Sunday, March 14, 2010

Trapped With a Samsung 730sc -- A Multi-Part, Japanese Urban Opera (or Drama)

Coming to stay in Japan for a medium-length term (greater than two weeks, but less than two years)? Need a prepaid cell phone because your phone from your home country does not operate on the Japanese network or because you don't want to pay the exorbitant international roaming fees, and because you can't meet the two-year contract requirement for most phones and services in Japan? Whatever you do, thoroughly research your cell phone options in Japan BEFORE you arrive here. Research not only the prepaid plans here (which I did), but also research the individual phones themselves (which I did not do, regrettably). Researching what phones are available will prevent you from just buying the cheapest phone available and paying for it dearly through many inconveniences and annoyances in the long run.

During my second day in Japan, I purchased a Samsung 730sc cell phone from Softbank, one of the three major cell phone providers in Japan (the other two are au, which is run by KDDI, and DoCoMo, which is run by NTT, Japan's equivalent of AT&T). One thing to keep in mind before coming to Japan is that not all cell phone stores provide prepaid phones; I visited a few other Softbank, au, and DoCoMo shops around my area but was turned away because those stores didn't carry prepaid phones. Another thing to keep in mind is that prepaid phone buyers are restricted to only a few phone models; some of the nicer phones such as the really advanced Japanese cell phones with Internet access and games in Japan and the Apple iPhone require two-year service contracts. I believe I only had a choice between three models; the Samsung 730sc was the cheapest one at around ¥4,900 (about $54 at this time of writing). There was another model selling for around ¥7,900, and a high-end model for over ¥10,000. I ended up choosing the Samsung 730sc due to price concerns; I came to Japan with just enough money to survive the first month's living expenses, and I did not want to spend any more money than necessary. The Samsung 730sc also had English menus, which was nice, and a camera, which made it very convenient to take pictures of my time in Japan without having to carry my camera everywhere, which can be inconvenient at times and vulnerable to loss or theft (I once accidentally left my camera, in its case, on a Metrolink train in the Los Angeles area at nighttime; I never did see the camera or its case again, even though I called lost-and-found immediately after I realized that I lost the camera. I had some awesome pictures on it that I had just taken of my adventures, too.).

Before I describe my experience with my phone, keep in mind that a prepaid plan is not a contract. Instead of being committed to a plan, a person with a prepaid plan purchases calling cards, which come in either ¥3,000 or ¥5,000 denominations. I forget the charges, but they are relatively steep compared to the charges if one has a contract, especially for international calls, but the charges are still lower than international roaming with American cell phone providers.

The phone has been nothing but trouble from the start. The phone is not a flip phone and therefore lacks a cover. Because of this, if you forget to lock the keypad on the phone, it is possible for the phone to dial numbers while it is in your pocket. I think I wasted about ¥1,500 on accidental phone calls; some of them were to my parents 5,300 miles away!!!!! Once I realized what was happening, I quickly learned how to lock my keypad. Problem solved. No more accidental calls back home, and no more money thrown away.

The next bad thing to happen related to my phone happened just two weeks after I bought my phone. I was using the restroom at work. A few days before this incident, I learned how to lock my keypad. I also decided to not carry my phone in my pocket due to fears that the keypad will unlock itself while the phone is in my pocket, so I then started keeping my phone in my shirt pocket. Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that this was also not a viable solution, but for different reasons. After I finished, ahem, doing my business, I went to bend over to clean around the toilet. As I bent over, I groaned "Noooooooooooooooooooo!!!" in horror as I saw my cell phone go in the toilet. (Thank goodness I didn't flush it right then). I immediately pulled the cell phone out of the toilet, dried it, turned it off, and then placed it in my desk after flushing the toilet. Unfortunately, I was unable to provide any more immediate attention to the phone due to the fact that I was at work; I just finished my lunch break and there was still at least four more hours left until I could leave for the day. Thankfully after removing the battery (which I did at work once the cell phone started vibrating uncontrollably) and after letting my cell phone dry in my dorm room for a few days, it started working again four days after its drop.

As I said, my cell phone has a camera. It also contains storage for storing data; however, there is no SD card slot; the data is stored directly on the phone. The cell phone also supports emailing pictures. Unfortunately, the maximum size for sending an email is only 300KB, and my pictures ranged from 80KB to over 250KB each. This made sending lots of pictures very time consuming. Annoyed by this method of sending pictures, I thought, "Hmmm, the cell phone uses USB for charging. Maybe I can buy a USB cable, connect it to my laptop, and transfer my pictures to my computer." Problem solved, right? Wrong! I purchased an overpriced USB cable for ¥1,200 (this is before my first time in Akihabara; I should have held out for then), and then was disappointed with the fact that not only did my operating systems (Mac OS X and Windows 7) not only not detect my cell phone, but there were no drivers available for the phone for any platform, either. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!! After scouring the Internet, I discovered that the only supported interface for transferring data between a computer and the cell phone was through an infrared connection. My computer, a first-generation MacBook, lacks an infrared connection (in fact, according to my friend Dana, who knows a lot about computer hardware and has kept up with the latest hardware news for many years, laptops have not shipped with infrared readers for over ten years. The only computer that I have that has an infrared reader is an old Compaq Armada 7400 laptop with a 266MHz Pentium II processor and 64MB RAM, which I did not bring with me to Japan).

In the meanwhile, after another few weeks or so, I then discovered that my cell phone was getting no reception at all. I just bought a new prepaid card, and I wanted to enter the code into my cell phone (you dial a number to do it) so that way I can start calling others again. But when I tried to dial the number, the cell phone was unable to call the number because it couldn't get reception, it was "out of range." After a week of no reception, I then took it to the SoftBank store that I purchased it, hoping that they would be able to fix it quickly; I thought the reason why I didn't have reception was related to the fact that I was out of prepaid cash, and I needed to input my prepaid information in my phone so that way I can use it again. Turned to find out that I was wrong; the phone really didn't get any reception at all. They tried with other SIM cards; still no reception. They recommended repairs, but then they gave me some forms, which had some scary-looking fees on them. I also ran into language barriers, too; they suggested that I bring a Japanese-speaking friend with me and come back again. So I was left with a phone with no reception. Not only that, but I then found out that while they were trying to change the settings of the phone, they changed the settings in such a way that the cell phone can no longer even take pictures; even when attempting to load the camera, the cell phone says that it can't obtain the network information, and then just returns to the main screen. Why does the camera rely on the network??? Grrrrrrr!!!

Recently I've been focusing on trying to get my collection of photos off of my phone. I thought, "Hmmmm, how hard can it be to find a USB-to-infrared adapter?" Very, very, very hard, it turned out. You would think I was trying to find a 5.25" floppy disk drive, copies of WordPerfect 5.1, or something else rare and now obscure. I first tried the local electronics stores in my area (Yamada Denki and Yodobashi Camera). They didn't have it. Then I went to Akihabara, a sort of mecca for computer and anime nerds where there are dozens and dozens of computer shops everywhere, selling almost every computer-related thing you can think of, even used computers at decent prices (I'm flirting with the idea of buying an used 12" ThinkPad or netbook). During my first time in Akihabara on February 28, I stuck to mostly the big places along Chun-dori, which is the main street. No luck once again. On my return trip to Akihabara today (March 14), I started going to the little shops, one-by-one. After visiting about another dozen stores or so, I finally found it! It was a Best Connectivity USB to IrDA Adapter, manufactured in China, sold at a store in Akihabara called Tsukumo, and cost only ¥1,780 (a little less than $20). The cashier did warn me about the system requirements of the device before proceeding with selling the item to me; the box says it "support Windows 98SE/Me/2000/XP and other most popular OS" (I'm quoting verbatim), and he told me that it wouldn't work on Vista or Windows 7, and he hesitated about its working on even XP. Even with this concern, this was the only USB to infrared adapter that I can find after browsing a ton of stores, so I bought it anyway. When I got home, it (expectedly) did not work under Mac OS X 10.6 (there are no drivers for it), and it did not work under Windows 7. I then pulled out the driver disc for the device. Unfortunately, I saw that the driver disc is a mini CD, not a full sized CD. This is a big problem, since my MacBook has a slot-loading optical drive, not a tray-loading optical drive (most desktops have tray-loading drives; most non-Mac laptops have tray-loading drives, but Macs have slot-loading drives). Slot-loading drives and mini CDs do not mix; there are many incidents where a mini CD would be stuck in a MacBook's optical drive. To avoid that risk, I am forced to find another computer with a tray-loading CD drive and transfer the driver files from the mini CD to some other device. And then I still need to install the drivers, which might not work on Windows 7, which means that I'm going to either need to reinstall Windows XP on my MacBook, find virtual machine software that supports the guest OS (i.e., the OS running on the virtual machine) accessing USB devices, or buying an old computer with XP.

I question Samsung's design decisions for their 730sc phone. Why did Samsung choose to use an infrared connection for wireless connectivity, which is now considered obsolete, is no longer built-into laptops, and has hard-to-find adapters, when they could have used Bluetooth, which is the modern standard for wireless connectivity between a computer and a peripheral device? Why did Samsung not choose to implement support for mounting a cell phone as a hard drive so that users can access their files on the cell phone through a USB connection? Why did they choose to make the only interface between a computer and the phone an infrared connection given these facts?

This cell phone has been a never-ending nightmare; I now have to focus on getting those drivers onto some alternate media. I'm just trying to get my pictures off of my phone. Once I can retrieve those pictures, then I'll try to have the phone repaired. If it is too expensive to have repaired, I'll call it quits and purchase another phone. Hopefully the other models provided support modern features such as USB connectivity and Bluetooth. Whatever the decision is, I need to do it relatively quickly; people (including a woman) are starting to ask for my phone number, and my parents are starting to send me emails about when I'm going to call them again, and I can't go without a working phone for too long. I'll keep you informed about the latest of this drama.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Things I've Noticed About Japan -- Streets and Customer Service

I've been keeping track of all of the little things that I've noticed in Japan for the past two months. Living in another country is quite an experience. What I find very interesting about the experience is noticing all of the little things that are different from back at home. This post will cover streets and customer service; I have many other thoughts that I want to share, but I do not want everything in one large blog post; I will split them up into multiple posts. I won't bore you with basics like "People drive on the left side of the road," "Everything is in the metric system," "All of the signs are in Japanese," and other facts that you either learned many years ago or are obvious. I want to express some things that are not obvious.

  • Where I live (the Nakahara district of Kawasaki), there are very few streets that are wider than two lanes (one lane in each direction). Even the Nakahara Highway, an important street that I pass or walk on every day with plenty of shops and is a link to other towns about 30 miles away, is only two lanes wide. (I have not been on a freeway in Japan yet, so I can't comment about the difference between Japanese freeways and American freeways other than the fact that in Japan, freeways are not free; they are tolled. [The word freeway actually has nothing to do with price at all; the "free" in freeway has to do with the fact that freeways are "free" from impediments to the free-flowing of cars on a road such as driveways and intersections]). However, in Tokyo proper, there are many wide streets with four or even six total lanes, such as the main streets of Akihabara, Shinjuku, and Shibuya.
  • There are lots of cyclists in the Nakahara area, ranging from little kids to elderly citizens. It's not uncommon to find a man in a suit or a woman wearing a skirt, stockings, and heels on a bike; that is very rare in America, where most cyclists either wear informal clothing or clothes specifically made for cycling. And, just like back at home, very few of them actually follow the traffic laws. I've seen cyclists frequently run red lights and ride on the wrong side of the road.
  • There are stoplights in quiet residential neighborhoods that don't get much traffic. Back in America, these stoplights would just simply be stop signs.
  • Speaking of stoplights, stoplights are timed in Japan. I don't believe that stoplights in Japan are controlled by sensors in the road, unlike many places in California. The stoplights appear to be preprogrammed. I don't know if the stoplights are synchronized (i.e., when if you get a green light, the next few successive lights will also be green as long as you stay within the speed limit); it's hard to tell when you don't have a set of wheels.
  • Oh, and I have not seen a red-light camera in Japan at all so far.
  • Even though there are lots of cyclists, there are no bike lanes at all. Most of the streets are too narrow to add room for bike lanes; they are literally wide enough for one car in each direction, with no shoulder. (The Nakahara Highway does have a shoulder). All of the cyclists ride on the streets unless there is a lot of high-speed traffic on them; then the cyclists move to the sidewalks, which is acceptable (if not exactly perfectly legal) here.
  • There are plenty of pedestrians, especially near the shopping areas and the train stations.
  • There are lots of cars in Japan that are not available in America. More details to follow.
  • In Japan, Toyota also makes cargo vans and small commercial trucks. Thank goodness Toyota vehicles in Japan havent't had the same gas pedal issues as their American and European counterparts have had; runaway vehicles combined with a much higher amount of pedestrians on the road would have been disastrous.
  • Speaking of disastrous, the Nakahara Highway has signs that say "Closed during a major earthquake." The signs have a picture of a namazu on it, which is a creature in Japanese mythology that causes earthquakes. (A namazu looks like the 3rd-generation Pokémon Whiscash. Interestingly enough, a Pokémon episode centered around earthquakes and Whiscash was actually unaired in Japan [and subsequently not dubbed at all] due to the fact that a large earthquake happened in the Niigata prefecture days before the episode was set to air. Whiscash did make appearances in later episodes, however).
  • Japanese customer service is excellent! Workers always greet you with a smile and a "Irrashaimase!" (Welcome!) when you enter their business. They listen to your requests, try to understand them if your Japanese isn't that great, and follow up on them. They also speak in honorific Japanese (for those of you who don't know, the Japanese language has politeness levels, where different verb conjugations and sometimes different words are used depending on the situation). When you leave, the workers bow and say thanks ("arigatou gozaimasu!") for your business.
  • Whenever you have a request (for example, you're trying to find an iron skillet at a department store), the customer service workers will sometimes go through great lengths to serve you. It hasn't always happened (I'm still trying to find a USB infrared reader here for my cell phone), but I have encountered worker who dropped whatever they were doing in order to help me and go through great lengths, such as travel a few floors in a large department store, to find what I needed. I couldn't imagine getting such treatment in America; at best I might get a suggestion for where the item is; in most cases I'll get a "sorry, we don't have it here" and that's the end of it, although some nicer companies would offer to special order the item such that it would be available for purchase within a few days. When I was buying a towel during my second or third day in Japan, one customer service worker at a Marui depaato (department store that's kind of like a mall) even went as far as showing me a cheaper place to buy a towel, and even walked with me for five minutes outside of the store to show me where it was!
  • Whenever I enter a store in America, I cannot go 30 seconds without an employee walking up to me and saying, "Do you need any help looking for something?" Sometimes I'm followed in the stores. In Japan, this never happens to me. I am never followed in the stores; I am left to do my shopping in peace, and nobody seemed to care during my first few weeks in Japan that sometimes I could spend nearly half an hour in a store looking around because I'm unfamiliar with the store layout and certain items.
  • Japanese customer service is also highly professional. Employees are always dressed in uniform. Plus, you will never see a cashier, for example, make personal calls while "helping" you, express bad attitudes or sentiments, treat you badly for no reason, or do anything else that is bad or unprofessional like you, unfortunately, sometimes see in America (and don't get me started on "customer service" in the ghetto). However, one consequence of this professionalism is that the service may seem a little impersonal compared to service in America. Unlike America, were really nice cashiers ask you about your day, make comments and suggestions about some of your purchases, and even sometimes crack jokes, Japanese cashiers stick purely to business. And if you ask, "How are you doing?", he or she may just giggle, say "I'm doing fine" ("genki desu"), and just continue his or her without continuing the conversation. (Note that this isn't universal; I had a few conversations with the ANA cabin attendants, who complimented me on my Japanese. But, now that I think about it further, all of those conversations were germane to the flight and are service-related; we did not discuss anything that was unrelated). Even when I visit the same places multiple times per week (and it's been two months) and see the same cashiers or other workers, I've never heard, "Would you like the usual?", "So how's it going today," or any of the other questions that I would normally be asked back at home if I frequented a business that much on a near-daily basis. It's a cultural difference; service workers in Japan are not supposed to fraternize with their customers. So, for future visitors to Japan, when a service worker is treating you very well, he or she is treating you well because it's the requirement of his or her job; the employee is not trying to ingratiate himself or herself to you. And, if he or she does not ask you any questions about your day or anything like that, it's not because he or she is not friendly; it is because of cultural differences in customer service; it's nothing personal.