Home > Focus on Japan 2003 > More Things I Like About Japan

More Things I Like About Japan

October 12th, 2003

I first came to live and work in Japan since 1985. Since then, there have been a slew of improvements for foreigners looking for a touch of home. A few:

International Telephone Calls. KDD used to have the monopoly on that market, and rates used to be ludicrously high, especially calling from Japan to America. I remember that I used to have to call my parents through the international operator, calling collect. I would give the operator our family’s cat’s name, and tell her I was trying to reach someone with our dog’s name at my parents’ number. When my dad got the message that our cat was trying to make a collect call to our dog, he knew it was me saying, “call me now.” He would then refuse the call and give a coded answer as to when he would get back to me, which the operator passed back to me.

Even then, we’d have to keep our conversations short, else dad would get charged $50 a pop or more. Now we use a lot cheaper services, and we may even start using Messenger’s audio linkup (or iChat) soon, making the conversations completely free.

Internet Access. This really wasn’t even on the radar screen in 1985, and it was depressingly poor in Japan up until just a few years ago. But then it took a quantum leap, just as America’s service started to falter. Two or three years ago, I was still forced to use ISDN (max speed, less than 64 Kbps), and had to covet my folks’ 300 Kbps ADSL connection in the San Francisco Bay Area when I visited them at Christmas time. Now, my dad is paying more than before for a crummy half megabit, while in Japan, DSL speed is now up to 26 Mbps for just about $30 a month, and if your building can accept the cable, 100 Mbps fiber optic can be had for about $70 a month–what my dad pays for his now-slower ADSL.

Unfortunately, I live more than 2 km from the telephone station, so my 12 Mbps ADSL is really only about 2 Mbps. But at my college, our LAN has a dedicated fiber optic connection, and man, that thing is blazing fast. The main thing limiting it is that almost no one else has a line that fast. But I have gotten download speeds as fast as a few megabytes per second from big sites, like Apple.com. Sweet.

English-Language Media, for that matter. I remember when it was hard to get any English-language books, magazines or newspapers–you had to get them through Kinokuniya for outrageous prices, else have them shipped from the states (I usually bought them on my trips back home). And on TV, all we got was the Wednesday night bilingual (like the SAP deal in the U.S.) movie, usually something stupid like Death Wish 3, and we were grateful for it. This is not one of those I-used-to-walk-ten-miles-in-the-snow stories, I really mean it, I watched that garbage, and so did most of my foreign friends, because that was about it on TV. There was the video rental place, and you can bet we used it.

Now, we have cable TV with CNN and options like Super Channel. There is Amazon.com, and Amazon.co.jp, and of course, there’s the Internet for all kinds of media. A lot nicer. It does make a difference.

Cheaper and More Available Foreign Foods. First we got the Foreign Buyer’s Club in Kobe, which has, for a long time, been a good place to get imported foods. They still will deliver to your door for a 1000 yen flat fee, even if you order 20 cases of Diet Caffeine-Free Coke. Where else can you get sunflower seeds in the shell? Or a ton of other stuff, for that matter.

And now, Costco is making a big entry, with four stores in Japan now (Fukuoka, Chiba, West Tokyo, and Hyogo) and growing–they say 50 stores in the next decade or so may open. Next: maybe Saitama. It’s a godsend for me, with the West Tokyo store opening a year ago just a few stops away from me on my train line. just went there today, getting some bagels (real ones, not the kind you usually find in Japan) and whipped cream cheese, four-cheese ravioli, microwave butter popcorn, a bag of cheap lemons, a big net of garlic cloves, five rotisserie chicken legs and thighs (fresh baked) and some other nice stuff. There’s a 4,000 yen yearly membership fee, but for what you get at the prices they have, you can’t beat it.

And even local stores have a lot more imported stuff, a lot different from the protectionist 80’s when an imported can of beer–when you could find it–cost almost twice what it does now. A lot of foods, snacks and other groceries you can get which you couldn’t before.

Plane Tickets. I remember the shock of calling a travel agency and being told that my round-trip ticket to California and back would cost about US$2,000. Sure, you could get cheaper tickets, but not by much. Many of you who were here in those days will remember the old “yobiyose” tickets. Essentially, they were three-leg plane tickets bought overseas and then sent to people in Japan. For example, the ticket would go from Hong Kong to Tokyo, then to San Francisco, and then back to Tokyo. The buyer in Tokyo would just toss out the first leg and use the second two. And still the ticket would be a lot cheaper than one bought in Japan. Others would just buy one-year open-ended tickets in their home country, and just make sure they went back every year, buying a new ticket each time.

Somewhere along the line, the pricing system changed, and now it’s a lot cheaper–perhaps even cheaper coming from Japan. I just got a round-trip, non-stop ticket for my Christmas visit home to the S.F. Bay Area for 47,000 yen (plus about 10,000 yen for airport, airline and sales taxes). That’s $430, or $520 with taxes–not too shabby.

All of this makes life quite a bit easier in Japan–a nice place to be, all on its own.

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  1. October 13th, 2003 at 18:00 | #1

    Do you buy your plane tickets from HIS, or do you have a better source? I’m thinking about flying home for Thanksgiving, and looking for the best deal I can find.

  2. Ben
    March 23rd, 2004 at 13:52 | #2

    I’m in Japan, and I’m trying to figure out how to make a collect call to the USA (I have to contact the IRS and some other institutions to “take care of business.” I have my own cell phone… how can I reach the international operator from it?


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