The face of travel in Japan has completely transformed in the past five years. Not only are smartphones ubiquitous, but pay-as-you-go data is finally cheap and accessible to travellers. With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics around the corner, the nation (or, at least, Tokyo) is scrambling to host the world with everything from English courses for locals to English-language apps to help travellers navigate Tokyo’s transit system, make restaurant bookings, reserve Disneyland tickets, and a lot more. Below, I’ve listed out major apps that can be used from Tokyo and Kyoto through to the Japanese countryside. I’ve arranged them assuming that you want apps to plan your travel, book experiences, find accommodation, navigate cities, get travel concierge help, find local food recommendations, and get other help such as translation tools and weather updates. If you have any great apps to recommend, drop me a line as well!
- Travel Hack Apps & WiFi Services
- Apps for Planning your Travel to Japan
- Apps for Booking Accommodation
- Apps for Transit and Getting Around
- Food Guide Apps for Japan
- Apps for Admin, Communication & Other Things
Travel Hack Apps & WiFi Services
BeBot Chatbot at Airports, Train Stations, Hotels
BeBot Chatbot is an app that pops up automatically when you connect to the FREE Narita Airport & Tokyo Station WiFi. No download is needed. It’s most useful for getting directions, for example from the airport to the hotel, but also for nearby restaurant recommendations, attractions, and shopping. You can check out how the app works at Narita Airport.
You can find out more about how Bebot works in an English interview of the founder, Akemi Tsunagawa on the Disrupting Japan podcast or on the BeSpoke company website. The app is connected through a network, so it is only available if you are at a place that offers that service (various hotels, specific airports, Kyoto, and train stations).
Free WiFi at Convenience Stores (Family Mart, Lawson, malls, City WiFi)
This is not an app, but rather a must-know. Since we all have smartphones, everyone feels the need to get roaming or a data SIM, but if you are going to major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka (as well as Sapporo, Kanazawa, Fukuoka, Hiroshima, and Nagoya), you probably have access to free city WiFi, train station WiFi, and especially convenience store WiFi. The services are so common that a travel writer and consultant friend in Tokyo has not had mobile data since 2015. I also didn’t need mobile data when I spent 40 days walking the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage or in Tokyo after.
Japan’s Best Travel Apps come from China, Taiwan, and Japan (With English Versions)
The best Japan travel information and booking experience, in my opinion, comes from Chinese platforms and apps. This isn’t suprising when JNTO reported that 73.4% of all travellers came from East Asia (China, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong) in 2018. Many travellers from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China know some level of Japanese, whether it is reading kanji on signs to being fluent in the language. In addition, companies building apps for Chinese-speaking visitors are much better about creating smooth interactions between customers and local businesses, which is why Japanese companies are more willing to adopt them. If an app is originally founded in China, I have included the Chinese name for the app, as well as a language marker to show if they have an English version.
Apps for Planning your Travel to Japan
Klook 客路 [Chinese / English]
Klook is hailed as the next unicorn of tech startups. In summary, it is a travel itinerary booking service with a sleek English interface (in part because it is headquartered in Hong Kong and its founders spent time overseas). It helps people research travel experiences and book them for stress-free travel.
Alternatives: Qunar 去哪儿 and Mafengwo 马蜂窝 are also mega travel information and booking platforms based in Mainland China, but I have not included them in the main count because my understanding is that their interfaces are in Chinese. For people who know some Japanese, you can use the same Japanese kanji to search for major cities or towns on these platforms to get additional travel information that may not be available in English.
kkday [Chinese / English]
KKDay is Taiwan’s version of Klook. Founded in 2014, it also offers travel booking services for travellers who go to Japan. If I am to stereotype, Taiwanese travellers tend to look for more cultural experiences. Japan had colonised Taiwan prior to the World Wars and has left many cultural influences. As such, if you are interested in more historical experiences, KKDay might be worth checking out.
AirBnB Experiences [English]
As many users will know, AirBnB expanded from location bookings into an experience-booking platform as well. I have not made such bookings myself, but my local friends in Japan have offered experiences such as cooking local meals. I have also used AirBnB to help friends find experiences such as kintsugi, a traditional gold joinery craft.
Created by the JTB travel company in Japan, this is a great database to centralise the highlights you want to see in Japan. In addition, they have a chat service that can help you figure out suitable places.
Google Trips [English]
Google Trips is a way to mark your destinations and quickly access transit to them.
JNTO App [English]
If it’s your first time to Japan, the Japan National Travel Organization (JNTO) app is a great place to start. As it is government sponsored, they do make an effort to include the cultural highlights that each prefecture is known for. There is also the Japan Guide Offline (Google Play) version for people who may not want to rent a pocket WiFi or travel SIM card.
Tabiko: Travel Concierge [English]
Tabiko is an iPhone and Android chat-based concierge that helps travellers figure out their itinerary developed by the travel magazine Fast Japan.
Voyagin is a Japan-based English-language tour, activity, experience, and ticket booking platform. It was founded by someone who had travelled and did AirBnB hosting in Tokyo before the city began to regulate hosts.
Retrip is advertised a lot, especially in Tokyo, for sharing neighbourhood highlights and events. It’s based on the online travel / lifestyle magazine that gives ideas of where to go, even from the photos alone. If you recognise the kanji for regions, such as Kanto 関東 and Kansai 関西, as well as the names of cities you can search by location. 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 is specifically travel-related, and has what I call a typically Japanese website interface, with more text than photos. The Rurubu app is more user-friendly than the website. It does have in-app map integrations to locations. Rurubu News is great for discovering local events, such as cultural festivals, shows, and installations (i.e. Christmas light displays). Cultural experiences, whether a local matsuri summer festival, a specialty market, or a convention, are a great way to experience authentic Japan.
Jalan Kankou [Japanese] iphone | Android
The desktop website is similar to Rurubu, so if navigating lots of text is not your thing, you can move on.
Most people have probably marked off the places they want to see for themselves after seeing a mouthwatering dish or breathtaking view. The #JapanTravel is a place to start and you can also search keywords by season such as #hanami or #紅葉, koyo, the Japanese word for autumn foliage.
Non-App Sources of Inspiration
Check City Apps
Tokyo and the “Golden Triangle” cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara all have travel guides. Rather than put them all here, you can head to the Apple App Store or Google Play Store and type in key word such as “kyoto map and walks” and “osaka travel guide”. You will find what you are looking for. Some are created by agencies while others have been sponsored by city governments.
Japan Travel Websites
If you are like me and do itinerary research on your desktop instead of your phone, then you will have access to more in-depth recommendations from travel websites. Some examples include Tokyo Tokyo, Best Living Japan for local events such as antique weekends, Japan Travel Guide With Me as an offline travel guide / ebook, Triposo‘s mini-guides, Goodluck Trip Japan, and of course the giant TripAdvisor.
Local District, Town, and Village Offices with Free Maps
All the districts in Tokyo have a local cultural map guide that is free and available at the Ward Office. These are usually in Japanese, but some have English, and have great walking courses and introductions of local historical sites that are non-commercial. Similarly, even small villages will have cultural maps and guides for local businesses that are usually placed on stands at train stations. Locals are proud of what their area is known for, whether a scenic spot, place of historical significance, dish, or traditional craft, and the information is rarely found in English online.
As this post is focused on apps for people who like to do their own itineraries, I will not include guide information here. However, for people who are looking for thematic experiences, such as historical walks with guided information should look into tours. If you have been to London and enjoy learning about the history in every corner, cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka are about the same.
Apps for Booking Accommodation
AirBnB is still a good way to find interesting experiences in Japan. In Tokyo, AirBnB is now mostly regulated as an effort to stop speculative investors from buying real estate (in a market that has stagnated for 20 years) to turn them into unregulated hostels, boarding houses, and short-term rentals. City governments across Japan are seeking to regulate the industry as well, so many cities may now have only minshuku and ryokan, basically licensed bed and breakfasts. I personally think that the app is still great for inaka, accommodations in the countryside of Japan. The countryside tends to be more genuine as it is more difficult for speculative buyers to buy properties without the support of local communities, meaning that people who do host tend to be locals themselves.
For people who do use the app, 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. The garbage sorting is something people care a lot about because it’s hygiene and keeps neighbourhoods clean. In addition, residents do not appreciate loud, drunk groups. Deserved or otherwise, this is the general perception amongst locals for foreign visitors. It only takes one or two incidences to leave a deep impression on locals in residential neighbourhoods of Tokyo. They will report owners of unlicensed guest houses if they grow suspicious. Please try to set a good impression for the benefit of future travellers.
Japan is not a particularly couchsurfing-friendly country as many people may not be confident about their English abilities and are also not comfortable hosting guests. Having said that, I have stayed in couchsurfing homes and the hosts are always incredibly generous and eager to exchange experiences. This method is good for backpackers who may want to spend a bit more time in Japan and have a more flexible schedule. Your host may only have an air mattress or sofa, but in some cases may have a spare room. To be a good guest, try to bring a small gift, perhaps from your home country, as a show of appreciation. Please also be mindful of cultural habits such as rinsing containers, bottles and cans, sorting garbage, and taking off your shoes at the entrance before you enter the home.
Tujia 途家 [Chinese]
TuJia is a billion-dollar tech unicorn that English markets tend to call China’s AirBnB. The company’s origins were originally in offline commercial building management before becoming an online booking platform, but for a traveller like you and me, the main thing is that this platform offers a host of other places that AirBnB does not offer, so yet another option for finding places to stay especially for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics! I believe the app is still only available in Chinese, but you can download it and see if there is a language choice for English.
Trip.com [English / Chinese]
Trip.com was formerly known as CTrip, as China’s premier ticket booking platform. The travel tech giant has since expanded far beyond plane and train tickets. It owns TuJia and has its own bookings for experiences and accommodations on top of that.
Rakuten Travel [English / Japanese]
Rakuten is probably now Japan’s largest travel booking platform. The platform 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. Also check out their Rakuten Travel Conceirge App (iPhone only).
This is the same company that I mentioned for the Jalan Kankou app. I first discovered Jalan when I was looking for onsen and ryokan stays specifically. Jalan began as an onsen guide, so it has an extensive list of ryokans not covered by English directories. Having said that, if you book with Jalan, you should also be mindful of Japanese booking customs, such as cancellation arrangements (generally, the closer to the date, the less of a a discount there is, but they usually do not charge you until you arrive, so you should honour your arrangements).
Ikyu [Japanese] iPhone Only
Ikyu is a website specializes more in ryokan and onsen listings, and generally higher end ones. As such, the platform does not have as many offerings as Jalan or Rakuten, but the photos tend to be better (on the web version). In fact, I feel like Ikyu is the only platform where I feel the website is better than that app.
Trivago [English / Japanese]
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 in the country as well.
Booking.com should be self-explanatory for most English readers. It is one of the largest global booking platforms and works well for Japan as well. If you are already using it, then perhaps stick to it!
I think Agoda tends to be more popular in Asia. It will often have credit card discounts or bundled discounts, so if you have never used them, it might be worthwhile to get an introductory discount.
Apps for Transit and Getting Around
Google Maps is probably the best for everyone (used by locals and international visitors alike). Rumour has it that Tokyo is the second most accurate transit city in the world for the tech giant. Google Searching cannot source that piece of tech lore, as the results are innundated with Japan travel information. However, as a regular user of Google Maps in Tokyo, I can say that their records of transit schedules as well as traffic updates (for example, line closures, late trains) is incredibly reliable. In major cities such as Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka, and Kyoto, Google Maps extends to major malls as well, so you can navigate to the shop or restaurant that you want. Please note that the app works better for Japanese place names, so where possible, I suggest you copy a Japanese source before pasting. For maps, Yahoo Maps is a good alternative.
One missing feature on Google Maps: Google maps is actually not perfectly designed for the Japanese transit system because it does not provide consistent information; sometimes places are displayed in English and other times in Japanese. In addition, it does not always mark which platform you should get on your train, which can be quite crucial in large stations like Shinjuku. For this reason, I suggest also downloading a local Japanese transit app as well.
Maps.me is incredible. It was my lifesaver when I was travelling the countryside of Japan without WiFi. I found that the GPS was more accurate than Google Maps for some reason and even small roads are updated. I don’t think it’s necessary for the main cities like Tokyo or Kyoto because Google has far more information on the restaurants in areas as well as the layouts of malls / shopping arcades. However, if you are going to rural Japan and planning to do it without a pocket WiFi, this app is amazing.
For Japan, I think there are three main transit apps: Yahoo, Navitime, and Jorudan. I tried all three Japanese versions and the one I like most seems to be the only one without an English version in 2019. I’m putting Jorudan up here because it seems like the Japanese transit information has been translated over quite well. The reason Japanese transit apps are text-based rather than map-based is because if you are in a city like Tokyo, what you care about is critical transfer information, such as which platform you need to get on your train when there are twenty options. For this reason, I suggest having a local Japanese transit app alongside Google.
Navitime for JapanTravel [English]
It is up for debate amongst local Japanese, especially Tokyoites, whether the Japanese Navitime, or Yahoo is better. Navitime is a company that originally focused exclusively on transit and therefore (I believe) is still the only app in Japan that has the entire map for the Greater Tokyo transit system (which has 500+ stops). The company has including their own Norikaeannai 乗換案内 for the subway and trains, and Bus Navitime for local buses. The link provided in this post is the English version of the app for travellers, which does not have the full functionality of the Japanese version.
The Tokyo Metro App does not cover all the lines in Tokyo, as the greater metropolis has many private companies running specific lines. However, this is a useful app if you are using the Tokyo Subway Pass. You can check out my guide for the 72-48-24 Hour Subway Pass that is great value for going virtually anywhere you’d want to go in the city (just don’t stay south of Shibuya).
Yahoo might not be cool in the US anymore, but it still has a major presence in Japan. The Yahoo transit app is my personal personal favourite for getting around Tokyo because it does give the exact information that I as a commuter want to know. Having said that, the app’s (UX) design is entirely focused for Japanese users. The most noticeable difference is that this app basically has no map (the one available is not useful). The display of information is almost entirely textual, telling a user which lines to take, to which stations (including transfers and prices).
The reason this app is so useful is because it usually has more route options than Google Maps and has a useful feature for sorting routes based on price, number of transfers, or amount of walking. The breakdown of prices is also clearer, especially when comparing express trains and local trains. Also importantly, the app saves previous searches offline, so it’s great for people who don’t have travel SIMs or pocket WiFi.
Uber has made no headway in Japan because taxi drivers in Japan are quite professional. The biggest challenge for hailing a cab for international travellers is that most drivers are not confident about their English and there’s almost no way for them to understand where you want to go. Also note that taxi drivers may refuse because you are on the wrong side of a major street, in which case they often reject you because they do not want you to waste your money going in a giant U-turn. The app should help mitigate some of these concerns. Having said that, expect that taxis in Japan are very expensive and you probably would only consider them as a group or with young children and the elderly.
Food Guide Apps for Japan
For omnivores, please start reading from the “Japan Foodie” app. This section starts with apps for people with dietary requirements as those are usually the hardest to find information on. Japan can be a bit confusing for Muslims and vegans to navigate, but it’s getting better!
After the apps, you will find a list of translations for types of restaurants and food items to help you with orders or using local Japanese apps.
Halal Gourmet Japan [English] iPhone | Android
With a list of nearly a thousand restaurants, this is a pretty useful resource for visitors from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Middle East. While many Japanese may be meat-free because they are seafood based, only a handful of places serve Halal meat. To double up your choices, I recommend also checking out the vegetarian directories as well!
Halal Navi is a newer directory, but it seems to have a nice interface to help Muslim travellers navigate cities like Tokyo. The app also has “Halal tips”.
Vegans and vegetarians will likely be familiar with the app Happy Cow. The app has over a thousand listings in Japan, with over 400 entries in Tokyo, 100+ in Kyoto and Osaka each, as well as recommendations in smaller towns. You can also check out my Vegetarian map of Tokyo, vegetarian terms, and commonly mistaken vegetarian items.
Japan Foodie 日本美食 [Chinese / English / Japanese]
Founded by an entrepreneur from China, Lu Dong, Japan Foodie was originally developed for Chinese travellers in Japan to help them find great restaurants and make bookings. When they arrive at a restaurant, they confirm their reservation and make a payment via QR code, which allows travellers to focus on enjoying a local meal rather than figuring out menus and payments. The app takes common payment methods such as ApplePay, Google Pay, AliPay, WeChat Pay, Visa, Mastercard, and American Express.
Tabelog 食べログ [Japanese / English / Chinese]
My go-to food app in Japan is Tabelog. It has a feature for restaurant recommendations nearby and can also search based on keywords for food specialties. Note that the English database was built entirely separately from the original Japanese one, and therefore has only a fraction of the information. The Chinese version one is somewhere in between, but the version I use has always been Japanese.
If you venture into the Japanese version, to do nearby restaurant recommendations, you can click “現在地” (my location). You can copy and paste the Japanese keywords that I have included in this guide to search for the specialty restaurants listed. If you are using the Japanese version, most places above a 3/5 are very good and anywhere with 4+ will likely have long lineups or require bookings. Watch out for advertisements (which look different, just like sponsored ad listings are in English apps). Tabelog has paid reviews, which only affects people who read them, and I find rarely affects the overall average of a restaurant. Note that Tabelog has an English version, which is quite useable, but the Japanese version has many more listings (see my screencaps).
Retty is Japan’s social media app for foodies. It is one of the top ranked food apps on Appliv, Japan’s app ranking platform. My local friends in Tokyo prefer Retty over Tabelog because they feel that Retty is more user-generated and genuine. The most comprehensive reviews will be in Japanese because locals are incredibly picky reviewers. What you can do is generally find the location marker for the restaurant when you find images that you like. This is a way to find out what local Japanese really enjoy and go to places that international travellers may not think to visit.
Hot Pepper [Japanese / English / Chinese] iPhone | Android
As the name suggests, Cafesnap is just for cafes. It is like a specialised Retty and has a map that shows you what’s nearby. Note that the term “cafe” in Japanese can refer to restaurants serving contemporary home cooking as well as coffee houses. So you are just as likely to find “Omotesando Espresso Bar” reviewed along with a restaurant called “Picnic”. Be sure to check the photos to get a sense of whether the focus is on the food or drinks. If you are looking for traditional Japanese coffee houses, they are called kissaten 喫茶店.
Listran (I believe) is a combination of “List” and “Ranking”. Similar to Tabelog and Cafesnap, you can quickly search up places that are close to your location, which is pretty handy for inspiration!
Mainichi ga Ramen [Japanese] & RamenDays [English / Chinese]
The English version of the app is called Ramen Days iPhone | Android while the Japanese original is called Mainichi ga Ramen iPhone | Android. Unsurprisingly, people in Japan are quite obsessed about their ramen, so alternative apps include Ramen Finder (English, Android), and Ramen Database (Japanese, iPhone | Android).
Ikyu Restaurant Bookings iPhone only
Ikyu is actually a platform for booking nicer onsen resorts and ryokans. They also have an iPhone app specifically for booking higher end restaurants, many with discount offers.
Gurunavi [Japanese / English]
This app is a popular one in part because it is backed by a large company, the same one that owns Navitime. 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 Japanese translations for food
I will include some Japanese keywords for key types of food searches. The main reason is because I always believe searching in Japanese is better than the English. In many cases, the databases for Japanese and English are not the same, so if you want to find out what locals like, you may as well use the original. Having said that, it is important to be aware of what places value. For example, third-wave coffee lovers will need to take cafe recommendations with a grain of salt as Japan (I find) is superb for hand drip, but still catching up for espresso-based drinks (since most people cannot take a cortado).
|Cafes & Coffee|
|Pork broth ramen||豚骨ラーメン|
|Soy Sauce Ramen||醤油ラーメン|
|Sushi & Seafood Related|
|Types of Meals|
|All you can eat||食べ放題|
|All you can drink||飲み放題|
|Types of Places to Eat|
Apps for Admin, Communication & Other Things
Download the Japanese Offline Packet if you do not intend to use WiFi. In order to convey your idea, type in simple, short sentences. Make it the most basic possible, as Google doesn’t translate into Japanese well. It translates literally, which is never how Japanese actually speak. In order to avoid that, it is better to use basic key words so that you can convey your main idea, such as “Where is the toilet?”
JSho Japanese Dictionary Android Only
Hands down, my favourite dictionary. It inputs Japanese hiragana even as you type the pronunciation in English. It not only translates for you, but you can copy and paste the text into other apps to do searches. This dictionary is definitely geared towards language learners rather than travellers, as it lists common compound words and a word’s grammatical function.
I think the general local consensus is that the Yahoo weather app is the best in Japan. It is much more accurate than Google or any other international weather predictor like Accuweather. The app will automatically 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, tsunamis, pollen and cedar spores, which can be an intense allergen in the summer. 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.
Tenki is the word for weather in Japanese. This is an alternative to the Yahoo version.
As Japan is a cash-based country, I usually bring cash when travelling and that sets my budget. But if you would like a real-time currency exchange, I think XE does a good job.
Japan Hospital Guide [English] iPhone only
In the unlikely event where you need to see a doctor, this is a useful app. Japan runs on a mixed public and private health care model. The public health care places are usually quite affordable and definitely not US prices. However, if you go to a doctor who speaks English, it’s likely that they will also charge more.
LINE is Japan’s WhatApp. If you have friends in Japan, they will more likely respond to messages on LINE. Instagram is another growing option as well if your friends are posting Stories.
Twitter is huge in Japan. In Japanese, whole paragraphs can be condensed into the character limit. As such, it is a great source of news information and events (in the Japanese language). For example, you will have more luck searching for many LGBTQ communities, including neighbourhood associations and parent groups outside of Tokyo through Twitter rather than Google. Having said that, if you don’t already use Twitter, it isn’t necessary to start now.
Alright, that’s it! Hope this helps you save some money, navigate Japan more confidently, and stumble upon some cool local experiences. Of course, eat lots and have a great time!
If you’re curious about how Japanese apps are designed, you can check out my cultural post on Japan’s version of every good English app.
I also have a shorter list of apps to travel Japan like a local based on the apps I used while there.
Finally, if you liked this, please share with your friends and family. Thanks!