Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A High-Tech Workday in Japan - Part II

In Part I of this article I told you how we commuted across the country by air to arrive at this Japanese computer chip factory. The factory is called a "Fab", which is short for fabrication plant. Factories that make multiple types of chips for outside customers are called foundries.

My client owns its own fabs, but also outsource some of their production to foundries in Taiwan. Yes, the Japanese also look to cut labor costs by off-shore production.

In the last installment I had checked in at the guard shack and was issued my zip-lock bag of accessories.
  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.
As we entered the complex, which is several square miles and many buildings we saw several gigantic robotic vehicles carrying materials between buildings. These moved very slowly and played pleasant music to warn off human pedestrians. I thought that the music was a nice touch over a claxon, or some warning message like "Dear Human, Please Avoid this Giant Robot or it Will Crush You".

By contrast we passed a small rock garden with a lovely waterfall and Bonzai trees. I would have liked to linger because the scenic mountains were visible from this spot, but we had a busy day ahead.

We walked about 200 meters and turned left into an unmarked door. This led to the customary shoe check station. No fab in Asia will allow you to enter wearing street shoes. They do not want street dust brought into the building. So we each put our shoes into a cubby hole and went to the shelf for a pair of slippers. This fab had snappy looking clean white slippers, the largest of which was about USA size 11. I wear size 12, so it was a tight squeeze into the largest pair. My American colleague is about 6'8", so he was even more uncomfortable as he squeezed into a size 11.

We then went through a pair of air-tight double doors into a locker room. As we entered we passed shelves that had various sizes of pajama like garments. I tried to select the blue pajamas, but was told that vendors had to take the beige colored version. We each took a top and pants and headed toward the lockers. We hung up our street clothes and donned the beige pajamas, we used the locker key to lock the locker with our clothes inside.

Now you know why it does no good to wear a business suit. No one will ever see it. The customer will only see me in my drab beige pajamas and too-small white slippers.

The large blue plastic bag was for any items that I needed to carry into the fab. The bag keeps dust from spreading as one is walking toward the work area. This was difficult for me as I carry lots of computer equipment and I need all of it. So here are the things that I stuffed into the blue plastic bag:
  1. My laptop computer
  2. Extra battery
  3. AC Power adapter + Japanese plug converter
  4. An attached hard drive
  5. A network switch
  6. A USB thumb drive
  7. My lab notebook (taking careful notes is very important in this line of work)
As you can guess this made the bag very heavy and awkward to carry. Little did I know how far we still had to walk. Remember that these factories are huge and one must pass through multiple buildings to reach the place of work.

We walked the length of one building, went down some stairs, walked down the hall, climbed some other stairs, took a left, walked the length of another building and boarded an elevator. We must have covered at least half a mile total. We walked some more and then took another elevator and finally arrived at a very important place. The fab cafeteria.

Besides being used to serve meals, many people use the cafeteria as a work space and informal meeting spot. It is also one of the few spots with windows to the outside. The view of the mountains was spectacular from here and if you sit near the window you get cell phone reception. Cell phones do not work in other parts of the building unless they are the special fab issued mobile phones, which the customers all carry.

We called our customer's cell phone and he appeared in the cafeteria in a heartbeat. I don't know how he did it, but every time I called this guy, he appeared at my side instantly. It was convenient because every time I needed him I just called a number and he showed up.

We sat down in the cafeteria with the customer and his boss and discussed the goals for the day. All conversation was in Japanese with periodic translation for my benefit. Since they were discussing a subject matter that I am familiar with, and it is peppered with English technical terms; I could usually discern the gist of the conversation even if I do not speak Japanese. However I was careful to not assume that I understood. K-San would explain some of the nuance of the conversation as well as the literal translation. Sometimes one has to ask for additional translation because sometimes the Japanese guys will forget that the Gaijin does not understand them.

We were escorted through a large room, probably 40,000 square feet that was full of desks side by side, but no cube partitions. The people were all working industriously. As we walked through it struck me that all the male employees were wearing blue pajamas and the female employees were wearing pink pajamas, very cute. The supervisors were wearing black pants with dark red jackets. Of course everyone wore the snappy white slippers. Everyone looked very comfortably dressed, and now I understood why I could not wear blue pajamas, I would be mistaken for an employee. You the pajamas also serve as uniforms complete with insignia. Outsiders wear beige.

We went into a slightly smaller lab and installed in a corner. We were told that we could set up our computers on the right side of the aisle, but not to encroach on the left side. At this point we had our marching orders and we set about to work.

We worked until about 6PM at which point K-San informed me that he had a meeting at 8 PM and would I like to have dinner first? I agreed with the plan since I had done as much as I could for the day and would need to meet the customer again to move forward.

We checked into our hotel. I asked for a non-smoking room and the desk clerk got very apologetic. He politely said that they had no non-smoking rooms. I could not figure out if he meant never or if the rooms were all taken. He asked me to smell the room and call him if I could not stand it.

The hotel was clean and attractive and displayed a large copper ingot in the lobby, which I learned was a native product of the region. When I got to my floor I found that the hall smelled of smoke but I was relieved to find that my room smelled fresh and smoke free. I opened the window and found that my view was of a shopping mall, but behind it I could see the mountains.

We walked to the shopping mall for dinner and found a good selection of restaurants there as well as huge grocery store. My colleagues wanted to eat Italian food, or I should say the Japanese interpretation there-of.

I had a spaghetti like dish with tomato sauce and topped with sautéed eggplants. K-San had the egg-rice, which is a semi-spherical mound of rice perfectly molded in to an omelet. In the usual Japanese fashion, the restaurant was very clean and the service was prompt and courteous. The food was pretty good, but did not really taste Italian at all.

The big mistake was ordering garlic bread. It looked and smelled like garlic bread, but that was where the resemblance ended. Imagine if aliens were able to measure looks and smell, but not the taste of human food. This is what they would produce. All I can say is this stuff tasted strange and felt strange going down.

On the way back we stopped at the grocery store to buy water and snacks. I could not resist buying the chocolate macadamia candies, some beef jerky and some wasabi chips. Japanese junk food is very good. Even if you don't like Japanese food, you can survive on the junk food. Just make sure to eat a fruit once in a while.

The next morning I woke up early, did my exercise routine and went up to the breakfast buffet. The breakfast was mostly traditional Japanese which included fish, rice, and soup. The soup was orange in color and the flavor was vaguely familiar. After some time I realized that it was a pumpkin soup. It was very smooth and tasted like pumpkin. I was careful not to eat too much at breakfast (or any meal) because I am not used to the food and my body clock is all confused due to the 14 hour time change. When traveling in Asia, the key is to eat just enough to survive because you never know how or when your body will react; and you do not want any embarrassing situations on customer site. Some other time I will tell you about my colleague YK and his embarrassing situation in Taiwan.

We went back to the factory and went through the same security check in and dressing procedure as the previous day. I had solved some of the problems I encountered the previous day, so we made progress without serious mishap for the entire morning. As I was working, K-San alternated between going to the cafeteria to download his email near the window, studying technical manuals and preparing power-point presentations. Even though he was here to help me get around, he still managed to make progress in his normal job. Very impressive.

Around lunchtime, certain musical sounds are played over the public address system. I did not know what these meant and I happened to go to the restroom about the time one of these tunes were played. Ignorance in this case was not bliss because it was time for the first shift of lunch to approach the cafeteria. As I made my way down the hall I encountered a line of pink and blue humanity marching two abreast in perfect step toward cafeteria. There must have been close to 2000 people coming down the hall and I felt like a salmon swiming upstream. The hall was narrow and there was no room for me to move in the opposite direction. I finally gave up and waited in the cafeteria until the first wave dissipated. I then hurried back to my work area.

K-San was hungry, but he found that we could not eat lunch in the cafeteria because we had not reserved in advance. So we walked the half mile back to the exit, hung up our pajamas, put on our clothes and left the facility.

We drove to a nearby restaurant that served most of the common Japanese fare. Out front there are realistic looking models of the food to help you decide what to have. I decided to have the Curry Oodon noodles. These are long, fat, round noodles in a rich curry sauce with some sort of meat. It is really a delicious dish if you like curry, which I do. It is almost a noodle soup because you get so much of the curry sauce. It is really a comfort food for me. I sprinkled some red pepper on the dish, which K-San found surprising.

Fully re-charged, we headed back to the fab, donned our pajamas and completed our workday. At the end of the day we were joined by one of our Japanese sales managers and we went out to dinner.

When we were discussing dinner plans, they asked me if I wanted to eat at Big Boy, the American chain. I thought they were joking because I would not ever eat at Big Boy in the USA. It turned out they were serious, I guess that food is a novelty for them.

However we decided to go to a Japanese fried pork restaurant and I could not be happier. I ordered a combination platter that included a breaded fried pork cutlet and several fried prawns and some fried oysters. I was given a mortar and pestle with toasted sesame seeds and instructed to grind them up. Then a brown tangy/gingery sauce is added to the sesame. This is used as a dipping sauce for the meats.

K-San pointed out to me that the sign said (in Japanese) additional rice and cabbage at no charge. This pleased me greatly because I always like to keep up my intake of vegetables. The cabbage is really a seasonal salad, it is topped with a vinegary/sesame dressing. I found the cabbage quite refreshing and had several helpings.

We put in one more half day of work and met all the goals of our trip.

Before traveling back to the airport we stopped for lunch at a Ramen Noodle Restaurant. The Japanese people always call the Ramen noodles Chinese noodles. This was my favorite place so far because they had a very spicy noodle dish with an almost Korean flavor, in fact they served kimshee as well. The noodles were in a red pepper flavored soup with pieces of meat mixed in and various vegetables that I did not recognize. The soup was delicious and the noodles looked like thin spaghetti noodles.

For side dishes I ordered Gioza, which is very similar to the Chinese dumplings. I also ordered Ee-Ka, or fried squid. The dumplings were great and the squid was fresher than any I have ever eaten, imagine the best possible calamari, only fresher.

We drove back to the airport and still had some time to kill before boarding. There was a huge model dragon in the airport lobby and a food store that was offering free samples. Even though I was full, I sampled some of the interesting fare of the region.

K-San is a frequent traveler so we entered the first class lounge with his card. Inside they offered beer, wine, fruit juices and various snacks. I was too tired to drink alcohol, so I had several glasses of tomato juice.

We boarded the plane and I passed out the minute it was in the air and awoke as we were landing in Tokyo Haneda airport.

K-San escorted me to the Haneda airport hotel where I would spend my last night in Tokyo before traveling home. The hotel was great just like all the others. I took advantage of all the amenities, had a scotch and some soup noodle for dinner and went to bed early. I did not even check my email.

The next day I went home. A good trip but boy was I tired.

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