Friday 10 February 2012

Fukaya 2 - Strange Eatery

My main job in After-sales was to teach and provide our factory partners with technical information about the VCR we produced. Such information would go into a Service Manual.

Service manuals were often paper based, but a few leading car companies were starting to experiment with CD-based ones.

Much of the technical information we provided to Toshiba consisted of troubleshooting steps and circuit waveforms. To obtain these waveforms, we would probe the respective circuit boards of a VCR. The waveforms would appear on an oscilloscope. To capture a picture, we would snap it with a B&W Polariod instant camera. Afterwards, we would scan the quick-dry photograph and keep it in our computer.

It was a pretty low-tech approach but it worked. It was a time when TIFF was a more popular format than JPEG.

Later, to make the process even more convenient, we needled the company to buy us a computer-based software oscilloscope that ran on Windows 3.1. It was from National Instruments, a pioneer in this field. With software, we could simply press the 'PrtSc' (print-screen) button on our keyboards to get an image saved. We could then import the cropped image into our desktop publishing software Pagemaker. It was simply version 4 then, the installation program elegantly contained in a few 3.5-inch diskettes.

The person I communicated with most from Toshiba in Japan (our partner in the j-v factory) was Tateshita. We would often exchange technical information via email, fax and floppy. Floppy? Yes, but instead of sending each other floppy disks, we used a floppy drive that was also a fax machine. We simply faxed files to one another. He only had to have the same machine as I did.

Often the files we shared were either in TIFF or DXF format that we had converted from AutoCAD or P-CAD drawing files. P-CAD was a popular professional printed circuit board drafting program at the time. Whether TIFF or DXF, the resolutions obtained at the time from conversions were pretty low and a challenge to use in desltop publishing. We often had to put in extra finishing touches.

Being in constant contact with Tateshita meant one thing: I would soon get to meet the man. It was customary working in an MNC like IVP to do that, to meet the person you work closely. I did that in Indianapolis, USA; my NPE buddies met their counterparts in Villingen, Germany, where Thomson had an R&D lab. A few went to Paris, home of Thomson. My colleague Esther went to Fukaya, Tokyo where the Toshiba factory was. At the time, I wondered about Japanese society and if their women were still subservient. I asked Esther about it but she simply shrugged and said, "Ok, lah" in her typical nonchalant manner.

IVP had a handful of Japanese working in our local factory then, with the majority in R&D. In my previous department, there was a middle-aged Japanese manager who had an office near our lab space. But no one really knew what he did. When he was at his desk he would be fastidiously arranging neat piles of papers on his table-top into neat rows. He liked orchids and had a beautiful white potted one at a corner. His name was Ohta-san.

My trip to Japan was much anticipated and would include my boss Chee. Presumably he was going along to introduce me. But that's largely unnecessary became I famously get on fine quickly with folks that I don't know well. I remember a colleague thinking I had been at IVP for "donkey years" when I had been only there for a few months. I'm like comfortable furniture: people get used to me pretty quickly.

In any case, Chee and I were visiting Toshiba to share our TOCOM parts numbering system as well. It was going to be an exchange or sorts.

We flew to Tokyo without incident and I managed to get us both to Fukaya by train. Chee was confused by the train system but to me these things all have a certain logic to them. They weren't difficult to figure out. Fukuya was just an hour from Tokyo City but by the time we reached there, it was already past 10 o'clock at night.

We checked into the Grand Saitama Hotel (a four-star hotel near the train station) and as we were hungry, decided to poke around outside for a bite. We spied a row of shops and headed for the one with lights still on. It was longish and had a rather large signboard with a graphic of bowl and chopsticks. Lacking no other choice, we decided to venture in.

The place was dimly lit. Immediately past the curtained doorway was a corner glass display cabinet. Inside were small figurines not unlike those found in Chinese folkore, you know, 'The Boy Tending To His Buffalo'; 'Old Man Fishing'; 'Two Old Men Playing Chess', etc - stuff often used as aquarium decoration pieces.

But upon closer examination, I found them to be wholly different. The figurines were actually of couples engaged in various stages of undress and sexual congress! I wondered if the theme had anything to do with the food of the establishment. Maybe the owner was quirky. In any case, that was my first instance of x-rated Japanese culture. I would later see much worse at a city bookshop.

The eatery had no tables but a low countertop. A women with a headband was cooking behind a slanted glass screen. We moved along the counter to see what she had to offer. Noodles were being cooked. Fine, we thought, and pointed. Not able to speak Japanese, we "e-e-ah-ah" our intention. The woman was all smiles and seemed to understand what we were saying. Relieved, we proceeded to look for a place to sit down. An old man was eating his tofu in soy sauce. Another fella near him was stabbing at a small jackpot poker machine mounted on a wall. We squeezed past them and sat at where the counter turned into a cozy corner and started make small talk.

Our small talk turned into longer talk. By then 30 mins had passed and we wondered if our food was ever going to come. The woman had initially served us tea and then went back to her stove. I looked at my watch: 11:30pm. My stomach was complaining. I asked Chee if the woman might have forgotten our order. Must be, he said. I went to the woman to check. I mimed slurping a bowl of noodles. I think the woman got the idea and also felt a bit apologetic. I had pointed to my watch.

"Hai-ed, hai-ed, sumi ma-sen," she said, nodding away at the same time.

In any event, the noodles did finally come and we ate it with relish so hungry we were. We paid for the meal, make sure we had the receipt and exited the place. The old men were still at their places, one nimbling on his tofu, the other punching buttons on his poker machine.

As we headed back to the hotel, the air outside was nice and chilly. I looked back at the noodle incident and didn't feel good not being able to speak Japanese. As I zipped my coat up and tucked my hands into my pockets, I wondered what tomorrow and the rest of the trip would be like. I'd never felt so alienated and handicapped in my life.

Next: Fukaya 3 - Amazing Spares

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