Monday, March 22, 2010

A High-Tech Work Day in Japan - Part I

After my weekend in Tokyo I was well prepared to get back to work. I thought you might be interested to know what a high tech professional does on a typical workday. My workday was a bit super-typical, meaning that it was a bit more high-tech and further reaching than a person may do on a normal day. However, I have observed that it is not unusual for a Japanese salary man to take a commuter flight across the country, visit an electronics factory and fly back in time for dinner. In Japan it is possible to travel everywhere with mass transit, and the airlines are  part of that.

I also thought it may be interesting for you to read about life in a semiconductor factory, also known as  a fab.  This is where computer chips are manufactured. All of us use computers, but few of us get a glimpse of how they are made.

I checked out of my hotel bright and early and headed for the Hamamatsucho mono-rail station. I was going to take the mono-rail to meet my colleague, K-San, at Haneda airport to begin our travels. Since I had practiced the route numerous times I made it in 10 minutes. The ticket machine was exactly where the web site said it was and I was relieved to find a button clearly labeled "English". I was a bit worried that there was no way to get a receipt for the ticket, which cost about 470 Yen, or $5.

I fed my ticket into the machine by the entrance which gives you a nice green arrow to proceed and gives you the ticket back to use for exiting the destination station. I got in line and noticed all signs were in Japanese, so I had a momentary anxiety that I might be boarding the wrong train. So I asked the gentleman in front of me "Smee-ma-sain, Haneda?" (excuse me, Haneda), while pointing at the mono-rail car. He understood and said "Hai" (yes). So I reponded "Arogato dai mas" (thank you very much). 

Even though I was proud of my fledgling language skills, after I boarded the train I realized that it was impossible to board the wrong train at this station and there are no branches in the monorail line. So the question was totally unnecessary and the guy must have thought what a dumb gaijin (foreigner) I was. 

On the train I was pleased to see that there was a luggage rack where I could put my suitcase. The train was full of salary men, professional Japanese men, all dressed in blue suits and ties, standing room only. I was impressed with the beat of the city going to work and realized that in cities all over the country the same scene was taking place. I felt a trace of envy that the mass transit system was so good. I have had jobs where I could use mass transit in the USA, but it is not as widely available as it is in Japan.

I was mildly uncomfortable because I was casually dressed, but in the past I would wear suits to work in Asia. I found out that it did not do any good to wear business suits in the semiconductor industry. I will explain why later. 

As I was leaving the mono-rail station I wanted a receipt since I knew that the machine would eat my ticket on the way out. Lizabetti is very strict about expenses and every penny counts. So I went to the booth by the exit and asked the uniformed employee "smee-ma-sain, resheeto kodo-sai?" (excuse me, may I have a receipt?). He stamped my ticket, so that was my reciept, and ushered me through the gate. I was quite pleased with myself since that was $5 I would not have to eat.

I arrived early at Haneda airport, which was good because I still needed to get some breakfast. I walked around the airport and saw various choices, many of them good. The airport had many regular Japanese restaurants, McDonalds, and a cafeteria style bakery called Vie de France. The bakery had just put out fresh breads and the smell was fabulous. So I opted for that.

I know that Vie de France is an international chain, but the selection at the Haneda airport store was decidedly Japanese in flavor. I grabbed a tray at the head of the line and selected the foods that had just been put out since I stepped into the store. Freshness is a good policy when selecting food.

  1. First I saw a large version of "Piggies in a Blanket". Basically a natural casing frank baked into a piece of bread. The bread was fresh and warm and the hot-dog was well cooked and firm.
  2.  The next thing that came out was very Japanese. A cluster of baked noodles wrapped in a pancake.  This was pretty good too, the noodles were flavored in a Japanese manner with light soy-ginger taste.
  3. The final thing that caught my eve was the Japanese version of "Piggies in a Blanket". This was a tempura vegetable baked in a bread wrapper. Also very good.

I grabbed a cup of coffee to go with the above fare and went to look for a seat. I noticed that there was only one seat left at the non-smoking counter. As I squeezed into it I bumped the man next to me. He gave me a murderous look, but I said "smee-ma-sain" (sorry) and he smiled and nodded. As K-San had told me, this is a very useful word. The breakfast was delicious and the coffee was good too. 

I met K-San right on time under the number 6 clock in the departure level, he was prompt as usual and looking dapper in his salary man suit. We checked our bags and went through security, which was much more efficient and courteous that U.S. airports, and passed into the departure lounge.

Once we were in the departure lounge he mentioned that we should buy lunch to eat in the air since we would still by flying at lunch time. We stopped at a small store which offered a variety of reasonably priced meals. The selection included various Bento boxes containing sushi, pork sandwiches,  hamburgers, rice balls, chips of all kinds. I opted for a pork sandwich in a box, a beef rice ball and small box of potato crisps.

We boarded the plane. The crew was very pleasant, well dressed and attractive. They offered beverages several times including a very tasty lemonade drink. Around noon I decided to eat the lunch I brought aboard. 

I ate the rice ball and saved the rest for later. The rice ball was a triangular block of rice wrapped in seaweed. In the center was some cooked beef with light spicy-soy sauce taste. It was quite good and did a good job of stopping my hunger.

The plane arrived in Matsuyama right on time. We met another colleague at the airport and took the rental car bus to our rental car. It was poring rain and I was thankful that I kept my $4 umbrella as I was waiting for K-San to complete the paperwork for the car. We boarded the car and drove toward Niihama, about a 1 hour drive.

The scenery was very beautiful along the way. There were mountains along both sides of the road and fog in the valleys in between. The mountains were covered with evergreens. Occasionally we would see an orchard on the mountain-side.

Our second colleague, had not had lunch, so we split the pork sandwich and potato crisps. The pork was pleasant with a sweet-spicy taste, something like BBQ. The potato crisps were lightly salted and had full potato flavor.  However my colleague was still hungry so we stopped at a rest stop where he had a meal. I got myself an ice cream novelty, similar to a Nutty Buddy.

As we got close to Niihama, the scenery continued to be beautiful. You could see the mountains on the left and the Seto sea on the right. I found most of the buildings bland, but they did no harm to the scenery. Niihama is an industrial city so little attention is paid to aesthetics. 

Pretty soon we arrived at our client electronic company, it was still raining, but we knew that we  would be indoors for the rest of the day. The company was near the sea port and we could see giant gantries from the parking lot. 

We approached the guard shack and K-San filled out the admission forms and we were each issued a plastic zip-lock bag containing:

  1. A large blue plastic bag
  2. a badge
  3. Various instruction manuals in Japanese
  4. A locker key
  5. Some other items that I had no occasion to use, so I forgot them.

In my next installment I will tell you about life in a typical Japanese electronics factory and you will see why it does no good to wear a business suit.