The smartphone way to tour Japan

Japan’s beautiful cherry blossom season begins this week, making it one of the best times of the year to visit the country.

If you are headed to the Land of the Rising Sun to catch those delicate pink blossoms, be sure to take along your smartphone.

With free Wi-Fi spots easily available and good 4G coverage, using apps as a travel guide in Japan is easy.

For people who do not speak Japanese, apps are useful travel aids, serving as navigation tools and as a concierge you can call on for help at any time.

These indispensable apps will transform your smartphone into an excellent tour guide:

Tokyo Rail Map+
$4.98 (iOS)
*Limited-time sale at 50 per cent off, original price $9.98

The spaghetti-like tangle that is Tokyo’s railway map deters many travellers from navigating the world’s largest metropolis on their own.

With Tokyo Railway Map+, figuring out how to get from one place to another is easy as the app does all the work for you.

Simply enter the names of the start and end stations of your journey, then let the app figure out the shortest route.

Travel directions are beautifully animated and come complete with a list of stations, transfer points and estimated travel time.

Tokyo Rail Map+ falls on the pricey side, but first-timers visiting the city will appreciate the app’s clear and detailed directions.

Similar apps are available for Osaka and Nagoya.

Free to download, US$2.99/month or US$25.99/year (Android and iOS)
*iOS for US store only

This powerful app can tell you to the minute when your Shinkansen bullet train is expected to arrive at the platform.

Hyperdia gives you access to the timetables of all railway and aviation services in Japan, so planning long distance and inter-city trips are a breeze.

The iOS version of this app is so easy to use; you just need to tell your smartphone where you want to go, using the built-in voice command.

Results displayed include a selection of possible routes, the total fare for each, and the arrival/travel times of each train or plane ride. First-time users may find the text-only results intimidating.

The app is free to download, but using the service will cost you at least US$2.99 a month via an in-app purchase.

Cherry Blossoms
Best 100 in Japan
Free (iOS)

This app gives you all the details of the best 100 spots throughout Japan in which to catch the cherry blossoms.

You can search for sakura viewing spots by area, or choose from an interactive map.

Each location includes up-to-date and detailed information such as whether the flowers are in bloom, planned festival dates, evening light-up timings, and even entrance fees for nearby attractions.

This free app works offline as well, so you can always download it before you board the plane and have your journey all planned before you arrive at the airport.

Sushi - The Sushi Menu Book
$4.98 (iOS)

Sushi is a must for most visitors to Japan, but you do need to know what to order.

This app is essentially a sushi encyclopaedia in your smartphone, presented in a clean and elegantly designed interface.

Sushi ingredients, such as fish, shellfish and roe, are curated by season or type. The information is detailed so you know exactly what qualities to look for in good sushi.

The lack of interactive features makes this a rather pricey buy. But if you are a sushi lover and do not have a Japanese fishmonger among your friends, there is no better guide out there.

Japan 7-11 Locator
Free (Android and iOS)

Not all convenience stores are created equal. In Japan, 7-Eleven stores are 24/7 mini-heavens of delicious ready-meals and snacks.

If you need to locate one quickly, fire up this app. When used with an Internet connection, the app shows your current location as well as all the nearby 7-Eleven stores on an interactive map.

Clicking on the icon that marks each store even shows you a Google Maps view of the local area so that you can easily find your way.

The app also works offline and lets you browse from a list of stores.

My only complaint is that the store names are only in Japanese, which will not be very useful for most travellers.

Tokyo Art Beat
$2.58 (iOS)
Free (Android)

Visiting Japan is not only about eating sushi and taking photos of sakura.

The capital city’s arts scene is very vibrant and Tokyo Art Beat is an excellent app that tells you exactly what is going on where.

The app’s well-organised interface displays at a glance hundreds of arts events, shows and exhibitions.

Entries are organised by type, media, proximity and end date for easy navigation. There is even a map that shows you events happening near your current location.

Information is always up to date and event listings comprise touring international exhibitions as well as indie gallery displays by local artists. If you are an arts buff, you will never have a dull day in Tokyo with this app. If you are visiting Osaka, check out its sister app, Kansai Art Beat.

Jasmine Osada is a freelance writer.

Free Wi-Fi pass

Visitors can apply for a free Wi-Fi pass for 14 days from NTT East, which provides Internet access to about 39,000 hot spots throughout eastern Japan.

In other parts of Japan, free Wi-Fi services are readily available at Starbucks outlets and Family Mart convenience stores.

To get the Wi-Fi pass, download the app, Navitime for Japan Travel, to get a username and password.

You can then claim the Wi-Fi access card from stores and counters listed on its website(//

Distribution of the free Wi-Fi cards are also available on a limited basis at Narita Airport.

This article was published on April 2 in The Straits Times.

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