Most of us can’t survive without being connected to the internet in some way. Texts, WhatsApp, iMessage, E-mail are all a normal part of our lives. It has made our lives a lot easier in countless ways, and it has made travelling in foreign countries much less daunting.
When I first started travelling the world, there were no smart phones, internet was only generally accessible by dialing in on a 28.8k baud modem, and roaming with my Motorola TAC Elite would have cost about $10/min for a call, if you could even get a signal at all.
You had to research where to go and what to do there before you left home and bring your notes with you. Getting lost was a common occurrence, and you had to find a way to learn at least the basics of the language before you left.
These days, all you really need to bring with you is your mobile phone and have a relatively reasonable roaming data and voice plan to have a live map, translator, and reference guide available to you at any given time.
Phones, Wifi, Data, and Plans
Most of the telcos in Canada have recently put out plans where you can pay $10-$12 a day, to a max of 15 days a month to use your normal data and voice plans while roaming in foreign countries. This includes Japan.
A cheaper alternative is to rent a portable WiFi unit and attach all of your devices to a very fast mobile connection. These WiFi devices are very common in Japan with many of them acting as the primary internet connection for people’s homes. Speeds will vary between 20 Mbps up to 190 Mbps for most rental units and will allow you to connect as many as 10 devices, depending on the plan. Many will also allow unlimited data but may throttle your speeds if you push through a lot of data in a single day.
I highly recommend a portable WiFi unit if you are travelling with multiple devices, or if there is a group of you travelling together. Public WiFi is a bit of a rarity, even at Starbucks and other coffee shops. More tourist organizations and shops have started to implement free public WiFi, but it is still rare, so it is a good idea as well as more secure to get your own WiFi unit.
I use Global Advanced Communications to rent my WiFi unit whenever I go to Japan. A few months before my departure, I log onto their site and request a premium 75 Mbps unit, as it provides an unlimited data transfer amount and offers a good upload speed and download speed. You can go with a lower upload speed as I tend to use it a lot for backing up photos to my cloud services and posting on social media.
I specify which days I would like to rent the unit, and then I ask that it be sent to my destination airport for pickup for the day of my arrival. Once you pay and provide them with your passport and flight information, they will confirm your order and then send you a notice a day or two before your departure to let you know that your unit is on its way to meet you at the airport. You can have it delivered to your hotel, AirBnB or other accommodation, but the train ride into the city is usually a good time to setup your devices, get connected, and check in back home.
Once you’ve land in Japan, head to the post office at the airport to pickup your Wifi unit by showing the confirmation and your passport to the clerk. At the end of your trip, all you will need to do is put the WiFi unit and the accessories into the pre-paid postage return envelope provided to you with your original package, and drop it into a mail box, or give the package to any post office and it will be returned to the company. It’s a simple and ingenious process.
There’s an App for That
Once you’ve secured yourself data access for your trip, it’s time to decide on the apps you will want to use on your phone.
Google Maps with Street View is a requirement for travelling Japan as it will be the primary reference for which train to take and which direction to head once you get off the train. It is also good for pinpointing any restaurants and destinations you will want to visit, as finding some specialty shops is often difficult in the maze of back streets. Go read my guide to trains and transportation in Japan for more general information on how to navigate the country using Google Maps.
Google Translate will help in many cases when you need to communicate with a local and neither of you speak the other’s language. The back and forth conversation feature is relatively accurate, although it will have trouble with slang and specialized words. It is always advisable to learn some basic Japanese, such as hello, thank you, please, where is the toilet?, I’d like a beer please, etc.
Google Assistant/Lens will also augment Google Translate as it may be able to do some real-time translation of written Japanese, such as menu items, street signs, etc. It will also be helpful in identifying buildings, food, and other items of which you may not be familiar. The visual translate feature isn’t as accurate so be aware of its shortcomings.
Your airline of choice will often have an app. It is useful load this app and setup your boarding passes, flight info, and other flight data as this can help notify you of delays, changes in schedules and allow you to check in as quickly and easily as possible.
If you are using AirBnB for your accommodations, you will need the app to facilitate communication with your host as well as help you with navigation. It is also useful if you run into a situation with your accommodation which may require AirBnB to step in and correct.
Having access to cloud storage such as Google Drive, Drop Box, or OneDrive is very useful as you will want to place copies of all your flight and hotel confirmations, a copy of your passport, your medical information, contact information, consulate and embassy information, and any other critical travel documentation. Remember to check the “Available offline” option on your critical documents as this will allow you access to your critical information even if you don’t have any internet connection.
WhatsApp, iMessage, Hangouts, or your preferred message is an absolute must so that you can keep in touch with people back home, and to organize everyone if you’re travelling in a group. You can see if everyone is up, arrange a meeting place, send people locations if you’re lost in a crowd, and to manage sub groups who split up to go to do different things during the day. These chat groups are also excellent for keeping in touch after your trip.
Since your normal voice calling is subject to roaming fees, using a VoIP app like Skype or Google Voice for calling home or checking in with people, calling hotels, making reservations, etc.. There may be small fees associated with making calls on these apps, but they will be much cheaper than your carrier’s voice roaming fees.
You will want to have a music app of some sort like Spotify, Google Music, Apple Music, with files downloaded/available offline. Long train rides will require distractions such as music and eBooks and having internet access will allow you to stream anything you need.
Grab one of the apps called SuicaReader or Suikakeibo if you get a chance. This will allow you to check your IC Card balance by tapping your card to the NFC reader on your phone. This will let you know if you must fill up your card when you get to the next station, or if you have enough on your card to buy that beer at the combini.
Beware that some North American apps, especially payment apps won’t work in Japan as they have separate systems. The Starbucks app won’t allow you to pay in Japan. I haven’t tried Google Pay or my AmEx app, but I suspect that they will have trouble working.
If you’re security conscious, and you are using public WiFi or shared WiFi units with many other people who you don’t know or trust, using a VPN service may be a good idea. This allows you to encrypt and securely conduct your data and conduct activities such as banking, file transfers, and secure your log in to various sites.
I will caution against using Netflix, Amazon Video, or other video apps on the WiFi unit. Not only will you be transferring large amount of data and hit your daily bandwidth cap which will drop you to a slower speed, you will potentially use up your allowed data transfer quickly if you do not have an unlimited plan. Also, most of these apps will geolocate and show you local shows only.
If you really wanted to disconnect and focus on your vacation, you could still have a great time with leaving your phone at home and not bothering with WiFi, but with all the information and navigation at your fingertips for the cost of $100 for 2 weeks, it seems silly not to get one of these units and have the peace of mind if you need it.
If you have questions or things you want to know about Japan, please feel free to comment or contact me via the Contact page.