Getting Settled in Japan: Cell Phones and Air Conditioners

The text of this post was originally written in April, 2004 as part of an online diary I kept before I actually started my blog. I'd forgotten about it until I ran across it in February 2008. I inserted it into my blog then, assigning dates appropriate to the content instead of to the time I actually added it. Thus, these April 2004 posts show up as my “first posts” in my list of posts, even though I didn't actually start a blog until a year later with my first post about buying a car in Japan.

There's nothing here of interest to anyone but me; I insert it here so that it's together with my other posts (which are also of little interest to anyone but me :-)) Any comments I add while posting this to my blog in February 2008 appear like this.

This was originally written just after we moved from California to Japan, so our days were dominated by jet lag, and trying to set up our life and newly-acquired apartment. Anthony was 18 months old.

Anthony mercifully slept until 5:15. By 6:00 I was walking to the train station on my way to the apartment. I got there exactly an hour later. The fridge we'd ordered had a width of 75cm, and I'd measured that we had 75cm of space, so I wanted to make sure that the space really was 75cm, and not 74.9cm. Also, I wanted to make sure that there was clear passage from the street to the kitchen, so I measured the elevator door and all the passage ways. It should just fit everything, although it won't hurt to have a screw driver on hand to take off the occasional doorknob that sticks out too far. We'll see. It's slated to be delivered on Friday.

I also measured the various places where the four air conditioners might go — both the in-room unit, and the outside compressor. The way air conditioners work in Japan is that the main compressor (the size of a large suitcase) sits outside somewhere – usually in a conspicuously inconvenient place to achieve maximum ugliness – and inside on the wall is a heater/blower unit that's maybe a yard wide by 8" tall by 8" deep. The two are connected by some coolant pipes “hidden” in plastic conduit that snakes from the wall unit, up down and all around to a hole in the wall where it passes to the outside, where it then snakes again to wherever the compressor unit is. This method of snaking conduit does an impressive job of achieving maximum ugliness, both inside and out.

On the way from Sanjou Keihan train station to the apartment, I'd stopped by a convenience store (convenience stores are, appropriately named, everywhere) to get some breakfast. Between measurings, I'd sat on the floor eating, enjoying the view of the tree-covered hills that I had out the back windows. That view will eventually go away when the next stage of the apartments are built (in about a year), but for now it was nice to enjoy. I was surprised to see that the construction site was quite — I'd expected it to be a noisy hustle and bustle by 7am, if not earlier. It was still quiet when I left at 8:30.

After arriving home, I then set out to get a prepaid cell phone. We don't have the time nor energy to figure out all the different plans and phone and features and such, so just want to get something that's easy and will work for a few months, until we have that time and energy. Unfortunately, it turns out that they're neither easy nor cheap, at least not at Docomo, the largest cell provider. They'd have to order them, and each one would cost something like $300 to start. (We want three — one for each Fumie, me, and her mom.)

So, I thought to just get the cheapest plan and figure it out later, but since I'm a foreigner and I don't have my alien registration card (getting it is high on the priority list), I can't enter into contracts. So, I need to go back with Fumie.

Fumie wanted to go to Yamada-denki (the electronics shop) again, to take care of the air conditioners, so we headed off there while Mom watched Anthony. While she sat in one massage chair with pamphlets looking over the features of the various makes and models, I sat in another trying to read the long and complex descriptions of plans for the cellular carrier Au (pronounced 'ey you').

Their cheapest plan, on the surface, is something like $40/month, but when you get into discounts like a yearly contract and a multi-phone family plan, it comes down to about $25/month. But then you need to add $3 for access to text messaging (hugely popular here, as it's cheaper than calling). There are a variety of other fees, too. But choosing the plan is the most confusing. This particular company has two classes of plan, and within each class they have many different plans. One class allows for unlimited text messaging and internet, for $50/month extra, but the other allows for a cheaper base cost. After spending quite a while trying to understand the plans, I put that on hold to look at the phones.

Japan has four big cellular providers, but I was limiting myself to just one (“Au”), since they support a feature that Fumie wants — a “car navigation unit” type feature (that you can use while walking as well, of course). Phones that support this have GPS built in, and so you can download maps that will lead you to your destination. It turns out to be quite expensive (about $2.50/mile), but would be useful in a pinch, and, the price would come down considerably if we get a special (for a fee) usage plan.

Anyway, they had three phones that supported that feature, and many that didn't. I didn't need it, so didn't want to limit myself to only those three phones, so started looking over all of them. When in The States, I had a Sony/Erricson T616, which has a camera built in. I was extremely disappointed in it, though, as the postage-sized pictures it took were of the worst quality — essentially, worthless. I never really used that feature. There was one phone in the Au lineup, though, which had a two-megapixel camera — its quality should be very good. It caught my eye.

Fumie had eventually decided on the air conditioners, so we went over to make the purchase. We needed four of varying sizes: rooms sizes in Japan are measured in how many tatami mats fit (or would fit). A tatami mat in this part of the country is one meter by two meters (they're a bit smaller in the Tokyo area). A six-mat room is sort of the standard bedroom, with smaller 4.5-mat rooms often for kids or college students. Air conditioner and heating units are then measured in what kind of rooms they're for. For example, a unit might be rated for an 8-10 mat room (with the eight being for a wood-constructed building, and 10 for a modern concrete house/apartment, as ours is).

So, we got at 14-mat unit for the Living room, a 10-mat unit for the dining room, and two 6-mat units for the bedrooms. The total came to about $7,000. We tried to pay with our credit card (the same one we'd used the previous day to buy the $1,700 fridge), but there were “issues”. The credit card company wanted to verify who we were (a good thing), but someone at the intermediate bank in Japan screwed things up by asking us our address instead of a former address, which the US credit card company was asking us for. In the end, I called the number on the back of the card and (amazingly?) ended up talking to the same person who had talked to the Japanese intermediate. I verified my identity to her satisfaction (upon getting my birthday right, she wished me a happy birthday — it was still Apr 12th in The States) and then found out that the charge had indeed been authorized (the address screwup wasn't enough to nix it, especially considering that the US agent could tell that the Japanese agent just didn't know what was going on). But, the transaction, if it went through, would put us over our credit limit. Sigh. For the last 15 years I'd had a debit card, that debited from my brokerage account (and margined me if I didn't have the cash), so I never had to care about credit limits (nor paying bills every month).

In the end, we got the transaction canceled, went to a bank and withdrew $8,000 from an ATM (no “$300/day withdrawal limits” here), and paid in cash. The whole payment ordeal wasted more than an hour, but in the end, we were happy to have the air conditioners taken care of. They'll be installed next Monday, hopefully.

We then went to talk to the cell phone people. It was an ordeal in and of itself on many levels, but made much more bearable by Ms. Mori, who was kind, patient, and very knowledgeable. With my previous research while in the massage chair, I'd tentatively picked out a plan and phones, but it turns out that the one plan wasn't compatible with the phone — I'd apparently missed that most basic tidbit of information. In the end, we picked a cheap plan and some phones. I got the two-megapixel phone, and Fumie got one that supports the navigation feature. We decided to get the same phone for Mom as for Fumie, so that Fumie can explain the workings (or vice-versa — Mom is pretty savvy, although she pretends she's not).

The main ordeal here was getting the family-plan discount. For that, you must prove that all are related, and although they provide for a variety of ways to do so (all have the same last name, and same address on driver's license, etc.), none applied to us. I mostly left that to Fumie, and in the end, after much wailing and grinding of teeth, it was figured out. The paperwork would take an hour to do, so Fumie and I went home to check on Mom and Anthony. (We'd left at about 11am, and it was now getting towards 6pm).

We arrived to find Anthony sleeping in the stroller just inside the front door, where we'd left him seven hours earlier. He'd been up and active during the day, but apparently had slept often after strolls with Mom.

After a while, we drove back and picked up the phones. I paid with my point card — when you buys stuff there, you generally get points (from 2 - 15%) that you can use for future purchases. The fridge and air conditioners had left us with about $600 worth of free stuff, and the phones themselves took about $400 of it.

We stopped by a bento (“boxed lunch”) place on the way home to pick up dinner. By this time, we were ragged tired. Anthony, having slept so much during the day, was wide awake and genki, and didn't sleep (nor let me sleep) until about 11.

Continued here...

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