Link text

Everyone wants an iPhone in Japan

In Japan, everyone wants an iPhone. So much so, that the market for small Apple stickers has exploded. Note that only one of them is holding the genuine article. These stickers were kindly provided by Japanese Snack Reviews.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Japan’s relationship with the iPhone.  Softbank’s decision to give away free iPhones with new two-year contracts has been cited as proof that sales have been disappointing thus far, and that desperate action has to be taken to increase sales.

iPhone - white with a hint of colour Special edition iPhone COLOUR owned by my friend / teacher / ticket manager Nami

Others point out that this is a tactic frequently used by electronics manufacturers to shift stock prior to a new model being released (in June 2009?).

Personally though, I don’t see these online postings as having any bearing on my reality. I doubt Steve is going to pull the iPhone from Japan on the strength of one poorly researched article on Wired, nor do I think that app developers in Japan will stop developing for it as a result of bad press.

And the fact is, the iPhone is an incredible device. I mean, really incredible. I’ve never had the pleasure and the privilege of owning such a powerful, sexy little gadget before now, and six months after I first swiped my finger across its silky smooth touch-sensitive screen I continue to experience ‘Wow!’ moments as I find some new app that makes use of its outstanding native software and futuristic hardware.

It has had a massive meteor-sized positive impact upon my life here in Japan, helping me countless times on a daily basis to keep connected, stay organised, and to get stuff done.

Whilst I’ve reviewed many of these apps on this site in the past, I wanted to draw them all together in one post as a reference for people wondering what apps to download in preparation for the purchase of their precious iPhone.

Here’s a few examples.

GPS & compass

Tracking my routeUntil I bought my iPhone (which I did a mere three hours after touching down at Tokyo’s Narita Airport) I had never thought of GPS navigation as having any use in my life, as I didn’t have a car and had no intention of buying one.

However, back in the big city I was reminded that living in one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas results in ample opportunities to get lost when trying to reach a previously unvisited destination by train, bus or on foot.

The iPhone’s GPS capabilities, coupled with the built-in compass and Google Maps, make for the most amazing anti-get-lost tool yet to be invented (probably). Before heading somewhere I’ve not been before, I will quickly google the place and add it to my iPhone’s Google Map bookmarks (or the person’s address book card) – no need to devote further thought to figuring out the route. Providing I get off at the right railway station, I’ll be fine. Just walk so that the pulsing blue dot that is me gets closer to the red pin that is my destination.

Real-Time bus route

This also means I can now take buses too. I used to avoid taking city buses  in Japan as I would soon lose track of where we were, and would find it hard to figure out what the driver was saying. Now I can just follow the bus as it trundles across the map, and get off at the correct stop. Amazing! Google Maps also incorporates some bus routes too, although it’s not comprehensive.

The GPS has also saved me from a lot of grief on the trains. Sometimes, when going somewhere new, I get on the wrong train. For example, I’m no stranger to the getting-on-the-express-train-when-I-need-a-local-train scenario, which results in my bombing past my stop and on into the unknown inaka. If the train’s crowded it can be tricky to see the map above the doors / the signs at the stations whizzing by. In that situation, I now just open Google Maps, and see exactly how much of an idiot I am. Oh yes, I really am going north when I should be going south.

Train timetable app: Ekitan

EkitanNow at a station whose name I can’t pronounce, I open Ekitan Express [iTunes], the railway timetable for the whole of Japan, and ask it to show me the stations nearest me using GPS – match the kanji in the list of results with those on the platform sign and moments later I have the timetable back to where I was meant to be going. Ekitan is a phenomenal app, with its bookmarks, history and fantastically easy-to-use (and sexy) interface. (It should be noted that whilst although it does have a romaji input option, a basic ability to recognise station names written in kanji is necessary)

Ekitan also provides you with information about major delays on the majority of train lines in Japan (Japanese only). You can choose which lines it provides info for, so there’s no scrolling through endless pages detailing trains that are 3 seconds late.

(Ekitan’s other seasonal apps featuring Christmas lights and cherry blossom can be given a miss).

Dictionary app: ‘Japanese’

The next Japan-related app I rely upon is ‘Japanese’ [iTunes 2300yen]. I’ve reviewed this app before – thus here I’ll just say it’s blooming marvellous. In particular, I find the ability to easily add words I look up to its word lists immensely useful – when I get home I manually transfer these to Anki and flash cards (the fact that this has to be done manually is a bonus as it’s in doing so that one starts learning). Note that at 2300yen it’s not cheap – you may want to check out some of the other free or cheaper dictionaries in the appstore first.



Speaking of AnkiiAnki is another of my first-page apps (not to be confused with the web-version of Anki, which you can of course also view on Mobile Safari). You can easily sync your word decks via a wifi network (once you’ve set it up once it’s very easy to do), then study your words regardless of whether or not you have an internet connection. I use it a lot on the Subway.

(note that iAnki is not a typical app and is not available form the iTunes store. It simply runs locally on Mobile Safari – no jailbreaking required)


Being a recent returnee to Japan, I still sometimes find myself wanting to know what something costs in British Pounds, and thus have currency [iTunes, free] on page two. Thinking about it though, recently I’ve used it more on payday to see just how many millions of pounds my monthly salary is now worth (as opposed to seeing how many millions of pounds our 32sqm apartment is costing).

Gengou Free

Gengou free [iTunes] is another handy app for people living in Japan – I reviewed that here: essentially it converts the non-Japanese calendar into the Japanese calendar (and vice-versa) – handy when form filling.

Today’s Earthquakes

今日の地震+ (Today’s Earthquakes) [iTunes, free] is another must-have for Japan-residents. Having used it following a few recent earthquakes I must say I’m mightily impressed with how quickly it updates following a shake. I did find that the server went down in the first few minutes following a fairly long shake a few weeks ago, but it was soon back up and running and delivered the results within the promised ten minutes.

The developer did launch a Push service for this app, but the demand meant that the servers went down whenever there was an earthquake, and so for now Push has been tunred off.

Yahoo Weather

Yahoo Weather

Another 1st page ‘app’ I use is not actually an app at all, it’s a Safari short cut to Yahoo Weather. I found the native iPhone weather app to be a pile of pants, and so instead use Yahoo Weather which can provide a very localised forecast using your Japanese post code. Just search once then bookmark the results page – this puts you just one tap away from a detailed 72-hour forecast.

Twittelator Pro

There are a few other apps which, whilst not exactly Japan-specific, do play an important role in my efforts to feel thoroughly at home here. Mail aside, Twittalator Pro for  Twitter is King. There exists a very active Twitter community here in Japan, and I’ve found this to be a great support.

Whilst I now have the beginnings of a family here in Japan and thus am not so prone to isolation, it was not always the case. I can imagine that had I had twitter access when I first lived here in 2001 I would not have felt half as isolated as I did then. I also really enjoy being given glimpses into the lives of other Tokyoites. More than that though, it’s really useful, with news and links to other useful / entertaining resources constantly being exchanged.

If you want to find more people on Twitter near you that speak your language, you can use Twitter’s advanced search)


My final ‘favourite’ (totally non Japan-related) app is Everytrail, which uses the iPhone’s GPS to track where you are – and uploads your route to a Google Map, complete with stats re. speed / elevation etc. I’ve been using it for training for the Tokyo Quarter Marathon (which on Sunday saw us run from Shibuya to near Shinuku via the other side of the Imperial Palace). Having a visual reference / record of my interactions with the city helps develop my sense of where I am, my relationship with the place. Like my trip by train back to the UK from Japan in 2007, this kind of experience of overland travel (which I probably wouldn’t do if I didn’t have a GPS tracking device) is immensely valuable, giving me a real sense of place that excessive use of the underground robs me of.

Incidentally, the actual marathon is taking place on the 22nd of March 2009, and I’ll be attempting to live stream video [to our sister channel Pokya on] from the iPhone whilst I’m running from Shinjuku to the Imperial Palace. An alert will also be sent via Twitter to remind you to tune in to the action – and you’ll also be able to urge me onwards via the live comment box.

Whilst I now have over 100 apps on my iPhone, these are the ones I turn to again and again, and are what I consider to be a part of one’s essential toolkit for a fulfilling life in Japan.

So that’s me – how about you?

How does your iPhone light up your life?

(I so should be paid to blog by Apple)

Runs on WP Engine