Satogaeri to Imazu Part. 1

Satogaeri (里帰り) means ‘returning to your hometown’, and is used for when you go back to your hometown to visit your family. Ryoko is from a small town of Imazu on the northeast shore of Lake Biwa, about an hour out of Kyoto by train (or about 2 hours if driving).
So, I’m stuck here without the internet. I thought that I would be able to get internet access one way another because this time around I was bringing a computer with me. It has both built-in ethernet and built-in wireless, so I was pretty sure I could get internet access by one of the following methods:
1. Going to the local library.
2. Going to the home of Ryoko’s cousin Akihiro, who lives nearby and has internet access in his home.
3. Going to a Starbucks, Internet Café, or some other similar place with wireless internet available.

Trying the 3 previous methods gave me the following results:
1. Japanese libraries do not have internet connections available like we are used to in the U.S. No wireless, and no ethernet ports available for use. There were two computers connected to the internet, but their use was extremely limited in the following ways:
a. Only 30 min at a time. This can be renewed indefinitely however, as long as there is no one else waiting to use one of the computers.
b. The only access on the computers was a mouse, keyboard, and monitor. No access USB or other ports, CD/DVD drives, etc. for saving/loading data, etc.
c. Microsoft Internet Explorer only (this probably goes without saying).
d. A heavily restrictive firewall. This made doing any really meaningful use of the internet laborious and difficult. The first thing I noticed was that google was disabled. I could go to the site and type in a search item, but it would always return with 0 results, no matter how obviously common the search word. Yahoo was not blocked though, so I used that instead. The firewall also did something strange to the connection, because when I tried to access my blog or my school website, it blocked my access saying it didn’t allow proxy ID’s. The obvious route around these restrictions is an anonymous proxy server. I did a search in yahoo, but most of the results were blocked by the firewall (It makes sense, I suppose. If you’re going to go to the trouble to block access to certain kinds of services, you’d be foolish to not also block services that allow you to circumvent that very same blocking protocol). I was able to find a proxy server that wasn’t blocked (it probably had the virtue of being new enough to not have made it onto the blacklist yet) and get some access, but it was slow and laborious. Not to mention I didn’t really like the idea of sending all my usernames and passwords through a website that I knew nothing about.
2. With the Library being a bust, I hoped I could use the internet at Ryoko’s cousin’s house. However, he has been out of the country in China. His mother was travelling in Peking a few weeks ago when she had a stroke and collapsed. It ended up not being life-threatening, but she is still partially paralyzed and has a long and difficult rehabilitation ahead of her. So Akihiro and his other brothers have been taking turns going to Peking to be with their mother while she recovers at the hospital. It’s hoped that she will be well enough to return to Japan in a couple of weeks. Akihiro is actually back in Japan now, but he’s very busy trying to get caught back up on work. It would be a little callous of me to go over there with no other purpose than to mooch off of his internet connection when he’s dealing with a partially paralyzed mother and large backlog of work.
3. With Ryoko’s cousin’s internet connection not being available, I hoped there would be a free wireless connection somewhere I could use. There is an old bookstore that is about a 10 minute walk away that has a hamburger and ice cream shop built into it. In the past they have had free wireless service there. It wasn’t useful to me before because I didn’t have a computer with me in previous years, but this year I did. However when I went there, it turned out that they had discontinued the service. As for a Starbucks, Internet Café, etc., Imazu is simply too rural. The nearest Starbucks and Internet Café are both in Katata, a slightly larger town about 2/3 of the way to Kyoto, and about an hour drive away.

Having exhausted all my options, I actually went to a computer store and just asked, “Where might I have a chance of getting an internet connection?” The guy there was pretty sympathetic to my plight and gave me a couple of ideas: McDonald’s and the local posh hotel, the Sun Bridge Hotel. Going to McDonald’s it turns out you have to have some kind of contract with Yahoo, but they weren’t too helpful with giving me information about how to acquire such a contract. I tried the outside of the Sun Bridge Hotel, but there were not wireless networks in range. I might try putting on my white shirt and tie and going in pretending to be a businessmen waiting for an appointment or such, but haven’t done it yet.

Having exhausted all those options, there was only one other option that I could see: wardriving. So Ryoko took me on a drive through Imazu, just seeing what wireless connections were available. It turns out there were 2 or 3 connections almost everywhere. I was really surprised. I had thought of Japan as having a low rate of home internet penetration because I thought that the majority of people access the internet only through their cell phones. Perhaps I was wrong. Anyway, most of the connections had security enabled, didn’t broadcast the SSID, or both. Here is what my computer shows from within Ryoko’s house:

What's with all these long numbers for wireless network names?

I have no idea whose networks these are, or where they might be located. If it were her next door neighbor I might be able to ask permission to use it, but Ryoko’s pretty certain that it’s not her neighbor but someone farther away whom she wouldn’t know well enough to be able to simply ask for permission to use their internet connection.

In driving around looking for networks though, I thought that maybe Ryoko was driving around a little too fast to really catch what networks were available. So Ryoko and I then just went for a walk around her neighborhood. We were on a back street behind the local gas station when a non-secured wireless connection showed up. I connected, got an IP address, and next thing I knew I was on the ‘net!

I felt more than a little suspicious standing in the street using a laptop though. I don’t know Japan’s laws on wardriving (or warwalking, in this case), but if I remember correctly it is illegal in the U.S. Regardless if it’s legality, it wasn’t really very honest either, so I quickly just checked my email accounts for anything important (there wasn’t much), and then closed the connection.

So that is the only internet I’ve had so far. I don’t really want to do any more warwalking if I can avoid it, so maybe tonight I’ll try going to the Sun Bridge Hotel and pretending to be a businessman. My limited experience in nice hotels is that if you look and act like you belong, then you will be left alone. It may be a little more difficult since I stand out as a foreigner, but the worst that can happen is they ask me to leave.

It turns out that my problem of internet access is not unique. According to Ryoko, on the website patanouchi, which is an internet community for Japanese living abroad (mostly for Japanese wives living in America) there are many many examples of families that visit their parents back in Japan for a few weeks during the summer, and don’t have internet access because there is not internet at their parent’s house. You don’t want to pay for installing an internet connection to your parent’s home when you’re only there for 2~3 weeks, especially if all the ISP’s require a 6 month contract or such.

Update: I’m right now sitting in the lobby of the Imazu Sun Bridge Hotel. There are two available networks here, but neither of them are open and available without knowing an authentication password. If I were better at social engineering (i.e. B.S.’ing my may into things I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, I believe this is the term used by security professionals for when people are able to talk their way past security by acquiring passwords and such) I might try and something, but I don’t really have the skills, the inclination, or the disposition for such. I’ll stick around for a few more minutes and then walk around a bit (i.e. use the bathroom, etc.) so as not to arouse suspicion, and then go.

One more adventure: to get here I drove the car myself. I don’t have a license to drive in Japan, so what I did was technically illegal, but it’s only a 5-minute drive so the risk is minimal. Ryoko called the police department to find out what is needed for an American with an American driver’s license to legally drive here in Japan, and it turns out there are 2 ways: I could get an international driver’s license in the U.S. before I come to Japan and I could use that, or once I am here if I can pass the written and practical driving test I can then also drive here. It’s much easier to get the international driver’s license, since all it involves is a fee and some paperwork if you already have a valid driver’s license, but we didn’t research it before coming here. I don’t have the confidence to try the written and driving test, so I’ll just get the international license before we come next time.

Update: So you’re probably wondering how I got internet access in the first place. Well, we’ve gone to Yokohama for a few days to spend some time with Ryoko’s sister who lives there. She has an internet connection at her house (which I couldn’t get to work with my computer, their computer is connected directly to their cable modem and so it requires specific software to use correctly), so I was able to get a map of Yokohama with free wifi locations courtesy of There is a 24-hour internet cafe nearby, and the lobby has free wi-fi with a power plug, so I’m good to go.

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