Internet Withdrawal in Akita

Back to Contents of Issue: June 2002

It takes time, money and a steely determination to access your unsolicited commercial emails on the road.

by Justin Hall

TOKYO IS A PAIR OF wrap-around interactive TV goggles with quadraphonic speakers that can seldom be turned off. Add plentiful Internet connections to convenient contemporary culture and you've got delicious over-stimulation.

That over-stimulation first lured me to live in Japan. But after a few months of involuntarily listening to loudspeakers, surrounded by beautiful people always in a hurry, I felt drawn to tranquility and old Japanese culture in the countryside. Leaving Tokyo would be calming, but leaving the Internet would be panic-inducing. Before I went to the country I figured I would buy some wireless modem connection to connect my laptop from the hinterlands. But since I was unsure that any Tokyo gadgetry would work where the rice grows, a friend observed that I should probably buy the technology where I expected to use it.

I was headed to Akita, a prefecture at the far north end of Honshu, the main island of Japan. Known for hot springs, demonic festivals and hearty sake, Akita is a great place to escape from Tokyo's throbbing electric hustle. I disembarked from a pink bullet train at Tazawa-ko, a small town boasting an expansive architectural marvel of a train station. There, Miyuki Miura works in an excellently appointed tourist office, offering generous advice and suggestions for North Japan wanderers. I asked where I might find mobile phone hardware. After puzzling over this question for some moments with her green-frocked co-workers, she directed me to a local shop selling garden implements, slippers, candles and alarm clocks. I picked up a fantastic small blue and black ceramic bowl for JPY100, but no mobile phone modems.

Desperate for online community, I noticed an NTT ISDN phone at the train station. Here I could plug in a computer modem and dial up, using JPY1,000 phone cards lasting around 100 minutes. Several thousand yen later, it was clear that there must be some gadget that I could buy for that much money. High school students in baggy plaid pants waited for the pay phone, pressuring me to move on to new technology.

Kakunodate is a small town packed with preserved samurai houses. One stately Japanese mansion boasted intricate wood screens, casting turtle-shaped shadows on the walls. A few streets over, au and J-Phone are neighbors in mobile phone sales and service, with DoCoMo just around the corner. I couldn't find an inn that would take credit cards, but I had my choice of mobile service providers.

And I could surf the Web on a small screen from the samurai houses; my J-Phone worked in Kakunodate. At the J-Phone store, two young ladies ordered a USB cable that promised to turn my J-Phone into a mobile antenna for my laptop. Eager, I booted my machine and installed the software there. The cable plugged into my computer and my phone, but the software wouldn't come to life in Windows XP. Some time on the phone to Tokyo and these ladies discovered that this cable only works with versions of Windows from the last millennium. I was glad I had decided to try to install the device before I left the store; the ladies were apologetic, provided me a full refund and still posed for a photo together.

In Morioka, the provincial capital of Iwate Prefecture, I checked into the Metropolitan Hotel and luxuriated over a few hours of direct modem access without phone cards. The next morning I was presented with a phone bill equivalent to my room rate (JPY7,500). That was enough to convince me that I should have been throwing my money away on experimental technology instead. Fortunately, my time online had clued me into something cutting-edge. Keitai-l is a fantastic Internet mailing list about mobile phones. That morning J@pan Inc contributor Sam Joseph sent a message out asking if anyone had any experience with wireless access cards for laptops. Supposedly you could get online from just about anywhere in Japan, and stay there for as long as you wanted, for a flat monthly fee! Now instead of enjoying local arts and architecture, I could log on to the Internet and read through spam mail at slow speeds.

Morioka boasted multiple movie theaters on its 'Cinema Street,' so it seemed likely to have electronics shops offering more than gardening implements. One such store was quite pleased to see that I was a serious customer, shopping for the hot new wireless cards. After three hours of hardware installation and customer sign-up, their enthusiasm had waned a bit.

I was buying the Air H" (pronounced "Air Edge") card from DDI Pocket. It's about the size of a credit card and it plugged into the PC card slot on my Thinkpad. It uses the PHS network to dial up numbers, like a mobile phone and modem combined. It wouldn't connect with my American ISP Earthlink (even though it had Japanese phone numbers), so I signed up for PRIN ('Provider Included'), the service provider bundled with the card. There were a couple of card choices: All worked at either 32Kbps (unmetered) or 64Kbps (time limited). The basic unit cost around JPY5,000 and the wireless CompactFlash cards served both PDA and laptop. Costing JPY12,800, the top choice had a little black antenna that made it compatible with a 128Kbps service that was due to launch at the end of March. It was about twice as expensive as the others, still what's the point of deciding to throw away money on gadgets and only going halfway? I bought the most expensive card, the AH-G10 manufactured by Honda Electron.

While the store was eager to help me spend money, it wasn't clear that DDI would provide Air H" service to a foreigner with no permanent apartment in Japan, no Japanese bank account or credit card and only a tourist visa. One man with dark glasses and ready enthusiasm for the project was called over by the storekeeper and he took over, spending two hours on the phone working to get me permission to spend my money on this service. I got the sense that he was massaging my incomplete data, calling people to seek out exceptions. I was honored and impressed by his efforts on my behalf, bending the rules, collaborating on half-truths with a dodgy foreigner. Later I discovered he was actually a DDI employee and so I imagined that he was some kind of back-country rogue bureaucrat, intent on liberating information junkies.

When the transaction went through and I was left holding the slender metal card, I felt the beginning tickles of a return to information access. I was grateful for this man who put so much time into helping me get my card; letting him go would have been the nicest thing I could have done for him. Still I remembered my experience trying to install the J-Phone device. I couldn't conceive of getting tech support over the phone in Japanese, since much of my Japanese communication depends on facial expressions and physical gestures, so I whipped out my laptop and begged him to help me install the card on the spot. That took another hour; mostly struggling to get the Japanese-worded PRIN software to work on my English-language PC. Finally the Web came through on my computer, even though it was plugged into nothing! I let out a long, loud "Whee-uu!" perhaps unbecoming of a grateful 'outsider' in an electronics store in the regional capital of Iwate Prefecture. But I could see the world's Web of information flickering to life, dim neon lights about me. Superimposed over my beautiful snow-capped surroundings I could see a future of perpetual reloading; constantly current on a few news sites, Weblogs and unsolicited commercial emails. I was happy to have my attention span stunted once more.

At the Mister Donut across the street, seated between middle-aged Japanese housewives and young Russian exotic dancers, I tested my new wireless access. According to an online bandwidth test, I was getting about 26.7Kbps per second. That was cutting-edge modem speed in about 1992. Still, you couldn't likely use that old modem while eating a chocolate cream cruller in the Morioka Mister Donuts! My wireless card can reach the Internet from places where my mobile phone sits dead to the world -- in moving subway cars under Tokyo, from sleeping capsules and love hotel bathrooms, deep in the corridors under Narita airport. Once I returned to Tokyo, I found myself whipping out my laptop on short subway rides, holding the computer in one hand and single-handedly typing quick emails between stations. "Hey I'm emailing you from a moving train" messages got old fast, but constant access to the Internet has changed my life. Where I used to talk to strangers on the subway, these days I check my email again and delete the latest spam. Now I'm no longer a North Country hermit, offline with old culture, but a telecommuter always strung up with invisible wires somewhere between Tokyo and Cold Mountain. @

Justin Hall is an American journalist based somewhere in Japan. He is a regular J@pan Inc contributor. Check out his bewildering mass of personal journalism at

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