Help me be Smartphone enabled for 7 day Japan trip (iPhone, data, apps)
November 7, 2013 2:20 PM   Subscribe

I'm traveling to Japan for a week for InterBee - which also include two days on my own. I land at the airport...and then have to get to my hotel (different ones during the trip). My guess is that I will be doing loads of train travel. Loads of questions

I've prepped a google map...

What's the best way to get data? Is the B Mobile 14 day 1 gig sim the best choice for the iPhone 5 (unlocked, ATT)? I care about maps/data far more than voice.

But I do care about being able to communicate. Two people I'm there with will have Viber/iMessage. But the third person is Japanese - is there an alternative app that is common? BBM? WhatsApp? Line?

How hard is the subway travel? I hear the cabs are expensive? Are there any great 'killer' apps for it (the way hopstop is for NYC trains.) Would Google maps be good enough via it's public transportation links?

Will I have any problems with my credit cards (beyond calling the bank and letting them know I'll be in Tokyo?)

Any other apps that are a "must have"?
posted by filmgeek to Travel & Transportation around Tokyo, Japan (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I had a B-Mobile data-only SIM for my iPhone during my last trip to Japan and was satisfied with it. I don't know any of the apps you mentioned, but Japanese iPhone users will have iMessage. There's always email, too. You will need to order your B-Mobile SIM pretty quickly.

I think using the subway is very easy, but I speak Japanese. Cabs are expensive, so I tend to only use them for short trips in town when the trains are not running or otherwise inconvenient. A cab will be nigh impossible without Japanese - you will need to have an address or your destination name written down for the driver to read.

I use Hyperdia for planning my travel in Japan. That can help plan your train and other public transit travel. Take the train from Narita to whatever station is closest to your hotel.

Your credit cards should work fine, but please bear in mind that they are used much less frequently in Japan than in the US. You will be able to use it at hotels and department stores, for example, but restaurants, convenience stores, and many other merchants will be cash only.
posted by Tanizaki at 2:32 PM on November 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I had excellent service renting a sim card from Global Advanced on my last trip. If you really don't care for voice you're better off renting a pocket wifi. I have an Android phone and used Google Voice to call back to the US for free. The way it works is that you pick up your order at the airport post office (or at your first hotel) and drop it off at the airport PO on your way out.

Hyperdia is a train timetable app. Subway travel is very easy. Get yourself a Suica & N'Ex ticket at the airport to get to Tokyo, and then keep your Suica topped up. It's waaaay easier than using cash on every hop.

Google Translate was invaluable for me when I was in izakaya's without english menu's (or really anyway, come to think about it). Take a picture, get a translation. I don't know how well it works on an iphone.

Japan used to be cash-only but credit card usage is getting to be more frequent. In talking to friends over there they get nervous anytime their in-pocket cash drops below 10,000Y (~$100). Hotels, chain restaurants, train stations will accept cards. The busier restaurants will accept cards. Smaller random noodle shops may, but it's more of a crapshoot.

And one final note: The MeFite's in Tokyo are an absolutely wonderful bunch of people. Schedule a meetup while you're out there.
posted by Runes at 2:48 PM on November 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're unlocked, the B Mobile sim is a good option. For Android users, be warned that the SIM is hacky and missing voice circuits entirely - Android responds by ratcheting up your cell antenna power and killing your battery. If you're using Android and that SIM you'll need to do quite a bit of hacking to avoid that behavior - rooting, installing special developer frameworks, etc.

For super easy alternatives, consider simply renting a phone in Japan, or getting a no-contract SIM from t-mobile USA, which gives you free unlimited international data/text roaming (which is what I'm doing now).

Subway travel is very, very easy. Get a Suica smart card and you won't have to think about it beyond your first purchase. Google Maps is helpful insofar as a live compass, but search isn't that helpful unless you actually know the Kanji (in other words, romanizations don't appear to be indexed, and therefore aren't really searchable).

Some travel focused credit cards don't even require you to call anymore. Japan is more cash oriented than you would think, so be ready to use your ATM card or cash advances from your credit card.

Google translate will help a lot. You can actually take pictures of text and it will OCR it, then translate - though you'll get a literal translation, and will need to do some interpretation of your own even after you get the English.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 2:57 PM on November 7, 2013

In regards to apps, it's probably best NOT to rely on Google Maps for planning train/subway/bus travel in Japan.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:01 PM on November 7, 2013

I rented an iPhone from JCR. The website looks sketchy, but the service was great. You can also rent sim cards with them.

Line is pretty popular in Japan.

Nthing Hyperdia for train/subway travel.
posted by clearlydemon at 3:26 PM on November 7, 2013

I used econnect last year with my unlocked Galaxy Nexus for 1 month in Japan and it worked great. I had the 1GB plan which is ¥ 4,100 for 30 days.

1GB goes fast so be sure to turn off the phone when you aren't using it.
posted by matrushka at 3:42 PM on November 7, 2013

Response by poster: Fantastic comments so far!

I'd plan a meetup, but I'm not sure what evening I will have free; Already so much of my time is booked (but I do love meeting Mefites in other countries!)

I want to get the Bmobile sim at the airport - Is there any way to figure out which Terminal my flight lands at? It's NH 11 arriving tues. I can't tell if it's Terminal 1 or 2. It's supposed to be picked up at the post office - is that hard to do? I assume, I deplane, get bags, go through customs, is the post office far from there?

Does anyone know if Google Translate for iPhone works with pictures? I it doesn't seem to...

Thanks to everyone for all the comments so far!
posted by filmgeek at 3:58 PM on November 7, 2013

ANA flights arrive at Terminal 1. If your flight comes from Chicago, it arrives at T1 South Wing.
posted by clearlydemon at 4:36 PM on November 7, 2013

B-mobile will work with CDMA phones, but not with GSM phones. (Learned the hard way...)

LINE is the most popular messaging app I know of here, your friend most likely has it. (And it's great/fun!)

The subway system is pretty easy to figure out, stations/exits/directions are listed in Japanese and English. I recommend downloading the "Tokyo Rail Map" app (the pink icon, and it's worth to pay the $1.99 for the premium app) for figuring out the subway system/getting around, in conjunction with Google Maps. I currently live in Tokyo and use both all the time.

A lot of places don't take credit card, still, so be sure to carry cash with you.

Unfortunately, since switching from Android to iPhone, I've found that Google Translate can't translate images anymore. :( I'm looking for an alternative app that will do that, though.
posted by blithecatpie at 5:32 PM on November 7, 2013

I found 'City Maps 2 Go' invaluable when travelling in Europe - mostly because I had no data plan and the maps and GPS worked great without data, but I still think it could be useful with a plan.
posted by backwards guitar at 11:15 PM on November 7, 2013

Best answer: My phone is unlocked AT&T GSM (now on T-Mobile), and it most certainly did work with the exact b-mobile SIM the OP is asking about.

The post office is in the mall in the same building as the airport. It's maybe a 10 minute walk from your gate through immigration/customs. While convenient, be aware that you're basically re-enacting a spy movie at that point. You get a sim card in an envelope, and that's pretty much it. There are no b-mobile staff around to help, and the post office staff aren't there to do anything more than hand you your envelope.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 11:31 PM on November 7, 2013

I used Whatsapp when i travel as well as Wechat...both of which most the Asians use....

Although my time in Japan was limited, and i'm much more experienced in China, I found most people in hotels speak english... Also, most hotels will mail letters for you.

I have been calling home from China on Skype & it works great and seems to be the best alternative to the expensive cell phone plan options... (AT&T cancelled their world traveler plan, so they offer now a prepackaged plan which is only so-so)... but there are tons of wi-fi spots.

BTW - play it safe & call your CC companies & tell them you are leaving the country. Sometimes the CC companies "protect" you by not authorizing charges that are out of the country... so best to notify them of your travel to ensure there are no problems.

I'll point out the obvious....bring cash with you to avoid using ATM's overseas that have high charges... I think you'll get the best rate at the hotel instead of the airport.

Safe travels bro.... oh...& kiss Kansas bye bye....
posted by foodybat at 2:29 AM on November 8, 2013

Response by poster: Just a follow up:

I took the NEX train - and paid for the first class ticket - probably that was a waste.

The B-Mobile sim was exactly what I needed. If you're coming at this at a later point, I paid for a 14 day/1 GB sim to be delivered to the airport. After clearing customs, i went up to the post office, showed my passport and got my nano sim.

I should have remember to bring a paperclip for sim removal, but I got one from the information counter. There are crucial instructions to get it to work on an unlocked iphone 5 (you need to read the paper that it with the sim chip and fill out a name/password in a certain section of the general preferences.)

After that, the rest was easy! Google Maps did all my directions - I was with 'hyper' tech people, and only one knew that Google Maps has transit directions for trains. Do not take cabs, the train system is to the minute. The hardest part is figuring out where to go in a station, but that's no different than NYC once you get used to it. I topped off my SUICA card several times.

I did one 'smart' thing though in advance - I went onto google maps (on my computer) and starred everywhere I wanted/needed to go - making it easy to recall those locations on my phone.

When I needed it, Google translate did a great job of taking my voice and giving me translations (I found that showing the text was far easier than having it speak.)

On the cash front - I only really needed cash when we went to tiny shops/restaurants. Hotels, ticket counters, etc - my credit card and debit cards worked fine. Although my colleagues report that only citibank ATMs worked.
posted by filmgeek at 9:22 AM on December 9, 2013

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