I got my iPhone 3G about four hours after arriving in Japan. Being gadget boy, I’d wanted it since launch day, but it would have been a bit daft to get it on a two year contract in the UK. Also, they don’t come cheap, and I couldn’t justify getting one just because I wanted one.

But here I am starting a new life in Japan, and in need of a phone.

Buying the iPhone in Japan

The initial rush seems to have subsided, although stocks are still limited: we called our local Softbank store (having first phoned the Apple store in vain), and checked availability. They had 1 available, 16GB black.

The sign up process is pretty lengthy. You have to read through a few pages of Apple’s terms and conditions, then donate a kidney. It can be difficult for foreigners to get them as there’s a credit check, and a two year contract (they don’t want you skipping the country before paying all the monthly instalments). We decided that *Twinkle* would buy mine – far simpler :-) If you don’t have someone willing to buy one for you, credit card is the way to go.

The plans cost anything between about 5000 yen and 9000 yen a month, + phone calls: this pays for the device itself and the data plan. I don’t like making phone calls (especially not at 20 yen a minute, which I discovered after a total of 3 hours on the phone) so that’s fine for me, I’m just in it for the data. Calls to other Softbank / Vodafone users are free at certain times.

You are given a Softbank (IMAP) email address. Personally, I like to use my own domain email address (…[at]tamegoeswild.com) so I’ve configured Google Apps to forward a copy of incoming mobile mail to Softbank (who then send an alert to the phone), and manually set the outgoing server to Gmail SMTP.

Once you have the device, be prepared to fall in love. As Steve would say, it is absolutely gorgeous. I mean, really, it is the most beautiful piece of technology I have ever had the privilege to take care of. And the best thing of all? It Just Works. It’s incredibly easy to use – I’ve not yet had to refer to the manual. It’s simple enough for even a four-year-old to understand – yesterday my little nephew was able to figure out how to switch between applications in a couple of minutes.

If you are an existing Mac user setting up your phone couldn’t be simpler – just plug it in. iTunes will sync all your contacts, email accounts, calendars, to do lists, photos, music, videos, just like that. It may be a little more complex for Windows users but they should be used to frustration anyway.

In the past I’ve always found it a pain to put data on mobile phones, and was also afraid that if I lost the phone, I’d lose my data. Here, all the data is safely stored on your computer / in the cloud, then synched to your iPhone either over the Internet or when you plug it in.

Applications

I won’t go through all my apps because I’d be here all day. Just to mention one of my Japanese favourites – Ekitan: the entire national train timetable, live updates on delays, a cache so you can refer to searches when there’s no signal, history of previous searches (for repeat journeys). And all with a lovely user-freindly interface. Yes, other phones can do this too – but not whilst oozing sex appeal.

Other favourite apps are Safari, Google maps, Twitterrific, Air Sharing, Koi Pond (the fish eat your finger), the classic iPint (beer on tap – a good party trick), midomi (sing to your iPhone or let it listen to a song being played in a bar etc and it will tell you what the song is, with a link to buy it), NetNewsWire (RSS feeds), MyDelicious, Cro-mag, Facebook, Evernote.

The GPS really is very handy. I use it to find places in Tokyo – watch myself on the screen as a little blue dot walking down the road. Also, my to-do list uses it so that I can tell my iPhone to put tasks in order of their distance from me (write to bank = 0m, buy eggs = 0.5km, buy ink = 4km, get post office book from *Twinkle*s parents’ house = 32km). This is handy when one has a very long to-do list! (and is very nerdy).

The web browser, Safari, is fantastic. Unlike most phones in Japan you’re not restricted to made-for-mobile sites, with this you can view any website online (er, provided they’re not flash-based!). I’ve used this countless times over the past week when on the move. There’s so much information out there – it’s great to be able to access it when I need it and not have to wait until I get home.

I also like the fact that it has decent built-in speakers – I use it to listen to audiobooks just before I go to bed.

Where the iPhone falls down in Japan

Rather than just go on about how good the iPhone is (there’s plenty of sites dedicated to doing so already), I thought I’d point out some features – or lack of features – that are specific to Japan.

  • My biggest gripe comes as the result of the iPhone being designed for a country that uses SMS, not email, for texting. Japan does use SMS, but it will only work with people who are on the same carrier as you. Here, email is dominant. Apple have tried to address this by having Softbank send an alert when you get new mail, but this is only a message on the screen – no vibrate and no sound. I hope they rectify this soon.
  • The mail program doesn’t support eMoji, those little pictures people love to put in their texts. They just get scrambled. If the picture is core to the meaning of the message this can be a problem – you can read the message in Safari at the touch of a button, but it’s a bit of a drag.
  • The packages are way too expensive.
  • Visual voicemail doesn’t come as standard. I think it’s another 300 yen a month.
  • Battery life. Ok, so that’s not limited to Japan, but it is still the iPhone’s biggest ‘issue’.
  • The camera is probably the most pants camera to have been mass-marketed this year. Emergency use only.

It’s early days though, with it only having been launched here last month. What a lot of users are doing is using it as a secondary device – with all my family here on AU (not Softbank) I’ll probably go that way myself.

At least the 3G network is reliable – it really is super fast. You rarely find yourself waiting excessively for it to load. I also love the fact that it has Wifi – at home (or at friends’ houses, or where’s there’s public wifi) it automatically switches from 3G to the wireless broadband connection, thus not costing a penny in data transfer.

he introduction of ‘Genius’ with the latest version of iTunes is very welcome, and over the past couple of days I’ve been delighted to find some ‘new’ music that I never knew I had. Great stuff.

I find it really exciting to be able to use these new devices, and also to think where they might go in the future. I won’t be buying any more gadgets for a long time – perhaps next year I’ll get a Nikon DSLR with video function and in-built GPS (in the D700 line).

Incidentally, a good side-effect of my having an iPhone is that I spend a lot less time in front of my Mac. Being able to deal with emails on the road when I have a spare few minutes here and there means I don’t come home to a pile of stuff to wade through, and consequently don’t get distracted by browsing the internet – so the iPhone is pretty good for our relationship too!

Anyway, it’s just flashed up a reminder that I need to go to the toilet. According to the GPS system, the loo is located about 4 metres south-west of this cushion, and I have a date to be there by 12.34pm. Best be off.

Getting an iPhone on July 11 was possible only if you were willing to queue for hours.

As time passes, however, it gets easier to find both the 8GB and 16GB version.

One thing to remember: the Apple Store in Ginza and the online store do not sell iPhones !

Where to buy an iPhone?

I got mine at Softbank in Omotesando, their flagship store, since they offer english-speaking services. It’s on the Omotesando street. You can either drop at the Harakuju station (JR Line) or Meiji-jingumae station (Tokyo Metro)

In Tokyo, you canalso go to the Softbank Shibuya store, the Roppongi store or at the Narita airport mini-store. Just go there to check the closest to your place.

Some people have had no problem registering in English at either Bic Camera (english list of stores) or Yodobashi Camera. Some smaller shops have their iPhones and since most clerks are always very helpful, you can try your luck there (just don’t expect english-speaking clerks everywhere).

At the time of this writing, still expect some queues in some shops.

What to bring with you ?

First of all, you must be a resident in Japan to get your iPhone. There’s no prepaid option for it.

Since Softbank seem to alter their policies every two days, play it on the safe side, bring:

1) your passport
2) your alien registration card
3) your credit card

1) bring the passport that has the visa included, not another form of ID (I know, it might be possible only to bring your health insurance card or your driver’s license, but be sure that it will fly with the clerks before queuing for two hours…)

2) Your alien registration card should have the address where you’re actually living, otherwise bring a residential registration certificate, a public utilities receipt or any printed matter issued by goverment or public offices.

3) Your CC should have more than two years of validity time ahead. International CCs will also be accepted.

This is certainly where Softbank has altered its policy the most in the first month. Normally, it should be enough to bring your ATM card if you have a Japanese bank/post account, but it will now be most likely refused (since end-July, clerks even hand you a registration form when you queue that explicitly announces the credit card necessity, so no need to complain that it’s not written on Softbank’s website).

You can workaround the CC payment only if you’re ready to pay the full price for the iPhone (no discount on the actual phone). The 16GB will come at around JPY 80,000. Note that with that solution, your ATM card will, magically, be sufficient for monthly subscription payment.

In any case, you have the ability to request a change from CC to your bank account after your first month.

On a more general view, it seems Softbank was viewing the iPhone as more directed towards foreigners and took the steps of CC payment to avoid customers leaving before the end of their contract.

On a side note, paying the JPY 80,000 upfront means that you will end up paying the same amount after two years than if you had payed the monthly fee (the discount system is altered).

How long it will take ?

Let’s discount the queuing, but be ready to stay at least 90 minutes in the shop for a new contract. It’s painfully slow and bureaucratic, but most of the clerks I had to deal with were very nice.

How much will it cost ?

The pricing plans from Softbank need a PhD to be understood.

First of all, the new contract will cost you approx JPY 2,840, billable on your first month.

The basic plan is called White Plan and allows free national communications between 1AM to 9PM between Softbank users: JPY 960/month. Double White Plan costs twice as much and offers some rebate on calls made outside of the SB network.

The mandatory Packet Flat Rate will cost you JPY 5,985/month and allows you unlimited data transfers.

SB just announced a new pricing plan (not even a month after their first one !) that basically makes this 5,985 the max. cost of the plan, it might cost you only JPY 1,695/month if you’re using less than …2MB a month. At 10MB approx, you reach the plan ceiling. Seems however that with this plan, the phone will cost you more when you buy it.

The S! Basic Back is also mandatory at JPY 315/month. It brings you the voicemail basically.

As for the phone itself: the 16GB will cost you JPY 34,560 and the 8GB JPY 23,040.

All in all, it’s approx JPY 7,280/month, plus the JPY 2,840 contract, plus the phone.

If you really want to understand the discount pricing policy of SB, let’s have a coffee sometimes. Let’s say a Vodka. And make it a double.