even noticed a storefront displaying the old original rainbow-colored Apple logo(Figure 11).

Figure 11. An unidentified Tokyo store with the original Apple logo displayed. Figure 11. An unidentified Tokyo store with the original Apple logo displayed.

What would an article about visiting Japan in the Spring be without a gratuitous photo of cherry blossoms blooming. So, here is mine in Figure 12 (or more accurately, a photo my daughter took with her digital camera in Tokyo).

Figure 12. Cherry blossoms in Tokyo, Japan. Figure 12. Cherry blossoms in Tokyo, Japan.

Where to Find More Information & News About Japan

Todd Ogasawara is the editor of MobileAppsToday.com. He has been named a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) in the Mobile Devices category for the past several years. You can find his personal website focusing on Mobile Device Technology at www.mobileviews.com.


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