One of my nephews arrived in Japan last week and stayed with me for several days before moving on to Okayama, where he will spend the next eight months as an assistant language teacher. His visit reminded me of the days when I myself first came to this country, back in the spring of ’92. Let me tell you, things couldn’t be more different today.

Whereas friends and family are now only a text message or video call away on a device that fits nicely in your back pocket—and free of charge, to boot—in the dark days of the early ’90s, cutting-edge communications were only marginally better than training a passel of homing pigeons to carry messages.

For starters, international phone calls were not only prohibitively expensive in those days, but could only be made from certain phones. Even if you had the wherewithal to buy the rights to a landline, which could set you back as much as ¥80,000 ($800), phoning home usually involved entering into a contract agreement with one of a handful of companies that enabled overseas calling. And though the connection was generally good—you really did sound like you were next door—a single phone call could cost upwards of a hundred dollars or more. Most expats had to rely on dedicated public phone booths if they wanted to call home. Even these were limited in number.

Living in a sleepy suburb of Kitakyushu City at the time, I would have to first walk 20 minutes to the station and ride the train for about 10 minutes to the neighboring town of Kurosaki where two “international” phone booths stood like sentinels outside the station. Armed with several prepaid telephone cards,  I would dial my parents and hope against hope that they were home and awake when I called.

If you asked me when the last time I made an international call was, I couldn’t tell you. Modern technology has made that landline I paid good money for practically obsolete. Oh, it makes for a nice toy for my two-year-old son who likes how it pings and rings and plays music when people are on hold; but that’s about it.

As for e-mail … well, hardly anyone had yet heard of it in ’92. I myself didn’t get dial-up internet service until the mid-’90s, when I coughed up about ¥250,000 for a clunky Macintosh LC 520 Performa with five megabytes of memory! Even with the new-fangled technology, there was only a scattering of acquaintances I was able to contact through the pneumatic tubes of the World Wide Web. It wasn’t until later in that decade that e-mail really started to spread, and even then people still used it with all the etiquette of formal letter-writing. Instant messaging that enabled “chatting” didn’t really take off either, until around the new millennium … if memory serves correctly.

No, in those dark days of the early ’90s, if you wanted to contact someone and phoning wasn’t an option, you had to write a letter.

“What’s a letter?” my nephew asks.

“Letters were handwritten or typed pieces of communication that people used to send in envelopes using the postal service. You would write your message down on paper, fold it neatly, then put it into an envelope which you would lick and …”


“Yes, you licked the envelope to seal it.”

“Eww. That doesn’t sound very hygienic.”

“I don’t suppose it does.”

Letter-writing in those days was akin to putting your present life in a time capsule and sending it back to your hometown. I recall writing in one of my earlier letters that I was broke, hungry, and lonely; and wanted to go home.

Two months later a reply came: “Sorry to hear that things in Japan aren’t as good as you were expecting. I’ve included a check for a hundred dollars …”

I quickly replied that all was now going like a dream. I had a new girlfriend who was wonderful and had gotten a few extra gigs to supplement my income, so money was pretty good.

“P.S. I’m returning your voided check—can’t cash American checks in Japan. Thanks for the thought, anyways.”

Another three months would pass and I would get a letter that said, “Glad to hear everything’s going swimmingly for you!”

And I would reply, “My girlfriend has left me. My boss is threatening to sack me. I’ve never been so depressed in all my life. I want to die.”

And so on.

Nowadays, with smartphones, social networking sites, and video calling, the life of the expat or traveler is more convenient, the planet far less lonely—even when you’re separated by 6,000 miles from family and friends. Unfortunately, it’s also a lot less adventurous.