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Sunday, July 25th, 2004
12:37 pm
Settled in
Well, for better or worse, I had no Internet access at home while I was settling in here over the past two weeks, so you've been spared some of the exact details of the process.

It's now late in the morning on the Sunday of my second weekend here.  Arriving when we did in the first week was actually not bad in the sense that we had a 3-day week followed by a 3-day weekend, and then 4 days of work this week past.  Last Monday was a holiday called Ocean Day.  Unfortunately I don't have details on special Ocean Day celebrations, unless the fireworks last Sunday were in honour of it.

Trying to recap the past couple of weeks:

My work situation is much improved.  My computer finally has just about all the applications it needs on it.  This took a while... it was only on Friday that I got Word and Excel, and earlier in the week that I got Lotus Notes which is used for internal email and for project message boards. 

We have had a few meetings which have covered our project schedule, progress, and on Friday a more technical meeting with Taga which was helpful at fleshing out the overall layout of the project.  I've been confirmed as "main programmer" with Ian Wong as sort of co-main-programmer because he has more graphics programming experience than I do.  As main programmer I'm responsible for keeping track of how people are doing, reviewing everyone's progress report sheets, and balancing out workloads.  We are going to have progress meetings every Wedneday afternoon in which we give condensed reports to Mr. Tomoike about our progress.  Each day we also have to note our progress on a sheet for the week, and at the end of the week write our plan for the following week and what we expect to be working on each day of that week.  It's far more bureaucratic than anything I'm used to, but I can see how it may be helpful for keeping on track.

I'm also reponsible for managing 2 programmers at Koei Canada in Toronto and finding them work to do.  This is going to be more difficult because of the 13 hour time difference between us.  Anything so much as a phone call is going to require someone there to stay late or for me to go to work early. 

I have not done much during my evenings during the week - generally getting some dinner near the station, and then going to my apartment.  Initially I was sleeping from around 10:30 until 5:30.  In part because there is no daylight savings time in Japan, sunrise is at about 4:30 in the morning.  So I would wake up when the light got sufficiently bright.  Now, whether it's because I have a sleep deficiency or have adjusted to sleeping in some light, I can sleep in later than that.

I should note that part of the reason for waking up so early is that the bedroom curtains are orange-and-white with a thin white second curtain behind them.  In any case, they aren't good at blocking out any light.  Yet... the actual windows are translucent glass, so that if I actually want to look out, I have to open the window.

Until Thursday of this week, my fridge was in fact broken.  This was really inconvenient, since I couldn't keep much food around.  That ended up being some cups of instant noodles, and fixings for peanut butter and jam sandwiches which I kept in my room.  Even after turning off the air conditioning on my way to work, the room does stay fairly cool through the day.  In any case, I got my new fridge (and my high speed modem) on Thursday evening.  However, for some reason unknown to me, I was given a fridge that must be twice as large as the one that was in the room previously!  This is great, but I had to put it in the storeroom and plug it in using one of my extension cords, because there is no room for it anywhere else.

On to the more interesting things that I've done:

Last weekend started on the Friday night by going to a sushi restaurant next to work.  This was actually my first time having real sashimi (raw fish, yes).  Overall it was pretty good, although some things I liked more than others.  Apparently the whole team (including Tomoike and Taga) is going to the same restaurant on Monday night for a company-paid drinking party.  Bring on the sake!

Then on the Saturday I took my copy of Trails of Two Cities (a book of walking tours of Yokohama, Kamakura, and vicinity) and walked all around downtown Yokohama.  By the end of the day, I certainly felt like I had walked my feet off.  Overall I liked the first part of my walk more, which went past the Yokohama Maritime Museum (with a tall ship you can visit), the gigantic Landmark Tower (a 70 story office tower with a restaurant and gallery you can visit, for a price, at the top) and the Yokohama Art Gallery.  There was also a park - small by Canadian standards - with a great view of the Bay Bridge.  The latter part of my walk was more historical in an area that is more built up, but the author of Trails was evidently much more interested in architectural styles than I am.  Still, Yamashita Park and the Yokohama New Grand Hotel (built in the 20s or 30s) are pretty nice, and I found better maps at a tourist information centre.

The next day Brian took me on a shopping trip that reinforced the notion that men are still boys - we went shopping for toys.  In this case we went in to the west part of Tokyo, which requires taking the local train all the way to the end at Shibuya, transferring to a train line which makes a great loop around Tokyo, and then transferring again to a line which heads west.  It was a good trip from the point of view of raising my awareness of how the trains are laid out in Tokyo.  The toy store is one of a chain called "Mandarake" - there's a big one in Shibuya and where we went to (Nagato or Nagano?) it is in fact split up into MANY small stores within a mall.  A great part of the toys for sale were figures of various sorts from anime series here in Japan.  But there was one little "store" that specialized in antique toys, one which sold old postcards (etc) from old TV shows, like the British series the Avengers, and so on.  I ended up walking out with two posable figures from my favourite Japanese anime series, a classic one called "Lupin". It's basically inspired by old 1960s caper films like "To Catch a Thief", and in fact started in the late 60s or early 70s.  Lupin is a sort of gentleman thief, generally trying to do the right thing while also wanting to get rich, who is pursued all over the world by the tireless Inspector Zenigata.  These are now at my desk at work and I was glad to have something to personalize my space a bit.

Anyhow, after the shopping trip we headed to downtown Yokohama to try to see some fireworks that were going off in the bay.  Ian had been in Yamashita Park since about 4 in the afternoon reserving a place to sit, which was smart as the crowds were incredibly large.  Everyone had fans because the evening was so hot - some people have very nice fans, but fans are also handed out for free from some stores as an advertising gimmick.  I thought the fireworks were really good, with some types that I've never seen before - the most unusual type were "floaters" that were either green with a bit of red at the top, or vice versa, and which would form a vertical line that would very slowly drift down towards the ground.  They'd stay up long enough for quite a few more fireworks to exploded in the meantime.

That Monday was a day off, but by that point I was tired of walking around and spent most of the day in my room, reading a novel and learning some Hiragana and Katakana.  It is worth mentioning how difficult it can be to understand people here - many people talk very quickly - and how little I can actually read.  I am getting better, but one night after work in the first week I went shopping for a sheet and it took me a while to confirm that what I had in hand was in fact a sheet and the sheet that I wanted, since the label was written in Katakana with no picture of the product.  But in general I am managing.

Yesterday (Saturday) there was a plan for a group of us from work to go to a beach at Kamakura where another (Japanese) fellow at work said there would be "5-10 pretty Japanese girls who are interested in Western guys".  However that number apparently dropped and then he all of a sudden had to help his cousin move apartments.  So that stopped the plan in its tracks.  The others ended up going rock climbing, while I had decided beforehand not to go to the beach since my boxes still hadn't arrived, so I didn't even have my bathing suit.  Instead, I did some online research and then went to downtown Yokohama and after wandering in the wrong direction got directions which led me to a store called Bic Camera, where I bought a digital camera.  So, expect some pictures pretty soon!

I had planned to then head further downtown to take some pictures but I realized that this would be difficult with the camera's language set to Japanese.  So I came home, ran into Ian who knew how to set the camera's language to Japanese, and was then able to download ALL of the camera's manuals in English from the Canon website.  Thank goodness for the Internet!

I also received my boxes from Canada yesterday morning, and unpacked almost everything in the afternoon. 

In the evening I headed down to Tokyo for some swing dancing.  This was in a basement bar called Sleepers' Cafe.  It was an expensive night - but club entry fees are always expensive in Japan.  And it was a LOT of fun.  I talked a bit with a couple of ex-pats from the States who have been here 8-10 years, introduced myself to people and talked with a bit of Japanese and a bit of English, and did quite a lot of dancing.  There was a live band named Tessing and the Sunroad Hoppers who were really great.  The only drawback was that, of course, this being Japan, smoking was allowed in the bar, and I went home with a headache which I'd attribute to the smoke.  I'm expecting the same on Tuesday night when a ragtime band is going to playing at a British-style pub called What The Dickens.  However it is apparently a nice place to hang out, with imported British and Irish beer, so I should be fun for getting to know people better and maybe do a little dancing.
Wednesday, July 14th, 2004
8:00 pm
The First Day of Work
I guess it's not surprising that I have a great deal that I could write about after my first day of work in Japan.  Unfortunately I would like to polish my woefully inadequate Japanese and take a quick shower before going to bed, so I will have to keep this short and hit only the salient points.

Brian and I met this morning with Ian, another Canadian programmer, and went to work.  We got a tour of the office from the fellow in Human Resources who met us at the train station yesterday – unfortunately I STILL cannot remember his name.  It's big and of course confusing at the moment.  Later on in the day we left the stairs and went into our room only to discover we were on the wrong floor (and in the wrong room)!

One of the most important things that happened today was meeting Tomoike-bucho, our boss (in charge of Software Section 4) and some other people who are on our team.  I show my continued inability with names by not being able to remember the name of the Japanese fellow – Tagada, I think? [ed: Taga] - who is on our team as a sort of consultant.  There's also a German named Mani who has been in Japan for seven years.  In our actual project meeting with Tomoike-bucho he acted as translator because Tomoike-bucho doesn't speak English.  Neither does Taga.

I'm not sure how much I can actually say about my work, but it should be safe to say that it's a port of an existing title to the PC.  Koei's goal is to build up the office in Canada and they want to make sure that people feel a part of a team.  They also feel that good work does not necessarily require a group of hot-shot programmers since it's possible that there'll be ego collisions in such a situation.  Anyhow, that's why we have Brian, the two Mikes, and Ian, who are all pretty new university graduates.  And then there's me, and to my surprise I have been asked to be a sort of team leader (I don't know what the Japanese title would be, but in any case it's minor) because I'm the only one of the Canadians with prior computer game development experience!  However Taga and another fellow in another division (sort of Windows system support, I think) will be helping out too.  That'll be good because, as I explained to Tomoike-bucho through Manni, it's been a little while since I did much programming. 

After the meeting we went to lunch in the cafeteria – quite nice, and not too expensive.  Tomorrow I'll know not to buy quite as much as I did today, as I had a few beans and some rice left over.  The main dish was sort of fried scrambled tofu balls with other things mixed in, and some salad.

In the afternoon our computers actually arrived so we spent a lot of time getting them and setting them up, and also getting our set of drawers/filing cabinet.  These are small affairs on rollers that fit under a desk, and were likened by Mike Doble to a GI's rifle - your filing cabinet goes whereever you do.  If you're transferred to another division, so does your cabinet.

We also met with Yoko, the president of Koei Canada, who works in the External Affairs department, and who introduced us to Danny (my supposed room-mate) and to one of the VPs at Koei, whose name yet again escapes me.

After work Brian and I did some shopping at a department store in a mall near the train station near Koei, and I bought a small umbrella and a hanging fabric shelf unit for my closet.  Brian got one of the shelf units too.    We also got free copies of their very nice colour catalogue.  I think it will be useful for practicing my reading.  The one thing I did NOT see in the department store, or in their catalogue, is Western-style sheets.  I wish I had brought a single sheet with me as my only choice at the moment is whether to sleep under the thick blanket (comforter, really) or not.

I nearly bought an extension cord at an electronics store but decided to measure (with a belt!) how far it is from my nearest electrical outlet to the bathroom, so that I can use my electric razor.  This will be much cheaper than buying a mirror, but I think I need about 4 meters of extension cord.  The electronics store was pretty overwhelming, with music playing and tons of things – laptops, digital cameras, power bars, televisions, DVDs, and so on.  That doesn't sound so different from a Future Shop, but the key difference would be narrow aisles and a sometimes bewildering number of different items to buy.  [ed:  In the same store you will also find electric razors, rice cookers, air conditioners, and probably laundry machines too]

We picked up a little food and went “home” to our dorm rooms.

I did actually spend a little time making the place feel more like home.  I moved my desk closer to the window and electrical outlet, turned the bed around and moved it away from the window, and set up the hanging shelves.  I washed out the fridge, but I think it's actually broken as it's still warm inside while the dial is put at different settings. 

Tomorrow morning we're meeting by the dorm entrance with the fellow from HR and he will be taking us to the bank to set up our accounts, as well as to get our foreigner ID cards.  I should be able to check with him or one of the other Canadians about whether my fridge is truly broken or not.
8:00 am
The Longest Day
Well, I am writing this at about 10 to 8 before my first day of work. I feel surprisingly good considering that I was so tired last night that I had trouble actually going to sleep. I think I probably only got about 6 hours, off and on.

The plane trip was all right in a lot of respects except one – sleep. Based on the fact that I can't really sleep while travelling and advice from at least one person that I should try to stay awake as long as possible to adjust to Japanese time, I didn't get any sleep on the plane.

Incidentally, as I am typing this, I can hear what sounds like a Japanese flute from somewhere outside of the building. Quite beautiful, and a bit eerie. [Later note: it is possible that I did hear a flute, but the pipes in the building also make a whistling sound!]

Once we arrived at Narita airport (very tired at this point, although Brian did sleep some on the plane), we got through customs and picked up our bags without much delay. I have to admit that if Brian hadn't been there, I would have had a much worse time of it. But he was in Japan last fall so he knew his way around a fair bit. We got the YCAT shuttle bus which goes from Narita to the Yokohama Central Air Terminal. I am a little confused as to why it is called that, as YCAT seems to be the same thing as the central Yokohama train station, which is smack downtown, with no airport to be seen. Maybe it's named for the fact that you can take a bus from there direct to Narita.

At the train station we were met from a fellow from HR, whose last name I didn't catch initially, but is Monden, and after wandering around for a while looking for elevators – because of all our luggage - we took the train to the station nearest the “Mansho” (“mansions”). The walk from that station to the apartments is reasonably long and it is up quite a steep hill. Not fun with all the bags we had. After we got there, he gave us a bit of information, our keys, documents in case we had to use the health system, and left. Hadn't had a proper meal since we got off the plane... I ended up eating a granola bar and some of the almonds I still haven't finished. And I'm not sure if that was a good idea or if it contributed somehow to my inability to sleep.

The thing that seemed stupidest was that we were supposed to stay up until 11pm to talk to a fellow named Ian about ... well, I'm not sure, because I didn't, although I did end up staying up until almost 11 after running into Mike and Mike, two of the Canadian programmers, as I was heading back to my room to crash. They gave me a little bit of a tour, pointing out where the laundry rooms are and so on. It turns out that both Mikes went to Waterloo (starting a couple of years after I left!) and at least one of them is a gamer with a copy of the Japanese version of Settlers of Catan. And there is some sort of games room as one of the two common rooms.  I think I'll get along well with both of them.  I also got to meet Pavilaus, a Lithuanian artist who is sharing Brian's apartment. Interestingly I am sharing my 2-bedroom unit with NOBODY at the moment. I thought an artist named Danny, from Toronto, would be there, but it turns out that he got an apartment of his own a while back. The Mikes advised me not to let onto this at the office as the administration is not great, and if I get the whole place to myself for a while so much the better.

The room is about as big as Yuuta first described it to me, I think, which is good because the impression I'd gotten from others was that maybe that was bigger than it actually is. I think it's just about 9' x 12' although the only thing I can measure with is a belt.

The fridge is currently turned off and smells like fish; I will have to see what I can do about that. Also there is no plug for an electric razor in the bathroom. The AC is in the private rooms but not in the common areas, and since they have little-to-no air circulation they get very hot. However I discovered last night that taking a cold shower and then walking straight into the air conditioned bedroom is very nice.

The other bedroom furnishings... well, there's a TV with no stand which I don't want to keep on the desk, and the bed is a small Japanese futon bed with an underframe, quite firm and with a pillow with a large indentation in the middle for your head, no sheets (but the futon cover that can be removed for washing), and a sort of blanket/comforter with the same. I haven't figured out the right balance of temperature and how to sleep most confortably. However I expect to turn the head of the bed away from the window and to move the desk to face it, so that the laptop is closer to the power outlet nearest it.

Well, my alarm just went off – it's 8:10 – and I had better get ready for work!
Saturday, July 10th, 2004
11:48 pm
It's a nice place to visit...
But no, I don't mean Japan.  I'm not even there yet!  I'm talking about the apartment in downtown Toronto where I've been staying in this week.

I'm having a quiet Saturday night after a pretty long and hectic week in Toronto.  The apartment is not what anyone could call bad - it's spacious and very centrally located - but it lacks any sense of "home", being rather spartan and empty.  I'm also surprised by how much street noise you can still hear from the 17th floor, and the bedroom is equipped with flimsy white curtains that are just not up to the task of keeping out light.

The week started with moving last Sunday, driving down to TO with my Dad (well, to be fair, he did the driving.  I supplied distractions in the form of the Globe and Mail crossword and reading bits from a book of modern Japanese history).  By the time we reached my sister's apartment in Toronto, there wasn't time to turn around and get to the storage company before it closed.

In retrospect, though, that didn't matter, because we would not have had time to unload the truck unless we'd left Ottawa at 8am and steamed to Toronto by the fastest route possible.  It took my Dad and I three entire hours to unload the truck into the storage room, which was buried in a warehouse.  I can't say anything particularly good about the employees of that place either, including the manager who showed up 40 minutes late for work (preventing us from starting by that time).  It took many trolley-loads to get everything moved into the storage room, which was JUST the right size.

Fortunately it all worked out - when I reached the office around 1pm, Carol Nishitoba was just going over some information material with Brian, another programmer who is going to Japan on the same flight as me, although he intends to stay longer.  We had information sessions every day which rarely lasted longer than a couple of hours, and were then more or less free.  Brian was able to spend more time practicing his Hiragana and Katakana than me (more on this in just a moment), while I ran around town like a chicken with its head cut off, accomplishing many different errands.  Brian's a recent university graduate and seems like a very good guy.  We had lunch together on Tuesday, as well as having lunch with the rest of the office on Friday.  It turns out we both like John Woo's Hong Kong movies!

Somehow it remained unknown to me that the company needs me to be able to read Japanese, not just speak it.  Brian got a heads up from his Japanese teacher at Berlitz in Toronto, who had taught a number of other Koei employees before they were sent to Japan.  This remains the stupidest thing to come up this week, I think.  I had two months in which I could have been slowly and thoroughly learning to read and here I was left with a week - a very busy week - in which to catch up.  I can't say that I have really done so, yet, although I can write my first name in Katakana and I have memorized about a quarter of the Hiragana.

(An explanation about Japanese writing.  While the Japanese language is pretty logically organized, I can't say I feel the same way about their systems of writing.  Centuries and centuries ago, the Chinese Kanji system of writing made its way to Japan.  Over the next couple of centuries the Katakana and Hiragana systems (of 45 characters each) developed from the Kanji.  Japanese is written using a mixture of all three.  How a word is written is determined by its origin.  A Western word like "taberu" (table), or my name, is written with the Katakana.)

Overall, I have good news and bad news about my trip to Japan.  Some of the bad news first:

  • The work environment sounds stifling.  Apparently everyone works in very large rooms, at large tables with 4-5 people per side.  At the ends of these rows of tables are the desks for the managers, who can thus keep an eye on everyone.  All I can say is that if smokers are allowed to take frequent smoke breaks, I'll be taking frequent breaks to de-stress.

  • It seems... questionable... whether I'll be back by the year's end.  But I can hope!

  • The company features an old-style punch card system, with times rounded to every 15 minutes in the company's favour.  The periods of 9-9:30, 12-1, and 6-6:30 do not count towards time worked (I think the reason is to try to force people to take breaks).

  • It sounds like the bedrooms are smaller than Yuuta had described to me previously.

  • I discovered on the last day that Carol had yet to set up our Internet accounts for our apartments.  So it will be two weeks before I have home access.  In the meantime, I will hope to get occasional access through my roommate or look for a cyber-cafe.  I may be able to send a few emails from work.  Surfing the web for personal reasons is forbidden at work, but I'm not sure about email,

On the plus side,

  • Workers in Japan get more holidays than we do here in Canada.  Aside from normal days earned, there are generally more days off as a whole, including what I'm most excited about - a whole week off in August.  Apparently this is traditionally used to return to one's home town and pay respects to one's ancestors.  Since I don't have to worry about that, I will be able to spend the time exploring Yokohama and neighbouring places (armed with my copy of Trail of Two Cities: A Walking Guide to Yokohama and Kamakura) or travel further afield.
  • It doesn't seem like I will be working overtime!  I am going to be working on a project which is just starting, a PC port of an existing title, which should mean no crunch time.  And the other Canadian programmers are also apparently assigned to that project. 
  • Our expected work hours are 7.5 per day, and we're not ALLOWED in the office on weekends except in exceptional circumstances, like crunch time.  That's because weekend work is automatically overtime and must be paid for by the company on top of regular salaries, even if the hours were being worked to make up for lost time.
  • I managed to order a copy of the Japanese vegetarian cookbook that Kathryn has using the Japanese version of Amazon.  We'll see how that works out.  It's supposed to arrive before my boxes do!  But, some of the fellows at Koei Canada thought that with the price of food in Japan, they didn't actually save any money by cooking at home.

As far as the week is concerned, last night was a definite highlight.  Despite being quite tired, I went to the Reservoir Lounge on Wellington for about two hours.  Big Rude Jake, whose website I used to run, has a weekly gig there with his band.  They play a mixture of his own and traditional blues and swing tunes.  Jake looks really good, having lost a lot of weight.  I'm not sure if that's related to some of the tough times he's had recently, his conversion to Buddhism, or both.  Anyhow, I danced a fair bit with a couple of young women named Brooke and Charlie who were there as part of a group, and had quite a lot of fun. Jake played both of my musical requests and I got to dance them too.

Otherwise a lot of my time has been spent in opening a CIBC bank account, getting traveller's cheques, Japanese cash, a duffle bag, a power adapter for my laptop (in Japan, 3-prong outlets do not exist), rubber boots, socks, returning my Sympatico high-speed modem, getting grosgrain ribbon to make a new band for my straw hat, and repacking my boxes that are being sent to Japan for me by the company. 

That last was pretty stressful, coming at the time I was most worried about learning Japanese writing.  There were restrictions on what could be put in the boxes (no pirated material, nothing with alcohol of any sort - I had to remove my bottle of rubbing alcohol) and at the same time they're going to take 2 weeks to get to Japan, which forced me to rethink my packing quite a bit.  I managed to get every bit of cold-weather clothing into the boxes, while removing my CDs and CD-ROMs, my Japanese binders, and some of the books I will want immediately.
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