This page was last updated on 06/16/02.

Click on the dates below see photos and details for each day. Click on the small photos to see the full-sized pictures.

Friday, December 4
Saturday, December 5
Sunday, December 6
Monday, December 7
Tuesday, December 8
Wednesday, December 9
Thursday, December 10


Yearly Trips to Japan

I worked in Japan at NTT in Yokosuka for three months during the summer of 1990, and at Matsushita Communications Industrial in Yokohama for two years from 1991-3. In November 1993 I went back to Japan for few days to present a paper that had been accepted to a conference, and also saw friends during this time. I liked this idea, and every year since have visited Japan for a week around November, ideally Thanksgiving week.

This is just about the ideal time to go there, for several reasons. One is that the weather is reasonably good in November, a little chillier than the San Francisco Bay Area but not too cold, and it tends not to rain much (typically one or two days of rain during the week I'm there). I get two days of vacation from work for Thanksgiving, and Japan has a holiday (their version of Labor Day) during that week, which gives me an extra afternoon to see people who would otherwise be working. It's during the Christmas shopping season so typically things (such as games or CDs) have just been released that I want to get. Yuming used to release her yearly album right around this week (although not for the past 2 or 3 years, unfortunately) so it was great to see posters for it everywhere and it played in every music store. Also the Nintendo Space World event is typically held around this week, and I attended it once, in 1997. After standing in line for over 2 hours I got to be one of the first people to play the Nintendo 64 Legend of Zelda, which I bought this trip.

I almost always go alone; my wife Kyoko goes separately once or twice during the year. This was both because we had different vacations (she was in school until this year), and because we would do different things when we visited in any case. This year she went in October and went on a trip to Taiwan with her parents.

I tend to do the same thing every year. During weekdays, I go shopping and for lunch to my favorite places in Tokyo, chiefly Shinjuku, Akihabara, and Jimbouchou. During evenings I go out drinking and to karaoke with friends. The daytime of weekends and holidays is also spent seeing friends. I haven't tired of this routine yet, and every year has been great. It's also extremely condensed and busy, which is just what I like. In fact a couple years ago I decided to cut the trip length by one day, as there was a little too much dead time. The trip is always exhausting both mentally (having to speak Japanese almost exclusively the entire week) and physically (having to walk and climb stairs all day most every day, often carrying a lot), and a week is all I can take.

I think the first year or two I stayed entirely with Kyoko's parents, who live in Sumida-ku on the East side of Tokyo. This is reasonably convenient to Narita (the airport), which is further east in Chiba, but not so convenient for the rest of the trip, as most of the people I see are in Yokohama, over an hour away. My friend Neil Limpanukorn and his wife Naoko, who live in Yamate, Yokohama, have let me stay with them the past few years which has been great. Not only is it more convenient, but more relaxing to be staying with friends, and I can speak English with Neil. I stay with Neil and Naoko through the bulk of the trip, but spend the first and last nights with Kyoko's parents, and it's always fun to see them as well.

Japanese and Walking

I generally don't have much opportunity to speak Japanese in the US, except at home with Kyoko, and we would tend to use a mixture of English and Japanese, whichever was easier at the time. Then typically a month or so before the trip I would panic and insist that we only speak Japanese, and by the time I went to Japan my Japanese would be enough to get me by. After last year, though, I thought I should continue this throughout the year, and since then I've spoken with Kyoko only in Japanese. I can't really say my Japanese has improved significantly from this, but it has, shall we say, deteriorated less rapidly, and I found it noticeably easier going this trip. A month or so before the trip I did still concentrate in actually actively studying Japanese to try to improve it.

As for the physical aspect, visiting Tokyo is a real workout. Trying to get my luggage from Narita to Kyoko's parents' house is the first challenge, and because of omiyage (gifts for those I visit) the suitcase is typically heavier when I go than when I return. Narita itself has escalators, and I always spoil myself by taking the Keisei Skyliner express train to Ueno, but once at Ueno I still have to take two more train lines (the Ginza subway line to Asakusa, and then the Toubu line to Higashi-mukoujima), and there are a lot of stairways before I finally reach their house. When transporting my luggage to and from Yamate, I leave the suitcase in Higashi-mukoujima and bring everything in smaller duffel bags, but it's still quite heavy. Each day shopping I tend to aquire a lot of stuff as well, which I then have to carry around for the remainder of the day.

In Tokyo I spend most of the days walking, standing, and again climbing stairs. There is almost no place to sit and rest unless you want to go to a coffee shop, but I hate the idea of having to pay to sit down, so I never do. You can often get a seat on the trains, which are not terribly crowded except during the rush hours. I love walking, which is my favorite activity, but it gets tiring when you do it all day for several days in a row. I also love trains, and Japanese trains are by far the nicest I've ever been on.

At Oracle a couple years ago a friend got me addicted to climbing stairs; at the time I was on the 13th floor, although our group soon moved down to the 7th floor. I'd usually take the elevator down, but would only take the stairs up. Now there are stairs everywhere in Japan--you always have to use them at train stations, and very often at stores as well. For example the 6-story Kinokuniya bookstore has an elevator, but it's so crowded and slow that the stairs are far superior. I used to get worn out by all this climbing, but in 1997 I found that all my practice at Oracle had an unexpected benefit: the stairs in Japan were now a piece of cake!

This past year I worked at Siebel, where I use only the stairs for both up and down, but this is hardly anything as I only work on the third floor. I've been getting in better and better shape each year from bicycling, but this year I stopped bicycling around September as the weather started getting bad, so even though I still walk a lot I was worried I wouldn't be in good shape for Japan this time. But it turned out I hadn't deteriorated too badly and was fine this trip.


For the first time, this year my trip was in December rather than November. This was due to the release of our product at work which was supposed to be done by the end of November, so I had to postpone the trip. It turned out the release was delayed yet again to mid-December (when it did finally come out) and although I was allowed to take the trip I had to work, with everyone else, both weekend days when I returned, which was not fun as I was still exhausted from the trip (more tiring than work itself!) and suffering from jet lag. When I go Thanksgiving Week I actually come back the Friday after Thanksgiving, giving me the weekend to recover from the trip itself. Incidentally I never have a problem with jetlag when I'm in Japan, but always have terrible jetlag, which takes about a week to get over, when I return. This is apparently the norm--travelling West is always easy and East is hard.

December is bounenkai (end of the year party) time in Japan and also especially busy, so I was worried about not being able to see some people. Indeed I didn't get to see three people that I had planned to see, so that was unfortunate, and I had to make a few last minute schedule changes during the week, but overall things worked out fairly well.


The biggest change I've seen over the last five or so years is that my friends, who previously were mostly single or just married, are now mostly married and have young children. So whereas before we'd mostly go out drinking and to karaoke, this time I mostly visited people at their homes. This is a big deal in Japan, much less casual than it is to visit someone in the US, so I felt bad about intruding, but it was still very interesting and fun for me. I only went out drinking twice and to karaoke once the entire week!

The other big change is that I finally started to really see signs of the recession. The bubble burst right around when I was working at Matsushita, but it didn't seem to affect most ordinary people. Even this year I would say my friends were living fairly normally. But I started to see some breakdown in the infrastructure for the first time, particularly in the train system.

Japan's train system is incredible in many ways, and one of them is that trains always run on time, nearly to the second. During the entire time I lived there I only experienced one major delay. However this year there were many delays. The very first sign was that the Skyliner came in around 4 minutes late, which previously would be unthinkable. The worst system by far was JR (which I'd heard was in bad financial shape), and I had particular trouble with the JR Negishi line which serves Yamate, experiencing a 7 minute delay one day and a 15 minute delay another day. For the latter I used my experience with delays in the US to good advantage: When the train finally arrived it was of course completely packed, but I figured another train would come soon after and waited for it. It did and was nearly empty.

The subways actually were fine when I used them, and the Toyoko line which served Tsunashima didn't have any delays when I used it, although once the in-train announcement system was not working. Although it seems it should not be so much effort to make trains run on time, I guess it really is difficult, and perhaps it really does require a great deal of money (for maintenance and so forth). Now that this money is no longer there, things are breaking down.

The other change I noticed was related to paper products. In Japan you used to be able to get free packets of tissues very easily in places like Shibuya; this year almost no one was handing them out. Kyoko had remarked about this as well when she visited in October. Also the quality of paper used in books and magazines, which previously was very high, seemed to be going downhill.

I miss the old wealthy Japan! I hope the recession ends soon, although there's no sign that things will be improving in the next few years.


When I lived in Japan I took very few pictures, and when I visited I never took any. I've never felt pictures to really capture the feeling of actually being there. This year, however, I wanted to document my trip in pictures, and bought an Olympus C-900Z digital camera, which had just come out, in time to do that. Surprisingly I found it was a little cheaper in the US, so I just bought it here, and that was nice in that I could use it immediately.

Click on the dates to the left to see pictures and details for each day.

Return to John Leo's Homepage