I'm in Tokyo until Friday for some business (meeting some engineers face-to-face whom I've only ever seen by video conference so far). My first day at the office will be tomorrow (Tuesday).
I arrived in plenty of time for my flight at SFO. Security at the international terminal was crazy, as usual for when all the i-flights depart, but only 15-20 minutes wait. And before that I took a brief look at the pinball machine exhibit on display at SFO from SFMoMA. As Virgin America also flights out of the international terminal at SFO I've had lots of time to explore the station and, frankly, there's not all that much exciting there in the first place. But the wait went by fast.
The flight was basically uneventful. About an hour into it we hit some very sudden turbulence but it was more like 2.9 than a 6.0 on the Richter scale. The 777 I was on had one very neat feature: birds'-eye view camera. From pushing back at SFO, to taking off, to in-flight, through landing and taxiing to the gate at Narita, we had a TV channel showing what was underneath and about 20' in front of the plane. Way better than the boring ol' Google Map + airplane icon showing that you're (still) above the Pacific Ocean somewhere. At least this way you can watch the clouds slide by.
My officemate Jack suggested that I'd feel a lot less lost in Japan, not knowing the language, if I at least learned Katakana. Katakana is a syllabary, meaning that each glyph corresponds to exactly one sound; words are concatenations of sounds. (Some glyphs also get diacriticals to expand the number of sounds by a little, too.) Katakana has about 50 symbols and, despite my skepticism that I could memorize that many symbols in just a day, it was surprisingly easy. I downloaded a very nice Katakana drill program for my Nexus One and spent an hour or two during the flight, off and on, using it. Each drill is 100 rounds of showing a symbol and me getting 3 seconds to click what sound it makes. In successive drills I scored 20, 50, 66, 80, and 90 correct. Yeah, I was surprised, too! I then spent the rest of the flight and time in the airport sounding out words. (Katakana isn't the primary character set for Japanese but it is what's used for foreign, borrowed words, and even occasionally for emphasis of native words. So, it appears fairly often.)
I now have answers to all my pre-travel questions: Are there useful ATMs at Narita? Yes, my bank card worked just fine. Can I use my Nexus One in Japan? Yes, with my T-mobile SIM the phone'll roam to NTT DoCoMo just fine. Data roaming is mondo expensive, though ($15/MB versus flat-rate/unlimited in the US) so I've turned off data features. Can I acquire a local SIM that'll work with data? No; pre-paid SIMs are voice-only.
I bought my ticket for the Airport Limousine Bus which took me to Cerulean Tower Hotel in about the time expected (90 minute trip). Driving down the expressway it looks just like any other urban metropolis (say, like driving along 101 near San Francisco): there's trees and buildings and lights and other cars. The cars look normal, everything looks just normal, except, of course, they drive on the left side of the roads here.
The room at the Cerulean is very large, considering that I'm sitting in Tokyo right now. Full-sized bed, chair + ottoman, closet and bath all here. The bath has a Toto washlet (even the airport had washlets). Ah, just like being back at work. I'm on the 26th floor of the building and the view at night is very nice. Pictures forthcoming.
onigame told me about Tokyu Hands, a department store with a do-it-yourself bent to its wares. It's less than 1km from the hotel so I headed out around 7p for it, and found it easily (thanks in large part to the map I'd printed before leaving). It was a neat collection of departments, including woodworking wood, acrylic, leather, model trains, stationery, bath supplies, and party supplies. I looked around for Nikoli puzzle books but found none. Oh, well. I did buy a souvenir: a cast metal Hanayama puzzle. I'm sure both onigame and my office mate Patrick already have it but at least I have some souvenir now, too.
On the walk back from Tokyu Hands I chose a restaurant to eat at, chosen mostly by it having pictures of the food on the outside and that the food looked tasty. Funnier still, you order food at a vending machine just inside, then someone brings you the food where you sit (inside). Worked pretty well, but I'll admit I did watch someone first to see how it's all done. I also employed some of that Katakana-reading power here, in order to sound out "ka ta su" and just give up and order the thing because the picture looked good. While eating I could read the symbols more carefully: Katsu Curry. Hey, my old friend, Hawaiian comfort food. I think it was pork, but that part was in Hiragana and outside my understanding. Strange in that restaurant also: maybe 10 diners, and, including me, all were single males. As I was leaving a pair of women walked in as did a pair of guys but that was it. Seeing the clientele made me a little depressed (in the "single guys at a bar" sort of way), but I suspect this is par for the course in Japan -- that men get out and that men go out (or stop on their way home) on their own.
Before I left for my trip, Saturday afternoon, I baked cookies and I still have most of those that I brought with me. Along with some granola bars I brought and some treats I bought locally (reading Katakana *and* that treats seem also to have pictures of the key ingredient or even just have English on the package, too) I'm pretty well stocked, I think, for those in-between-meal times.
Tomorrow: going to work.