There’s plenty of information on for travellers to navigate Japan without using any Japanese. But on the other hand, I think it’s missing out a little if you don’t know what locals are using. As a super-connected nation with virtually universal 4G connection, knowing what local Japanese are using for travel can open up the Japan that is not flooded with international tourists.
The best way to travel Japan is to use local information with tourist-only discounts and passes, such as the JR Pass or 24//48/72-hour Tokyo Subway Pass.
Below are the apps that local Japanese use when travelling.
Itineraries / Things to Do:
Retrip (JP) is advertised a lot, especially in Tokyo for sharing local gems and events. It’s based on the online travel / lifestyle magazine that gives ideas of where to go, even from the photos alone. Once you learn to recognize the Kanji for regions (such as 関東 (Kanto) 関西 (Kansai) and the names of cities, you will be able to search based on location too. Many posts are linked to blogger accounts on Instagram, so just by clicking on them, you can find the locations on Google Maps eventually.
Rurubu (JP) more specifically travel-related. The website and app is also more a relic of the old-school Japanese web interfaces (so a lot more text than photos). The app Rurubu is more user-friendly, but entirely in Japanese. It does have in-app map integrations to locations.Rurubu News (JP) is great for discovering local events, such as cultural festivals, shows, and installations (i.e. Christmas lights). Cultural experiences, whether a local matsuri summer festival, a specialty market, or a convention, are a great way to experience authentic Japan.
Instagram is also a good app to get inspiration for everything from restaurants to scenic spots.
Food / Dining / Restaurants
Tabelog (JP/EN/CN) is my personal favourite because it is good for keyword and location searching. When I’m in an area, I click the 現在地 (my location) and then type in the food I want to eat. Japanese eaters are super picky, so personally, I feel anything at 3.00 or above is somewhere I’m happy to try. The ones at the 4.0 level usualy have lineups or require bookings. A note that Tabelog does take advertisements; restaurants have paid for reviews. Also, note that what tastes good to a Japanese person may not match other people’s tastes. Note that Tabelog has an English version, which is quite useable, but the Japanese version has many more listings (see my screencaps).
Retty (JP) is what my local friends prefer because it is structured more as a food blogging platform and users feel like they can get more authentic reviews and follow people who have similar tastes.
Gurunavi (JP/EN) is a popular app as well and originally catered to the Japanese market. I’m a bit sceptical of the conglomerate, but it also has a nice English interface that is easier to navigate than Tabelog. It’s a great place to start for ideas.
Some food keywords when searching the type of food item includes:
- Ramen ラーメン
- udon うどん
- grilled things is yaki (beef/chicken/etc.) 焼き
- Traditional Japanese Kaiseki 懐石 かいせき
- sushi すし
- curry カーレ
- cafe カフェ
- Vegetarian keywords may include 菜食, ベジタリアン (not common in Japan though)
Rakuten Travel (JP/EN) is a domestic Japanese travel booking platform that has an English version that looks entirely different from the Japnese version. Rakuten is better option than international booking platforms like Expedia, Agoda, or Booking.com for rural areas, ryokan, and onsen. Some of the descriptions are a bit Google Translate-like. You can also look at Rakuten Travel for inspiration and then search your choice lodging on your favourite accommodation booking platform.
Jalan (Japanese) is another popular travel booking platform for Japan. I think it’s best for onsen and ryokan specifically.
Ikyu (Japanese) is a website specializes more in ryokan and onsen listings. It’s not as complete, but the photos are better than the other two.
Trivago (JP/EN) I don’t know why Trivago is so popular in Japan, but it is one of the top booking platforms. Since it’s international, it may be a good place to go for English listings for Japan.
AirBnB is available in Japan. I have used it and met great local hosts who have become friends I revisit. However, many people are using it as an informal guesthouse system. In Japan, this is officially illegal without a license. Some Japanese will use it as well, but I would say it’s still mostly for foreign travellers. I would say for those who do use this, please respect the neighbourhoods you are in by keeping the noise level down in general and especially from evening onwards and properly sorting your garbage. There’s an informal view that seeing too many foreign people in neighbourhoods around Tokyo means the quality of living around the area goes around and I’ve noticed going into Japan the past year that immigration is increasingly suspicious of residential addresses written down. Please try to set a good impression for the benefit of future travellers.
Google Maps is probably the default, especially for big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka, and Kyoto. In the cities, the maps include levels for major malls as well. Note that Google Maps works better for names of places in Japanese, so it’s better to copy and paste that into the search. Addresses in English are usually pretty accurate. An alternative is Yahoo Maps.
Y!乗換案内 (Japanese) is one of the most popular and my personal favourite. It has features that I find super handy, especially in Tokyo. Those include being able to choose routes based on price, number of transfers, and amount of walking. In addition, I can see the total breakdown in prices for the subway and for train tickets (especially useful for express trains, where it’s more accurate than Google Maps). The map integration is not useful, so this app may be disorienting for people who want to see visually where they are travelling in the city. It also saves your previous searches when offline.
Navitime (Japanese) is (depending on the person) a close runner-up. Navitime has several apps including the 乗換案内 (metro/train transfers), Bus Navitime. I think it also has the only complete map of the Greater Tokyo transit system (which is comprised of multiple train companies and probably 500 stations (I had mapped 200+ for Metro & Toei Subway alone for my wheelchair accessibility map).
Jorudan (Japanese) is also a big player, but I don’t think it ranks nearly as well. I think at first glance the user interface (UI) for all three is similar.
Y!天気 (Japanese) is much more accurate than Google or any other international weather predictor like Accuweather. It will update based on your current location as well. You can also save preferred locations (just copy the kanji for your city from Wikipedia). This app also includes the latest information on local weather warnings like typhoons and tsunamis. I would recommend downloading it even if you don’t speak Japanese because you can figure out the weather from the icons and the temperature is still written in numbers.
Line is the Whatsapp of Japan. Not only do people use it to message each other, some businesses will use it as a service line. People of speak Japanese will probably know this, but Twitter is a great source of information and Japanese use this a lot for news and events.
WiFi / Data SIMs / Pocket WiFi
Just get it. My impression is that the prices North American and European companies charge is probably a rip off (because my pocket Wifi rental for unlimited data is about US$ 5 daily in Hong Kong). Hong Kong companies include YBuddy and WiFi BB. I’m pretty sure you can now get a pocket WiFi after arriving in Haneda or Narita Airports in Tokyo and Kansai Airport for Osaka. Please do a Google search and see what works for you. Having the data connection is a great convenience. Between a data SIM and pocket WiFi, I would prefer the latter because it can be shared (and the speed doesn’t suffer for 2-3 devices), so it becomes quite economical in a group. It’s also very reasonable for someone remote working like me.
Free WiFi in Japan (if you don’t want to pay)
Japan has a lot of free Wi-Fi hotspot schemes for travellers (Japan Free Wi-Fi, Free Wi-Fi Japan, Japan Wi Fi). Some need registration before arriving in Japan. Honestly, I’ve never managed to get any of them to work and they’re only effective in big cities.
Reliable free WiFi comes from Lawson & Family Mart. They all have free WiFi. I travelled in 50+ cities, towns and villages in rural Japan for months using this. In fact, I lived in Tokyo for months before finally “caving in” to the luxury of a US$4/monthly data SIM. In Tokyo, convenience stores were in every corner, so I never felt the need to have a connection. No registration needed or strings attached to WiFi from those two chains. 7/11 isn’t so useful.
Tokyo’s more central / larger metro stations have free WiFi
Major cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka, and Kyoto often have tourism-promotion Wi-Fi networks. Turn on your WiFi when you arrive or ask the tourist information centre. Their malls may have free WiFi as well. Some cafes have free WiFi as well.
I write about random local tips and travel hacks, so some other ideas of how you can get a local experience include:
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