The Day I Have Been Waiting For has finally arrived and passed. If you’ve been following our story, you may remember the Cell Phone Saga of two weeks ago, in which it took three and a half hours at the Vodafone shop to discover that I couldn’t buy a phone without my Alien Registration Card (even though I had been assured I could use the “proof of application” form as a stand-in until the actual card arrived in two weeks). Well, two impatient weeks finally passed and I awoke in an eager mood just like I used to on Christmas morning. The sun was shining (and if was f-ing HOT as usual) as I made my way to the city office to pick up my alien card. They had given me a one-week range in which I should pick it up. Of course I was going on the very first day of the range, so I wasn’t sure it would actually be ready yet. (Never mind that I had gone in a week earlier just to see if it was done then. City officials couldn’t understand why I would appear outside the allotted time.)
My relief was profound when I was handed our shiny new cards. Of course I immediately headed back to Vodafone to complete the deal. It was much easier this time because I already had all the completed forms from the previous attempt. In 20 minutes the paperwork was done and the shiny new phones were in front of me. Unfortunately some mysterious process (I think it was charging the phone up and activating it) required one hour, so I went and had lunch while I waited. I walked out of the store at noon and immediately went home and devoured the manual.
(Aside: Japanese cell phones are super cool, but Jesus, the plans are expensive. For about one hour of talk time per month with no extras, it’s about $40. Text messages and other data stuff are more on top of that. Back home I got unlimited nights and weekends and about 7 hours of weekday talk time for $35. Weird.)
We both have phones (this marks the first time Steph has ever owned her own cell phone) and they point toward our different priorities. Mine is a big heavy clunker (although it’s a metallic purple clunker) which I chose because I just couldn’t resist the technology. It has:
- amazing high-resolution screen (640×480 squeezed into a cell phone!)
- camera with optical zoom (in fact there are two cameras, one facing the user and one facing out)
- GPS app with knowledge of train schedules and toll roads
- wireless transponder thing that can do credit card-like payments by holding the phone up to a special receiver at certain shops
- Bluetooth for using wireless headset and also acting as a computer modem
All that for $70 (and a 2-year contract. Hope Steph re-ups!).
Steph’s phone was free with the 2-year deal and is the sexiest piece of technology I have ever held in my hot little hand. It’s apparently the world’s thinnest phone — it’s thinner than the bottom half of my Mac laptop, if that gives you an idea. We’re looking forward to finally being able to communicate when we fail to meet up for whatever reason (more on that later).
I forgot to mention: Steph was not around for all of this because she had run off to Akita City for the two-day prefectural JET orientation. I was due to meet her at the end of the day in the big city for a party at some German place, which sounded enticing after two weeks of ramen and questionable meat products. I got the phones about noon and was due on the train at 4:00.
What I didn’t expect was the giant thunderstorm that hit around 2:00. It had rained and thundered a bit at 5 in the morning but it was all gone by the time I got out of bed. Having to leave for the train in an hour, I wasn’t sure how I was going to get there without getting soaked. So I was relieved then the rain cleared up just in time for me to hit the road. I biked as fast as I possible could to the train station and made it there with 20 minutes to spare.
Now, as you probably have heard, Japanese trains are just about the most reliable thing on the planet. So I was surprised when I was directed to get on a bus to East Noshrio (the transfer point we always have to go through when leaving Noshiro). I assumed they were working on the track or something and that I would get on the normal Akita train at East Noshiro. But no: it turns out the trains simply weren’t running. The electronic schedule signs were all three hours out of date and the station was brimming with sweaty school kids going home for the weekend on a Friday night. The tiny air-conditioned station room was nice and cool but boy, was it smelly. So my train that I was supposed to board in 10 minutes didn’t arrive. Buses occasionally pulled into the station, but (of course) none of them were labeled with a destination and my shallow understanding of Japanese assured me that none of them were going to Akita either. I was somewhat shaken as I had taken it on faith that these trains were supposed to be the most reliable thing, after death and taxes. Fortunately I am used to Amtrak and its system of falling an hour behind for every two hours of actual travel, so I had patience.
Now would have been a great time for both Steph and I to have cell phones. Unfortunately I had Steph’s brand new phone with me too so it wasn’t particularly useful in this situation. But at least I was able to dash off a text message to our new friend Claire, who may or may not have actually been within shouting distance of Steph at the time, but it was the next best thing.
In the end, I had to wait around that station for an hour and half; it felt like a lifetime of alternating between muggy outside and less muggy, more musky inside. I still don’t know why the trains weren’t running; the only unusual thing that had happened that day was the thunderstorms. But this country had thunderstorms all the time and other JETs have verified that they’ve never shut down the trains before. In the end, I got a decently swanky charter bus ride straight to Akita Station, not stopping at the stations in between, which made it shorter than the equivalent train ride would have been. I got to play with my new GPS toy along the away. I have to admit, it never occurred to me that all the cool functionality of my phone would be hidden behind Japanese user interfaces. My Japanese reading ability is going to go through the roof just because I want to use all the cool stuff on my phone.
I arrived in Akita with half an hour to spare before the party started. I was ravenous and wasn’t sure what I was going to do about dinner; I also didn’t know exactly where the party was, except that it was near the Washington Hotel (which took me an extra minute to find because the building said ワシントンホテル instead). The party was at a place called Platz (already promising) and I was wandering around looking for it when I spotted a big group of white people being herded around. I fell in with them and we were there in one minute. The restaurant showed promise already because it had big beer-brewing vats in the window. I was thrilled to find out that they served food as well, so I went in and had a joyous reunion with Steph.
The party was great, and I had a quite decent (though very small) bowl of potatoes, broccoli, and “bacon” (I would call it fatty, fatty Japanese ham) smothered in glorious, glorious cheese.
At the end of the night (a nice late 9:45), Steph and I headed back to the train station with two other Noshiroids (both coincidentally from mid-northern England and great fun to listen to) and discovered that, amazingly, the trains to Noshiro still weren’t running after 8-9 hours. We were ushered outside the station to the taxi stand, where the four of us received our own postage-paid taxi delivery back to Noshiro — over an hour away. The taxi fare ended up being over $200 — which we got for our sweet 950 yen (about $9)-each train tickets.
So ended my biggest day so far in Japan. We’re officially documented with our alien cards, we have phones, we had decent beer, and we have witnessed the rare event of the Japanese train system going out. Oh yeah, and we both have bikes now so we can actually explore Noshiro more thoroughly. Sounds like the foundation for a lovely weekend.