Get email delivery of the Cadence blog featured here
In the first installment, I wrote about why I had to visit Japan in 1983, and the semiconductor stuff I did there. Today, it's all the other stuff.
When I went on this first trip to Japan, Japanese food was not common in the US (and had been non-existent in Britain, where I had lived until a year earlier). I'd never had sushi, for example.
I went to Japan with two Chinese colleagues, who were American citizens. One thing I discovered is that as a Brit I didn't need a visa, whereas my colleagues did. This was still an era where everyone visiting the US had to go to the US consulate and get a visa before they could get on the plane. But Britain didn't require visas for Japanese, so Japan reciprocated. The US did, so Japan reciprocated in the other direction and insisted all Americans had the hassle of going to the Japanese consulate in San Francisco (it would be neat if the Japanese consulate was in Chinatown, since the Chinese consulate is in Japantown, but actually it's in the financial district).
When we landed, some people from Rohm too us for dinner. I was pretty spaced out after a long flight. The jet stream was very strong that year, and the flight took 13 hours instead of 11 (in contrast it would only be 8 hours on the way back). The meal was cooked on a big hot plate next to the table (a bit like Teppanyaki, or Benihana if you don't know it by its Japanese name). Live shrimp were put on the hot plate. They squirmed around a little as they were cooked. "Well, this is different," I remember thinking as the shrimp finally stopped moving.
I'd never had sushi, as I said. The first day after we arrived, I had been working on the programming stuff, and I was meeting all my colleagues with their colleagues from Rohm in a sushi bar. I was traveling on my own. I discovered what it must be like to be illiterate. Even today, you see less English (or Romanji as the Japanese call writing in a western alphabet) than in Tokyo, but then you saw none. The taxi dropped me in approximately the right place (I'd been given a note written in Japanese) but finding the place was tricky. I think one of my colleagues spotted me from inside the sushi restaurant and came and got me. So that was my first sushi experience. Of course, as a newbie, I was forced to eat some things that they only told me what they were later, such as "drunken shrimp" where the shrimp is served in alcohol. Only later did I learn that it was still alive (but drunk) when it was peeled for me.
The following night it was Sukiyaki. In the US, if you get sukiyaki, it is a dish prepared in the kitchen that they bring out and you eat. In Japan, there is a burner in the table, and a large empty pan, and somebody who knows what they are doing cooks it all. I assume the staff of the restaurant will show you how if you are clueless, but all the Japanese engineers and managers seemed to know how to cook the meat, and vegetables. You each get a raw egg to mix with soy sauce to make the dipping sauce. It's much more of a communal experience, not least because you are all sharing the same meal, not picking dishes of your own.
By the way, Japan doesn't have "Japanese restaurants" of the type we have in the US, that serve sushi, and tempura, and teriyaki, and more. Sushi restaurants serve only sushi. Tempura restaurants serve only tempura. Smaller restaurants that serve a range of food, but typically there is no menu and it is whatever they have that day. My favorite restaurant in Japan was around the back of Compass's distributor many years later. But it only had 6 seats, and we only managed to go there once when it wasn't already full. It is the one place I had fugu sashimi, the puffer-fish that is poisonous with nerve toxin if not prepared the right way. The person next to me, a stranger, offered me a piece of raw red meat that I assumed was beef, or maybe horse (horsemeat sashimi is a thing in Japan), but it was whale.
Many Japanese restaurants, especially in shopping malls and airports, have something that is a savior if you can't read Japanese. The menu is in the window made out of plastic, so you can point at what you want. Once you know "biru kudasai" you are set. Apparently, most of the fake food comes from a single city, Gujo Hachiman, 3 hours from Tokyo (see A Visit to Japan's Fake Food Capital). On a later trip to Japan I bought a completely convincing scotch on the rocks that sat on my desk, and would fool visitors to my office. But all the food is very convincing—that sushi on the right above is fake.
Anyway, once I got back to the US, for about 6 months I could say "the only Japanese restaurants I've ever been to were in Japan." Today, when every strip mall seems to have a sushi place, and Happi House will give you a Japanese version of fast food, it seems odd to point out that most of my colleagues at VLSI at the time, like me before my trip, had never been to any Japanese restaurant in any country.
One evening I got taken to a karaoke bar. It seems hard to believe, but nobody in the US had heard of it. When I told people about it, there was universal agreement that such a thing would never go anywhere in the US. This was before the days of video karaoke, the songs were all in a book about two inches thick, with music on audio tapes. Almost all the songs were in Japanese, except for a single page at the end, which had The House of the Rising Sun on one side, and I Did It My Way on the other. Since I knew them both (and they don't have an insane vocal range) I sang them several times. As the token newbie to Japan who'd never experienced karaoke before, I wasn't allowed to refuse.
By the way, the name karaoke comes from Japanese. "kara" means empty, and "oke" is a short form of okesutura, the Japanese for orchestra (obviously just a version of the English word phonetically transcribed into sounds that exist in Japanese), So it means "empty orchestra", the music is there but not the soloist. In most of Asia, where it is very popular, it is called KTV.
I had one day being a tourist. The wife and kids of one of the VLSI engineers who had been working onsite at Rohm for several weeks had come out. He had to work so his wife and kids, and I went to Kyoto for the day on the train. Since they were a Chinese family, they could read some of the signs even though the words are completely different. One little-known fact is that every Japenese city has a weird name in Chinese that most Japanese have never heard, since the Chinese just take the Kanji characters and pronounce them as in Chinese. So Tokyo, which has two symbols meaning east and capital (东京) is called Dongjing in Chinese. You can deduce that "jing" means capital. Bei means north, so Bejing is the north capital. I'll tell you that nan means south, so I'll leave you to work out where the south capital is. What used to be called the west capital, xi is west, is now called xi'an, the city where the terracotta soldiers are.
In that era, there was no English even on the station name signs. Luckily most place names in Japan us Kanji, basically Chinese ideograms, not one of the other two alphabets that the Japanese have, Hiragaana for Japanese words and Katakana for phonetic transcription of foreign words. Many foods are foreign in origin, so a lot of a Japanese menu is in katakana (the Japanese for bread, for example, is pan, from the Portuguese). When I was going to Japan more regularly in the 1990s, one of my colleagues learned katakana and so he and I would go to a local diner for breakfast, as a pleasant change from the hotel buffet and about 10% of the price, and he could read most of the menu.
So my Chinese colleague's wife could read the station signs, and get us there. The only challenge was that on the way there, on a train that stopped at every station, we didn't really know when we were close. Osaka to Kyoto is like San Francisco to San Jose, it's built up all the way, so you never get a sense of getting to Kyoto, so suddenly we had to get out at short notice when we realized (or she did) that we had arrived. The journey took about an hour, I think. On the way back, we paid extra and took the shinkansen (which means new line, and is what in the West people call the bullet train). It went straight from Kyoto to Osaka in about 15 minutes.
We took a tour in Kyoto that took us to several of the famous shrines and zen gardens. I can't remember which, and I don't have any of the photographs I took to illustrate this post, my ex-wife has all the photo albums. I went back a couple of years ago and only one of the places I saw that time seemed familiar. If you go to Japan, visiting Kyoto should be on your itinerary (it is 2½ hours from Tokyo on the shinkansen).
I mentioned above about the difficulty of finding the sushi bar. One problem in Japan is that addresses don't get you precisely to where you are going. Japenese streets do not have names. Really. Japan's addresses are hierarchical, from a city, sometimes a subdivision like a prefecture, to a smaller region of the city (called a chome), to a block, and house number. It is very counterintuitive if you are used to naming the streets, not the gaps between them. For example, the old Compass Design Automation office was in Shinjuku San Chome (san means 3), followed by the block and office number, that I forget. The house numbers also don't follow much of a system, because they got allocated in order of registration, largely when buildings were built. The result of this is that a taxi driver could get you close, but not to the doorway you wanted. Of course, with Google maps this is no longer true, and even though the numbering is not logical, the map programs all know where they are.
The most logical house numbering system I know is France, where your house number on a street is the distance in meters down the street from the end nearest the post office, except that the right side is even and the left is odd. So even before mapping software, it was pretty easy to find the right house. If, like my house in Biot, the number was 470, then you knew it was on the right, nearly half a kilometer from the start of the road (starting from the end nearest the post office, it doesn't work quite so well from the other end of the street).
Having said that, apparently in Kyoto and Sapporo, they do have street names. But only in those cities. There is an exception to every rule (except that this is a rule, so an exception would be a rule without an exception. Ouch).
If you really want to know more, then try How to Read a Japanese Address.
For my advice on visiting, see Breakfast Bytes Guide to Japan Travel.
Sign up for Sunday Brunch, the weekly Breakfast Bytes email.