As much as we might hate to admit it, smartphones are necessary to get through most of our days. When you're traveling, they can be a real lifesaver. Especially if it's your first time in Japan, and you can't speak any Japanese!
Before you leave the airport, make sure to pick up a SIM card or mobile WiFi router. Without them, getting connected while you explore different parts of Japan will be frustrating. Although you can depend on hotels to have reliable internet connections, most public places don't. Coffee shops and restaurants usually only have provider-specific routers, and city-wide WiFi is so slow it's pretty much useless.
Once you've got a way to access the internet, download these apps to make your trip to Japan a breeze!
Let's get the obvious app you'll need out of the way first. If you go anywhere on your own in Japan, Google Maps are a must. Cities like Tokyo and Kyoto have ancient roads that go in curvy and complicated patterns. Without a navigation app, you'll quickly get lost. But what makes Google Maps the one we recommend? It'll also help you navigate local trains, buses, and subways!
When you ride the Tokyo Metro, Google Maps will show you either your train's platform number or the name of the final destination. It'll also sometimes tell you which car to board so that you can easily reach your exit or make a speedy transfer. Recently, a new feature shows how crowded it usually is, too!
That said, Google Maps isn't entirely flawless. It can drain your battery life, and it's sometimes a few minutes off on train arrivals and route estimate times. If you're making a long-distance journey, you can't search for which trains and buses accept the JR Pass. If you want an alternate navigation app, take a look at Hyperdia.
You might have heard that most Japanese people don't speak any English. While that statement isn't entirely factual, a 2016 survey by Rakuten found that 70% of respondents said they have little or no English abilities. To get around the language barrier, many travelers learn some Japanese phrases, but it never hurts to have Google Translate as a backup.
Many restaurants offer English or illustrated menus, but this isn't always the case. At some mom-and-pop shops, you might get stuck with a paper filled with kanji—in cursive! In this kind of situation, you can use Google Translate's "instant camera" function. Although it won't be 100% correct, you'll get the main idea.
When it comes to face-to-face communication, using English and hand gestures goes a lot further than you might think. Only use Google Translate as a last resort, and make sure you input simple sentences.
Yes, you'll see picturesque places that you'll want to share with friends, but we're not talking about that. You can use Instagram to help map out your day. Especially if you're coming to see cherry blossoms or autumn leaves.
Everyone has their favorite place for seeing these phenomenons. However, cherry blossoms and other flowers are fickle. Nothing is more disappointing than crossing oceans to find they haven't reached their full bloom or have already wilted. With Instagram, you can get the inside scoop without leaving your hotel.
Using the search function, enter the name of your tentative destinations. Other user's recent pictures will pop up, and you can see for yourself if it's worth it to go. There are other apps and websites dedicated to this, but the best (and free) ones are only in Japanese.
Don't get charged exorbitant long-distance fees when you call or text. Tools like WhatsApp and LINE will make it easy for you to keep in touch without running up your phone bill.
If you're joining a group tour, download WhatsApp. Most, if not all, guides use this app to contact their guests in case of an emergency. If you aren't already a user, note that you can't call landlines, nor can you call a mobile phone that doesn't have WhatsApp installed. Besides tour guides, though, WhatsApp isn't the most popular instant messaging platform.
Most Japanese people use LINE instead of calling or texting through their service plans. Like WhatsApp, you can use LINE to text, call, or video chat with other users. Businesses sometimes offer discounts if you add them as a "friend," so keep an eye out for these kinds of promotions.
Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways are the two largest international airlines in the country. If you're taking either of these on your flight to and from Japan, consider downloading their apps.
With ANA Sky Mobile, you can make reservations, check flight statuses and your mileage, as well as apply for rewards. You can also use it to access in-flight entertainment on some domestic routes.
JAL GLOBAL offers similar services, but the company has also released other apps to help you during your travels after you land. The JAL Explore Japan WiFi connects you to over 200,000 public hotspots.
Finding a cab in metropolitan areas is a sinch. You'll see them lined up at taxi stands or actively looking for passengers as they drive around town. However, if you're in the suburbs or if it's rush hour, you might have some trouble hailing one.
There are ridesharing apps in Japan, but they haven't seen as much success as they have in other countries. With the JapanTaxi application, you can call a cab to your location without any Japanese needed.
You don't need a credit card to sign up, and the interface is very user-friendly. Just hit "Pick me up here" to call a cab right away, or use the "Date and Time" button to reserve one. You can also change your location by moving your screen or search for an address. When you confirm your ride, JapanTaxi will send the license plate number of your car.
Japan is one of the most seismically active countries in the world and is typhoon-prone in late summer. Although it isn't likely that you'll experience a natural disaster, it's better to stay prepared. As soon as you arrive, your phone automatically connects with the emergency alert system. Unfortunately, all of the warnings are in Japanese.
The Japan National Tourism Organization developed the Safty Tips app for foreign travelers to receive notifications in their native language. You can set it to actively use your location or input the places you'll visit. The home screen shows the current weather and a flowchart of warnings and information.
Among the different options, you can find information about recent earthquakes, volcanic warnings, and evacuation procedures. If you have a personal emergency, you can use Safety Tips to find the closest hospital or phrases in Japanese for seeking help.
One of the necessary evils about traveling is your suitcase. No matter how few clothes you bring or souvenirs you buy, dragging bags around town isn't fun. Thankfully, Japan has a convenient luggage-delivery system, and most train stations have coin lockers. But what do you do when the lockers are full, or you don't want to send your things?
Ecbo Cloak is like Airbnb for suitcases. On their interactive map, you can find different businesses that offer storage for a fee. Places like hair salons, language schools, coffee shops, and other establishments with extra space for sale all participate.
The app very advantageous if you have oversized or unusually shaped items like sports equipment or musical instruments. You might also consider using it if you take a day trip and want to lighten your load. Best of all, you can reserve ahead of time or as needed depending on your itinerary.
If wandering the streets to find something to eat doesn't sound appealing to you, you can use OpenTable to find a restaurant. Although you might know this app as a tool for making reservations, it's possible to use it to search for shops by budget, cuisine, or availability.
That isn't to say Japan doesn't have apps that work like Yelp. Locals usually use Tablelog or Gurunavi to find eateries in their area. Tablelog has customer reviews, and Gurunavi notes if there is an English menu or vegetarian options. Neither app is in English, but their mobile-friendly sites have multiple languages.
If you're a solo traveler looking to make friends from all over the world, Japan can be a somewhat lonely country. In Japanese culture, people usually don't speak to strangers, even in bars and clubs. Try to strike up a conversation with someone in a cafe, and you might get sideways glances and awkward stutters.
With the Meetup app, you can find events in your area where you can meet new people. Some of the activities target travelers and ex-pats, some are for everyone, and some specifically try to connect Japanese and international people. Just enter your hobbies when you sign up, and Meetup will show happenings around town that might interest you!