Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Between then and now

7300 days since I first arrived in Japan.

ATMs have been around for a while, but it's only within the last few years that 24-hour service has become available. When I first got here, the machines operated only weekdays 09:00-18:00. The banks imagined they were providing a service by making ATMs available after their ridiculously inconvenient closing time of 15:00. Today 24-hour ATMs are conveniently located - in convenience stores.

It's possible now in most urban shops and restaurants to make purchases with credit cards. Even foreign-issued credit cards. 20 years ago department stores found it inconvenient, or impossible, to accept plastic payment, especially if your card hadn't been issued in Japan.

We don't drive and so don't know much about how car or driving culture has changed over the past two decades. One noticeable difference though is that you can now pump your own gas. Until a few years ago, all gasoline stations were full-service.

When I arrived in Himeji 20 years ago we had only five channels of terrestrial broadcasting. I haven't been back to Himeji in a while, but I guess they have the same options now as the rest of us, a plethora of television channels broadcasting all manner of crappy entertainment, both through cable and satellite.

I was thrilled to find a Tower Records in Himeji and equally surprised to find that all they sold were cds. Vinyl was still a viable format in the US in 1988, the year when cd sales first surpassed vinyl. But as is often the case in Japan, the producer determines what gets to market, and the record companies had already switched to digital. Today record stores are dying.

One thing that hasn't changed much is the cost of a movie ticket, probably one of the most overpriced items in Japan besides rice. It seems tickets were perhaps a bit less expensive when I got here, but this article from 1988 suggests not by much . The current cost is 1800yen for a walk-up ticket, though they can be had for 1300 through advance purchase. While prices may not have changed much, the movie going experience has. When I got here the theaters I visited seemed to have been constructed in the 1950s. Seats were narrow and threadbare, floors were sticky, the rooms had a funky odor from the accumulated tar and nicotine, smokers could still light up during the film. Concessions consisted of vending machine beverages and bags of chips, senbei, and dried squid. It's like they didn't care. They didn't have to. The theaters were all equally decrepit. Then AMC showed up in Fukuoka, where they built the first multi-screen cinema in urban Japan. Once they opened their doors, Japanese found clean facilities, comfortable stadium style seating, and a much wider range of concessions. The old theaters started losing business and either closed up or remodeled to compete with AMC (whose business in Japan has since been bought out by the European owned United Cinemas). Now if we could only get reasonable ticket prices.



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