au, a cell operator in Japan, recently launched their EV-DO-based WIN service in Japan's major metro areas. The service offers 2.4mbit/sec downstream and 144kbit/sec upstream, making it quite a bit faster than DoCoMo's competing FOMA service. Outside of the 2.4mbit/sec service area, service falls back to 144/144 or 64/64, if you are really in the boonies.
With the help of a friend, I went to pick one of these cards up on Monday, but unfortunately even the main au store did not have them in stock. I placed my order and then went back to pick up the card on Thursday.
The only PC card available for WIN is Kyocera's W01K. It is a standard PC card with a small built-in antenna and ports for an included external antenna. It is recognized as a standard serial modem by Windows and does not require any extra drivers to install.
The service is definitely peppy! I have seen downloads of up to 700kbit/sec of uncompressible data, which approaches SDSL speeds. Even more importantly, the latency is very good for a cell-based wireless network. Average round-trip times to the first hop hover around 150ms. Round-trip back to San Jose, using the au's Internet service, is around 275ms. As long as you have decent signal, the jitter is low as well.
The only downside is the price. Billing is done on a per-packet basis. The base package, at 1500 yen (about $14), does not include any data allowance at all. Transport is .1 yen per packet and I have a sneaking suspicion that the packet size is 128 bytes (although ICMP pings are only getting fragmented above a very Ethernet-esque 1472, I suspect that reassembly is occurring provider-side before the packet is injected into the Internet). You can buy bulk plans, however, and I picked up 500k packets for 7500 yen ($70) per month. This brings the per-packet charge down to $.015 yen per packet, which is better, but still quite pricey for any kind of bulk transport.
All in all, though, a necessity for any connectivity addict in Japan.
I crashed the Citibank year-end party here in Japan last night. It was a surreal experience.
The party was held at the Nikko Hotel in Odaiba. If I can be allowed a small (?) aside, Odaiba is possibly the largest architectural disaster in all of Tokyo. Odaiba sits on the other side of the bay from central Tokyo and was built on top of garbage. Yes, garbage. The Japanese have engaged in various "land reclamation plans" over the years, which involve dumping garbage into Tokyo Bay until you get something large and stable enough to build on top of.
So, start with garbage. Then, add a huge series of concrete hotel monstrosities, garish supermalls and a huge neon-lit Ferris wheel and you have a pretty good picture of Odaiba.
Back to the Nikko Hotel -- Citi Group rented out the largest ballroom in the hotel and filled it to the gills with great food, booze a-plenty and a 12 piece jazz band. The theme of the party was "movies", so throughout the night various Citi employees got on the stage to recreate movie scenes, including an elaborate reenactment of a scene from "The Matrix", complete with slo-mo Kung Fu moves.
Once the sushi snarfing and wine guzzling was complete, Citi raffled off about $25,000 in prizes, including a complete home theater system, a helicopter tour of Tokyo and an all-expense paid trip to Hollywood.
Citi was partying like it was 1989 in Japan or maybe 1998 in the US. Guesstimates of the party's cost ranged from $100,000 to $250,000. I'm clearly in the wrong business.
A coffee table book based on one of our previous entries?
A few days ago I went to get a Soba lunch at Yabu Soba. Yabu Soba is a venerable institution -- it opened in the 1880s.
The restaurant is located very close to the Kanda subway station (Ginza line). Despite this, I had a heck of a time finding it. Somehow the maps in the restaurant guides never look like the street maps near the train stations. Fortunately, two Japanese took pity on me and my pidgeon Japanese and pointed me in the right direction.
I finally found the restaurant and as I'm getting ready to walk in, a huge, black Ford Explorer pulls up in front, parks and four sun-glassed guys get out. The driver throws the truck in park and just leaves it there, blocking the narrow street that the restaurant fronts. I don't know from yakuza, but these guys sure looked spooky to me.
Once inside I ordered tempura soba. It was delicious, served with hot tea and some of the water that the soba is cooked in (not quite sure what this was for -- I figured it was for thinning the broth to drink after you'd finished the noodles, but I saw some folks drinking it straight). The soba had some definite tooth to it, which I love, and the broth was great -- deeply flavored and not too salty.
Apparently one of the hallmarks of this restaurant is the sing-song fashion that the orders are called out in. Not quite singing, the high-pitched chanting kept my attention throughout the meal.
Killer basset hounds (sorry Doug!) are roaming the streets of Tokyo, attacking people at random. Here's a warning sign from an Akasaka subway station:
In Japan, there is a hybrid system for voicemail on cell phones. If your phone is off, out-of-range, or otherwise unreachable, the caller records his or her message on a machine somewhere on the carrier's network, just like in the US.
If your phone is reachable, however, the message is recorded on your cell phone itself. This led to the funny situation yesterday where I called my wife on her cell, got her voicemail and then she picked up while her voicemail greeting was playing!
I was just about finished grocery shopping last night when I heard a weird song coming from the streets. At first, I figured it must be politicians, driving around Tokyo trying to get people to vote for them by blasting noise into their homes (good plan, eh?).
But, when I went outside, I saw that it was an old guy with a little truck that was emitting smoke and steam. This guy had food! I flagged him down.
Turns out, it was the sweet potato guy. Stone roasted sweet potato (ishi yaki-imo) is apparently an autumn and winter favorite here in Japan. I bought one and the guy tossed in another half of a potato for good measure.
When my wife got home, she ate the extra half-potato, then chastised me for not eating mine while it was still warm ("This isn't the kind of thing you save"). She was right, of course, but I just wasn't in the mood for sweet potato.
Fast forward to today. After wandering around Akaska looking fruitlessly for a decent non-smoking Internet cafe (doesn't exist, sorry), I came back to the hotel hyped up on caffeine and starving. So, I threw the potato in the microwave and two minutes later, I was in heaven. The sweet, starchy potato with a hint of smoke was exactly what I needed.