On my way to work

Japan is not only Tokyo with its crowded street crossings and neon lights. It’s also the old countryside, small traditional (and not so traditional) houses with rice paddies or vegetable farm in the backyard.

I live in Tokyo (technically not but almost in the city limit) but I work in a factory way out in the countryside of Saitama prefecture, 50km north of Tokyo. This is what I see every morning from the window of my train.

My new camera for snowboard sessions

dmx-ca9I bought last week the new Sanyo Xacti DMX-CA9 which is one of the first waterproof HD video camera on the market. Got it as soon as it came out to capture the last snowboard sessions of the season.

The form factor is not bad. The grip could be better as with the screen opened, the handle part becomes pretty thin with sharp edges. A finger shaped handle would be nice, it would probably make the unit butt ugly but who cares? It’s a sports camera. When the screen is closed, the grip is perfect, but you cannot shoot with the screen closed.

Menu is horrible, looks cheap and aliased like it was adapted to a better resolution screen without creating higher resolution icons. Navigation in the menu with the buttons is a pain because of the waterproofing which makes those buttons less responsive (but I guess it can’t really be helped).

So yeah, for my hands and eyes used to the beauty and luxury of Nikon DSLRs and Ricoh GR Digital, the camera has a slight after-taste of cheap consumer electronics. But then, it enables me to take videos like this without any fear of falling down and ending up with a wet bricked camera:

So all in all, I’m pretty happy with my new toy. I’m going back for one last snowboard trip next monday and I will probably spend the whole day (or as long as the battery holds) taping jumps and tricks at the snowpark.

Driving in Tokyo

A friend of mine received his new car last weekend and we went driving around town all saturday night and sunday afternoon.

Fun thing to do with a car in Tokyo: drive to Yokohama’s 中華街 to eat chinese food for lunch a Sunday afternoon after partying.

It really got me into thinking I need to get off my lazy ass and finally get my license. I never bothered getting it while a student living in Paris and now that I’m 27 years old living in Japan, I realize my mistake.

So I’ve been looking at driving schools around my place and found a nice one not to far. Prices are ¥291.000 for manual, ¥278.000 for automatic. I should have no problem taking the driving courses and test in Japanese and the written test is available in English in Saitama prefecture, but studying for the written test in Japanese might be a bit out of my league.

I’m going to see with the school if they can waiver the fees for the non-driving classes and let me study at home on my own with whatever english materials I can find.

Internet is almost void of any accounts of foreigners passing their driving license from scratch in Japan so I have no real idea of what I’m in for…


For all the hundreds of people waiting for their JLPT results to arrive and coming to my blog via google searches, know that this year’s score slip has arrived yesterday in Japan. As I was expecting, I failed level 2 again for lack of studying…

JLPT 2008 score: 217/400

  • Vocabulary/Kanji: 58/100
  • Listening: 81/100
  • Grammar/Reading: 78/200

Yep, 23 points short… I guess I’m up again for the June session…

What is your job?

I have a private mailing-list with my closest childhood friends which we use to keep in touch now that we’re spread all around the world. One of them, who recently finished an MBA at Waseda and has yet to jump into the business world, started a thread asking all of us to describe our jobs objectively and in simple terms, not using all the cryptic buzzwords that we might use in our LinkedIn profiles.

I found the exercise very interesting which is why I will copy my reply in here. Be prepared, it’s a bit lengthy.

What is it I do?

I work for Valeo in the Compressor Branch. We make compressors for automobile air conditioning systems: for those who remember their physics lessons and the first law of thermodynamics, the decompression of a fluid lowers its temperature. This is why A/C systems use what we call an A/C loop where we compress/condense a gas on one side before decompressing/evaporating it in a heat exchanger to cool the air coming in your car (then that gas goes back into the compressor for another round in the closed loop). The technology is rather cool and I love looking at CAD models, manipulating the prototypes and talking with our designers to understand how every little part of our product works.

Back to me. So Valeo is this big automotive parts company which is organized into branches by product family: Compressors, Transmissions, Wipers (don’t under-estimate, windshield wipers are high technology items), Lighting Systems, etc. Under each branch there is a division for each country of production. I work for the Compressor branch and therefore give services to all the divisions of my branch in multiple countries: Japan, Thailand, South Korea, China, Czech Republic and USA.

The Compressor branch is a bit special by the fact that it is the only one whose HQ is not around Paris but in Tokyo. The activity was bought back from a Japanese company as a joint-venture with Bosch, then 100% by Valeo 4 years ago. It is therefore a Japanese company whose whole top management (except for R&D) was replaced by French expatriates after acquisition…

I work in a team that manages the information systems (computers and software) of the whole R&D service: 80% in Japan, 20% and growing in the other divisions I listed above. I work mainly on the the PLM system (Product Lifecycle Management) – a kind of big software system that handles all the product design activity from start to finish:

  1. design new technology prototypes
  2. management of projects to adapt, manufacture and sell this product to new clients
  3. design of all the parts included in the compressor and storage of all 3D models and 2D drawings
  4. approval process for these designs
  5. life of the product with continuous updates to lower production costs and improve margin

I’m the main-guy on this rather big-big-system. I’m the expert. I train the users, I solve their problems be it technical (buggy server) or functional (software not used in the right way), but mainly I observe all the processes linked to the system – spanning all domains of the company except finance/accounting) – and try to modify the software (by writing specifications that will be written in code by offshore developer in India) or the way that we use it to improve the efficiency of these processes. See Kaizen.

What I like in my job:

  • I gravitate around the R&D service but I get to touch all domains of the business which is very interesting.
  • I get to travel quite a bit, at least when the company has money (cf. last point of what I don’t like in my job).
  • I can play around with servers, make mini-projects on the side to code and build useful tools for my team and I, but I do not spend my whole time coding: I code what I want (i.e. what I like) and pay other people to write the big boring 100.000s lines of code for me.

What I don’t like in my job:

  • It’s complicated to work in Japan for my manager in France and users all over the world to satisfy imperatives from Group Headquarter in France who seems to always forget that I am the only bastard with a time difference of +7h (don’t I love it when I get asked why I wasn’t there for the meeting at 4PM Paris time…).
  • It’s not easy to quantify my ROI (return on investment – how much money I saved for the company compared to how much I cost) at the end of the year.
  • The location: my office is in a factory in the middle of nowhere, 1h of train away from Tokyo plus 20min of bus from the closest train station.
  • Right now, the automobile business is not the funniest place to be at: budget cuts, canceled projects, travel and hiring freezes, restructuration plans. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns…

Daddy’s gift

Yesterday we received a Christmas present / New Year’s gift from 愛子’s father.

Around a Kg of 和牛 – Japanese beef from Yamanashi prefecture. If you’re thinking “meh, it’s just meat…”, stop right there, retail price must be over ¥30.000 (almost 300€).

Straight in the frying pan with some delicious garlic. Look at those beautiful nervings of fat permeating through the meat… *drool*

And a nice bottle of wine to complement the meal. You can’t eat meat like this with any little cheap bordeaux from the supermarket downstairs so we picked this up at Isetan Shinjuku.

All set (except the forks and knives, forgot to put them in before the photo…), thanks dad! The taste was incredible and you barely need to chew, it almost melts on your tongue.

PS: so that my parents don’t get jealous, I also received a huge pack full of foie gras, paté, rillettes, cassoulet, cuisses de canard confites from them and will post about it when I will eat it.

Alone at work for Christmas

It’s christmas day and I’m at the office, working…

Actually, it’s nothing unusual for Japan where the 25th is a day like any other day. But this year is special: you should know that I work for a big French automotive parts manufacturer, and this is not a very fun time for us.

Car production is down ~30% over all the industry, which means we also must cut our production by 30%. So our manufacturing plants all over the world are shutting down 1 or 2 weeks early for new year vacations.

But then, since part of my job is support, not only for Japan but for all our plants around the world, I have to be there in an empty office in an empty factory on Christmas day in case the phone rings or an email comes in requiring my mad skills…

*crickets chirping*… yeah, right…

JLPT Level 2

I took the test last Sunday at Surugadai University in Hanno, way out at the feet of the mountains west of Tokyo. Usually I’m assigned to Saitama Daigaku which is 10min of taxi from my new place, but I guess this year they thought I was too close and needed to suffer a bit more than usual… So I took my 1h+ train ride in the freezing cold of this Sunday morning of December a 7:30am to meet my doom: the grammar test…

As usual these past couple of years, the whole test with solutions were out on chinese websites a mere hours after the end of the examination. People in the USA have it easy with the jetlag.

I don’t want to check the answers. I’m pretty sure I did the same thing as last year: 60~65% on kanji, 85~90% on listening and utterly failed the reading/grammar part…

See you next time archnemesis!!!

Hiroshima-ben senbei

2 weeks ago I went to Hiroshima for the weekend with my girlfriend. We had dinner (and innumerable drinks) with a friend of hers on Saturday night in the 本通 area at what must be the restaurant with the most perfect レバー焼き鳥 I’ve ever tasted.

Anyways, I received as omiyage the following which made me laugh a lot:

hiroshima-ben senbei

It’s a set of senbei rice-crackers inscribed with examples of 広島弁, the local Hiroshima dialect. Whenever we’re in Hiroshima, my girlfriend reverts to her roots and drops the Tokyo accent she acquired, especially when she’s with her high-school friends. I’m usually totally lost…

JLPT Results craze

The results for the 日本語能力試験, more commonly known as JLPT 2008, should be getting in everyone’s mailbox in the imminently and it shows:

big jump in stats

Visits to my blog post of receiving the results last year have been spiking in the past week.

Good news: a colleague of mine got it in the mail this morning before coming to work, so most people in Japan should have it tonight or tomorrow.

Bad news: the people at the JLPT organization are mail nazis (not delivering the papers if your name is not on your mailbox, imposing crazy processes to let them know you changed address) and since I moved just before taking the test there is a pretty good chance that I will never receive the damn results.

Kick the demons out

Today, February 3rd, is the day of Setsubun in Japan. As we live in a new place, my girlfriends mother told her we had to start on the right foot and follow the good old traditions to bring us luck.

Francois is the 鬼 this year

On this day, which marks the turning point between winter and spring, you have to kick the or demons out your house and bring the or good fortune in. This is done by having someone dress up as an and throwing 福豆 at them while chanting 「鬼は外!福は内!」 which is a whole bunch of fun.


Then you put a 厄よけ out your door to ward off any evil spirits that would like to come back in. It’s some sort of mistletoe-like bouquet on which you stick fish heads, the smell of which is supposed to scare demons.