One of the most frequently asked questions received here at Mobile in Japan is, how can I get mobile data access when I’m in Japan?

Whilst Pietro has previously covered renting mobile phones in Japan, until now we’ve not looked at data options, something that many visitors to Japan might consider to be a lot more important than voice.

The main mobile data providers – Docomo, Softbank and EMOBILE, are known for their reluctance to provide access to their 3G networks on anything other than a long-term contractual basis – and only then if you have an alien registration card, something short term visitors to Japan won’t have.

Whilst major cities are well covered by public WIFI networks, these usually require you to be a customer of that same network provider for your home / mobile Internet, whilst outside of urban areas there’s very limited coverage.

Despite this, there are a growing list of options for temporary visitors who do not have residence or an Alien Registration Card, wanting to get online with their mobile devices. Here we cover a few, broken down into four categories:

  • Renting a phone / smartphone with or without Data
  • Renting data only
  • SIM / MICROSIM Rental for use in your own mobile device
  • Connecting to public WIFI networks

Please note that the information below is subject to change, but is correct as of the time of writing.

Please also check out the comments at the bottom of the post where readers have posted further information on available options.

3g-wifi-japan

Renting a phone / smartphone with or without Data

PuPuRu

PuPuRu offer a wide range of phones and service packages. With advance booking, the phone can be ready for you to pick from any location you specify, such as your hotel. Pick up from Narita, Kansai and Chubu airports is also possible, or PuPuRu branches in Tokyo and Nagoya. Payment is by credit card. They offer 2 packages: Basic and Prepaid (see site for latest rate information).

One important difference between these two packages that’s not immediately apparent is that on the Prepaid option, you can only use the handset for voice calls and sending/receiving email (and that being through the email address assigned by the company, not your own email address).

Whilst the Basic plan does allow for web browsing etc, it doesn’t come cheap at between ¥0.1 and ¥0.42 per packet (if my iPhone data was charged at that rate my bill last month would have come in at a minimum of ¥800,000 / US$9,950)

The majority of mobile phones available through PuPuRu are on the docomo network – although they do list a couple of options for those who have an inexplicable preference for the Softbank network. When asked about the iPhone, I was told that they are ‘thinking about providing them, but probably not until next year’.

PuPuRu have very good customer service, with helpful English speaking staff.

Softbank

Softbank also offer rental and prepaid mobiles to visitors to Japan (passport and credit card required). Somewhat unusually, they seem to offer different deals depending on whether you sign up in the shop or online. For online prices see their Global Rental site.

If you rent from one of their stores, the deal is as follows: As with PuPuRu, only standard Japanese handsets are available (i.e. no smart phones, including the iPhone). The daily charge for rental is ¥525, with calls costing approximately ¥105 per minute. Service is limited to voice calls and keitai email (these cost from ¥10 – ¥15 each), so no access to the web.

Prepaid: It’s ¥2,000 to get a prepaid handset from softbank, with call charges and email costing the same as on the rental plan above.

As noted, you can’t rent an iPhone from Softbank. See below for details on renting a SIM if you have an unlocked iPhone 3G or 3GS.

Downsides to using Softbank is the relative lack of English support (although they do have a number of stores that are supposed to have English-speaking staff) and poor network coverage in rural areas.

JCR Corp

JCR Corp have a very wide range of rental handsets, including the iPhone 4, EXPERIA and HTC. They offer free delivery to any location in Japan, with variable pricing depending on the length of rental.

Their primary market is the US corporate sector (thus explaining the $ pricing), and have built up an impressive list of clients over the past 12 years. Whilst expensive, friends have reported being happy with the service. I myself found the staff to be extremely helpful and knowledgable when I called. See below for more on data options.

Whilst pricey, if you’re looking to rent a smartphone whilst in Japan, JCR Corp are the only company we know that provide them. They have a variety of plans to choose from, ranging from voice calls only to full voice and data options.

Renting data only

Docomo, Softbank, EMOBILE & bmobile do not offer short-term data packages to non-residents without an Alien Registration Card.

PuPuRu

PuPuRu offer both USB-type and WIFI-type data dongles. With the USB type only able provide a network connection for a single USB-equipped computer, there’s little advantage in choosing this type over the WIFI variety, to which you can connect up to 5 devices at any time (including laptops, iPods/iPhones/iPads etc). One advantage however is that the USB-type L-05A uses the docomo data network (map), which offers far better coverage than the emobile network (map) that the other devices use. This need only be a consideration if you’re planning to spend a lot of time outside of major cities.

Transfer speeds are up to 7.2Mbps up / 5.8Mbps down (although in reality you’re unlikely to hit these speeds), and come with unlimited data use. Rental fees range from ¥7,350 for the first ten days, to ¥10,500 for a month, plus ¥1,050 postage each end of the rental period. This is almost 3 times the price that local users on 2-year contracts pay per month.

Japan Mobile Rental

Japan Mobile Rental are another good option if you’re looking for a 3G mobile WIFI router on an unlimited data plan. Their service is very straight forward: fill in the online reservation form, pay via Paypal or credit card, pick up your router at the airport upon arrival (Narita or Kansai International) or have it delivered to your hotel. If you want to extend or cancel the rental, just drop them an email (there is no cancellation fee). You’ll be charged a 10,000 yen security deposit when you reserve the device which is returned upon return of the router.

The router provided is the D25HW on the emobile network (check coverage map), offering the standard max speeds of 7.2Mbps up / 5.8Mbps down. You can connect up to 5 devices at a time via wifi, and one via mini USB.

JCRCorp

JCRCorp offer both the Buffalo DWR-PG and HuaWei E5830 mobile WIFI routers. Transfer speeds are up to 7.2Mbps up / 5.7Mbps down, and come with unlimited data. However, with prices starting at $150 (¥12,000) per week or $270 (¥21,000) per month – significantly more that PuPuRu – it’s hard to recommend. (One explanation for some of the expense is that these are both on the better yet comparatively pricey docomo network, and unlike EMOBILE, the routers do not come free with the contract).

E-Phone

E-phone offer USB data dongles on the emobile network for ¥1,000 yen per day for unlimited data, with pick up/ drop off from Narita Airport. Of course, with it being a USB device you can only use it with a laptop computer.

JALABC

JALABC offer an almost identical service to E-Phone, but this time on the Softbank network, costing ¥1,390 yen per day for unlimited usage.

UQ WIMAX

In what seems like a bit of a desperate bid to win customers, UQ WIMAX will provide unlimited data WIFI dongles to anyone with a passport and credit card. You’ll be required to take out a 1 year contract, but with a cancellation fee of only ¥2,100 if you quit within the first month, and ¥0 (yes, zero!) if you quit after one month, that’s hardly anything to worry about. The bulky WIMAX/WIFI router (NEC PA-WM3300R) will cost you ¥9,850 up front – it’s then ¥4,280 per month for unlimited data.

So what’s the catch? Well, with WIMAX still in its infancy, the network is pretty poor (map). Don’t bother thinking of getting online outside of the major cities. In fact, based on the experience friends of mine have had I’d say don’t take it out of sight of an antenna.

If you’re still not put off, you can sign up at any major electronics store such as Yodobashi Camera or Bic Camera. You can also order one online – see the comments on this post for more info.

SIM / MICROSIM Rental for use in your own iPad / iPhone / other smartphone

First off, to use a non-Softbank iPhone in Japan, it’ll need to be unlocked. Also, it’ll need to be able to use the 2100 MHz band – in English that translates as every iPhone except for the very first (non-3G) model. If your iPhone meets these criteria, you have a couple of (expensive) options:

You can rent a SIM card from Softbank that will allow you to use data too – but it comes at the extortionate price of 0.32Yen/packet (128bytes) – unless you don’t care about the bill, you don’t want to do this.

Previously mentioned JCR Corp offer SIM and MICROSIM rental for unlocked W-CDMA iPhones and other smartphones (but apparently not iPads – contact them to check on this). These run on Docomo’s Foma Network (offering good nationwide coverage) and tethering is possible. At almost $300 (¥24,000) a month though you’ll want to make sure it’s your employer paying the bill.

PuPuRu offer the same iPhone 3G/3GS SIM rental, but again, at over ¥24,000 ($300) per month it’s not cheap, and of course you’ll need to use a non-GSM handset.

Note that regular SIMs or MICROSIMs from bmobile (see our article here) are not an option for temporary visitors – no Alien Registration Card, no SIM. If you do have an Alien Registration Card it’ll take 2~3 weeks from the time you apply to the time you receive the SIM – and then only expect download speeds of up to 300kbps, not the usual 7.2mbps you’re used to.

Connecting to public WIFI networks in Japan

There are a number of WIFI hotspot networks in Japan that have pretty good coverage in the cities, mostly found at stations, in cafes and chain restaurants. In order to use these networks you’ll usually need some kind of account.

Be sure to check out the comments on this blog post for more info on WIFI availability

Wi2connect

Wi2connect is a great option if you’re going to be spending most of your time in the big cities. Giving you access to Yahoo BB, mobilepoint and Livedoor Wireless (location search). This covers branches of McDonalds (of which there are thousands!), airports, hotels, stations, airport buses and the Tokkaido Shinkansen between Tokyo and Yokohama. With a maximum charge of ¥980 ($12) per month for unlimited use this is a really good deal.

To use the network you’ll need to download and install their application (on the iPhone /iPod touch you need to download and install their free app [iTunes], which will then install a profile in network settings).
(Thanks to Warren for tipping us off about this service). This should also work in 3G iPads, although I haven’t been able to test it myself.

BOINGO

Boingo is ‘the world’s largest network of WI-FI hotspots’ – and it covers Japan too. Having partnered with NTT you can get access to 7,486 wifi spots here – from as little as $7.85 a month for mobile devices. Sign up online.

NTT Hotspot

For 24-hour access you can get a 1-day pass directly from NTT for ¥500. Unfortunately the English site turns Japanese at the beginning of the checkout process.

FON

The FON network now apparently has over 2 million worldwide access spots (map) – a figure to be taken with a pinch of salt as many of these spots may be private networks no longer online. The idea behind FON is that you plug in one their wireless routers at home; this creates two WIFI networks – a private one for yourself, and an open one for the public. In return for sharing your home connection, you’re given free access to any other FON WIFI network. In Japan FON have done a deal with Softbank, leading to Softbank handing out free FON routers left right and centre, to both individuals and businesses, including restaurants, bars and cafes. An increasing number of Starbucks branches in Japan have FON networks, usually marked by the Softbank mascot, Otousan the dog.

If you are not a member of the FON network, you can pay for access at the time: an hour pass is 200 yen, a day pass 480 yen, and a pack of 5 day passes 1600 yen. (Thanks to aciara14 for updating us on that via post comments).

iPhone/ iPod / iPad users might want to download the Starbucks Search app [disclaimer – it’s made by a friend of mine …and it rocks!] from the Apple store, as in addition to showing where the stores are / opening hours, it shows what WIFI networks are available.

Your local Internet provider

You may also want to check out if your local Internet provider offers international access vouchers for use with their roaming partners abroad. For example, in the UK, BT will sell you 500 minutes for £27.99, which can be used with NTT wifi spots (of which there are thousands). Another example would be that of AT&T who have a spectacular 60 WIFI locations in Tokyo.

Private cafes etc

Whilst a little out of date now, CNNGo published a list of public wifi spots in Tokyo here.

Beware of the Sheep

A word of advice in this era of the Firesheep, if you’re going to access an open wifi network, make sure you take precautions to protect your privacy.

Summary

For the time being then, it would seem that pricing for smartphone rental, or SIM rental for smartphones / tablet devices such as the iPhone and iPad, your choice is still very limited, and where it is available it’s pretty expensive. The same applies to pocket WIFI devices, with visitors paying almost three times the price locals on long terms contracts pay. However, with the growth of telcom-sponsored WIFI networks, you can get online in Japan without having to take out a bank loan.

If all else fails, just seek out one of the mobileinjapan writers – it’s rare to find them not emitting a WIFI signal.

There are undoubtedly other options for short term visitors to Japan looking to get online, and we’d love to hear about them. Please either post in the comments below, or join the discussion in our community.

[EDIT: 22nd July 2010 10:30am]

Many thanks to all who tuned in to support us during our climb of Mt. Fuji. It all went extremely well on the mountain, and we’ve received a lot of positive feedback through the networks since returning to Tokyo.

Curated photos and videos will be posted to Tamegoeswild.com in due course.

Joseph


Over the next 24 hours,  a group of 10 intrepid explorers led by @tamegoeswild will be making their way up the slopes of Mt. Fuji. At 3,776m the rim of this dormant volcano crater is the highest point in Japan.

Join them as they push the temporary NTT mobile data network to the limit with live streaming video, Twitter messages and GPS updates.

Take Part!

With them they have the Rinkya iPad of Stamina – this will be displaying all tweets containing @tamegoeswild – so send in your message now and offer them encouragement them as they battle up (and then down) the volcanic slopes. Have a request for a song, dance, Haiku recitation or purchase from one of the vending machined at the top? Send them in – all welcome!

Pocket Wifi and network access kindly provided by NTT DoCoMo. Direct-to-the-net Cerevo Cam kindly provided by the makers.

Thank you to @stevenagata for additional tech support.
Photo by Matsunuma.

See more videos archived throughout the day at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/tamegoeswild

Online video chat by Ustream

<a href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=08760ee492″ mce_href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=08760ee492″ >Mt. Fuji Climb</a>

Live Stream Schedule

The live event, which will take place right here on Mobile in Japan, is planned as follows:

Tuesday 20th July

  • 11:00 JST (02:00 UTC, 03:00 BST) – Live stream starts from minibus en-route to Mt. Fuji from Tokyo
  • 12:00 JST (03:00 UTC, 04:00 BST) – We start climbing Mt. Fuji (from station 5 on the Yoshida-Guchi trail)
  • 18:00 JST (09:00 UTC, 10:00 BST) – arrive at Mountain hut, station 8 (about an hour below the summit) – provide entertainment, stay the night there.
  • 03:00 JST (Wed in Japan, Tue in UK/ US (18:00 UST, 19:00 BST) Wake up, head for the summit
  • 04:30 JST (19:30 UTC, 20:30 BST) Sunrise from the summit, party on the roof of Japan, walk around the crater
  • 09:00 JST (12:00 UTC, 01:00 BST) Descend to the van, return to Tokyo.

In a departure from the MobileinJapan.com norm, contributor Joseph Tame encourages readers to join him as he leads a group up the slopes of Mt. Fuji – whilst live streaming the whole adventure over a special temporary data network.

日本語はこちらです。


Active Otaku

One thing I’ve promised myself is that if I’m going to be a tech otaku, I’m not going to the passive type. I’m not going to be one of those who lie in bed at night with their multi-generational iPhones lined up on the bedside table, ready for their daily polish.

The type who talk incessantly about the sensual curvature of the rear of their iPad, yet dare not take the device out of the house for fear of it becoming discoloured by the suns rays.

No, if I’m going to be a tech-otaku, I’m going to be an active one. I’m going to use my technology and push it to the limits. I’m not going to treat my iPhone with kid gloves – it’s here to work, and if that means forcing it to broadcast video for 42km, or send out tweets in the pouring rain, or act as a wedge to stop the front door from closing when I’m bringing the futons in from airing – well, so be it.

(OK, so that was actually my wife’s iPhone).

Mount Fuji Live! 2010

Having sat in front of my computer pretty much all the time since the Tokyo Marathon, earlier this month I decided it was time for a bit of exercise. And what better way to get in shape than climb all the way to the roof of Japan – whilst broadcasting live video of the adventure using a groundbreaking camera beaming data through a special temporary wireless network from atop a high-tech plastic helmet. I will be joined by a team of 9 intrepid fellow Tokyoites.

At 3,776m, the summit of Mt. Fuji – a dormant volcano that last erupted a little over 200 years ago, puts you almost within arm’s reach of the International Space Station.

Solar Eclipse Fuji Hike_5224

The trek to the top is often mistakenly thought of as not that difficult – but it can be lethal: two people died of exposure on the same path as us 24 hours after we descended last year.

Altitude sickness is never far away, and the danger of losing all your money is also pretty high as the bottled water sold from mountain huts gets progressively more expensive the higher up you go. On windy days the volcanic ash covering the upper slopes gets whipped up into a frenzy, blinding those without goggles.

Arriving at the summit after 6 to 8 hours of climbing, you feel both utterly exhausted – and elated. The view is spectacular. You stand their next to the defiant vending machines, speechless, wondering at the beauty of the landscape before you.

(Or, if the weather is like it was last year, you desperately try to take shelter in one of the packed mountain huts, begging to be served anything hot that will help your bones defrost, wishing that the weather was clear enough for a helicopter to take you straight home).

Pushing Mobile Technology to the Limits

There are many people who have never made it to the summit of Mt. Fuji, and for many reasons (e.g. having a bit of common sense) never will. I’d like to share the experience of making it to top with those people, and in doing so push some mobile technologies to the limit.

You won’t usually find mobile network coverage on Mt. Fuji, mainly because the local inhabitants (volcanic rocks) don’t have much use for phones. However, every July, NTT DoCoMo switch on two stations at the foot of the mountain, beaming coverage up its slopes. Receiving these signals are two repeaters placed on the rim of the crater, providing coverage around the two shrines up there.

NTT DoCoMo have generously provided us with one of their new pocket-wifi devices, the Buffalo DWR-PG. Connecting to this will be the Cerevo Cam Live – kindly provided by the makers for this adventure. The Cerevo Cam, homemade in Akihabara, has built-in wifi, and connects directly to USTREAM (or their own Cerevo Life service). We’ll be using this for much of our trek up the volcanic slopes, and from the top, hopefully catching the sunrise.

The Cerevo Cam Live has been cunningly mounted in a 1,800 yen plastic kid’s helmet bought in Donki Hote. It is held in place by generous dollops of the UK’s finest Blu-Tak.

We’ll also have the iPad of Stamina with us, provided by Heather, owner of Rinkya.com (who’s also climbing with us). This will be connected via Wifi to the NTT DoCoMo network, and will be used to display YOUR Twitter messages of support for the team to read whilst struggling to the peak (hashtag #mtfujiTV)

We’ll be providing a GPS signal too so you can keep tabs on just how slowly we’re moving.

We plan to do some kind of performance once on the summit – although are yet to figure out what this will involve other than coconut shells and a horn.

Live Stream Schedule

The live event, which will take place right here on Mobile in Japan,  is planned as follows:

Tuesday 20th July

  • 11:00 JST (02:00 UTC, 03:00 BST) – Live stream starts from minibus en-route to Mt. Fuji from Tokyo
  • 12:00 JST (03:00 UTC, 04:00 BST) – We start climbing Mt. Fuji (from station 5 on the Yoshida-Guchi trail)
  • 18:00 JST (09:00 UTC, 10:00 BST) – arrive at Mountain hut, station 8 (about an hour below the summit) – provide entertainment, stay the night there.
  • 03:00 JST (Wed in Japan, Tue in UK/ US (18:00 UST, 19:00 BST) Wake up, head for the summit
  • 04:30 JST (19:30 UTC, 20:30 BST) Sunrise from the summit, party on the roof of Japan, walk around the crater
  • 09:00 JST (12:00 UTC, 01:00 BST) Descend to the van, return to Tokyo.

Take part!

The live stream will be displayed on http://www.mobileinjapan.com from 7am (JST) on Tuesday 20th July 2010.

You can actively take part in this spectacle by sending your messages via twitter – just reply to @tamegoeswild and it will be displayed for the whole team to see on the iPad of Stamina.

We’ll be watching our timeline and will try to be as interactive as possible during the climb. Also, we’ll post updates on the latest progress to  @tamegoeswild in the lead up to the climb, and in the event that the video stream goes down.

It’ll be interesting to see just how much data we manage to push out. We’re not giving any guarantees here, so the whole project could fall flat on its face – but no loss if that’s happens.

Thanks to NTT DoCoMo, Cerevo, The Japan Times, the BBC and Heather of Rinkya.com for all of their support.

Special thank to @SteveNagata for his tech support, and @MikeKato for helping get all of this organised.

In the first of my reviews of iPhone apps for students of Japanese I looked at dictionaries. In this article, I’ll be recommending four fairly simple apps from independent developers.

NihongoUp

[$4.99 iTunes | Nihongo Up Website]

The iPhone version of the Adobe Air app, allowing users to improve kana reading speed, review JLPT kanji and vocabulary, and learn Japanese grammar in context.

It’s a pretty straightforward game. These are the instructions:

Here, the ballons are gradually floating down from the top of the screen – touch the correct balloon before they hit the ground!

This is one of those apps that just does one thing, but does it extremely well. Made by award-winning new media developer and designer Philip Seyfi, this app is a pleasure to use. The interface is beautiful and the games easy to get to grips with. Certainly stands out from the crowd. Check out the free trial of the desktop app to get a feel for it.

Note that like many other apps, this groups kanji by the 4 old JLPT levels due to the fact that lists for the 5 new levels have not yet been published, thus at this stage any attempt to classify them by the new levels would have to be based on guesswork.



Next up we have a couple of apps from www.JapanNewbie.com.

Japanese 101: Particles

[$5.99 iTunes]

As the app name suggests, Japanese 101: Particles looks to develop your knowledge of those little elements of the Japanese language that tie everything else together (は、を、に、で etc).

From the iTunes description:

When using the Study Mode the front of the Study Card shows a sentence in Japanese with a key particle removed. The card also auto-plays audio of a native Japanese speaker reading the sentence leaving a blank at the missing particle. Touch the card to flip it over and see the sentence with the correct particle used, the romaji, and the English translation. You can also press the notes section to see a grammatical explanation of the particle usage.

This way you can SEE the Japanese, HEAR the Japanese, and READ the romaji and translation to ensure that you UNDERSTAND, and also check the notes section to STUDY the fundamental rules on particle usage.

It does what it’s designed to do pretty well, although beginners who are not yet proficient in the kanji required for levels N4 and N5 of the new Japanese Language Proficiency Test may struggle, due to the fact that kanji are used on the front of the flashcards.

A good tool for reviewing / revising particle knowledge once you’ve learn the basics with you textbooks.

Japanese 101: Numbers

[$2.99 iTunes]

The second app from JapanNewbie helps you reinforce your knowledge of Japanese numbers. The interface and use is essentially the same as in Particles. From the iTunes App Store description:

When using the Study Mode the front of the Study Card shows a number. The card also auto-plays audio of a native Japanese speaker reading the number. Touch the card to flip it over and see the number in Japanese Kanji, the romaji, and the English translation.

This application currently covers the numbers 1-100, and than a random selection of numbers from 100 to 9,999,999.

This app is good not only for beginner-level students or people coming to Japan for a vacation, but also for those of us who’ve been in Japan for some time and still find it difficult to get our heads around 7-digit numbers!

More apps from Japan Newbie.


Kanji Box

[$3.99 iTunes – iPhone | $4.99 iTunes – iPad | Kanjibox Website]

One of the better apps for practising kanji, covering the following areas of study:

  • Kana (hiragana and katakana)
  • Kanji (over 6,000 kanji)
  • Vocabulary (over 20,000 words)

I quite enjoyed using this app. It’s very straightforward, has a Scores section to help you keep track of your studies, and a timed quiz mode with which to prove that you know more kanji than that annoying person who insists on asking everyone how many kanji they know.

Check out their Website for more info, and for a demo video featured a rather alarming severed hand and funky soundtrack.

Note that like many other apps, this groups kanji by the 4 old JLPT levels due to the fact that lists for the 5 new levels have not yet been published.


That’s it for now. If there’s a Japanese language learning app that you think deserves attention, do get in touch.

In the year or so since I last reviewed iPhone apps for Japanese language learners, there’s been an explosion in the number and variety available. Look in the iTunes App store today and you’ll find a wealth of vocabulary builders, apps to teach you how to write in hiragana and katakana, kanji flashcard programs, pronunciation guides and powerful dictionaries.

I asked a few Japanese language teachers and Japanese language learners for their recommendation. The result was a list far too long to cover in a single article, so I’ll be breaking them down into several groups, starting off today with Japanese-English dictionaries.

Whilst not the sexiest of apps, dictionaries can (literally) be lifesavers for non-Japanese in Japan – don’t leave the house without one! Whilst there are a huge number of English-Japanese dictionaries in the App Store, for a long time now there have been two clear leaders, Kotoba! and Japanese, and it’s these two that I’m focusing on here.

Kotoba!

Free: iTunes | Website (currently no iPad version).

This app has progressed a great deal in the past year, with a range of new features having been added to turn it into a force to be reckoned with.

The main database was created with files from the JMdict project (which in turn was based on Jim Breen’s EDICT), resulting in it containing over 130,000 Japanese / English entries. Version 2 saw the addition of example sentences, and a more recent update an astonishing 6,500 stroke order diagrams added. Aside from the English translations, there’s also partial support for French, German, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian – accounting for another 100,000 translations.

There are several ways to look up a character, making it almost impossible to not find what you’re looking for. The search function accepts romaji, kana or kanji input – and kanji input can of course be done using your finger to trace the character (go to your iPhone’s keyboard settings panel to enable the Simplified Chinese Handwriting keyboard).

If you don’t know the reading of the kanji there are also a number of pre-defined lists to work from, including the SKIP index (used in the popular Kanji Learner’s Dictionary), Radicals and JLPT levels.

A note on JLPT levels: in most Japanese language learning apps you’ll find that the JLPT lists have yet to be updated from the old four levels to the new five levels (N1~N5). There’s a simple reason for this: the organisation behind the test is refusing to make the new kanji lists public, thus at this stage any attempt to classify them by the new levels would have to be based on guesswork.

Having found the character or word you’re looking for you’ll be presented with a wealth of information, including the reading, meanings, all verb conjugations, kanji compounds and a staggering number of example sentences. You can add individual words or entire sentences to personalised lists, copy them to the iPhone clipboard or append them to the clipboard – meaning that if you’re wanting to paste a string of kanji into an email you don’t have to go back-and-forth between the dictionary and your mail app between kanji. Cross-reference numbers are also provided for about 19 other kanji lists including Heisig, Nelson and Halpern.

But better than being able to share entries via the iPhone clipboard is the export feature. Simply go to your chosen list and send it via email as text or a CSV file.

Overall, revisiting Kotoba! after a year of not using it, I was pretty blown away by how comprehensive it is – although at times I must admit that I felt a little overwhelmed and lost in all the options – what other app do you know that has over 40 options to toggle in the settings panel?!


Japanese!

$15.99: iTunes | codefromtokyo Website (iPad version available soon as a free update)

This was one of those apps that I loved right from the start. I bought it on the recommendation of a friend, prior to even owning a iPhone to run it on. I’ve used it consistently since, and it remains one of my favourite (and most expensive) apps. It was definitely worth it.

With over 150,000 Japanese entries and about 12,000 kanji, it’s a truly comprehensive dictionary. There are many similarities with Kotoba!, including word lookup by romaji/ kana / kanji / handwriting, kanji lists, multiple example sentences, personal vocabulary lists and cross-references for other kanji resources.

However, it has a number of other features that set it apart from the Kotoba!, and make it feel like more than just an interface for the JMdict database.

Firstly, the search function activates as soon as you start typing, with suggestions appearing below. When you tap on the word you’re looking for, along with translations and example sentences you’ll find popular compounds and conjugations – no need to dig deeper into the sub-menus.

Also, should you enter a long phrase into the search box, the search engine will try to break it down into individual elements (see image below). Numbers can also be transcribed – just enter the digits and out comes the kanji & reading.

Similar Kanji are another feature, helping avoid confusion with lookalike characters, whilst the recent addition of furigana (little hiragana characters above the kanji) show you the readings of individual characters in search results.

Adding words to your personal lists just takes two taps- you also have the ability to apply self-defined color labels.

Integration of Spaced Reptiton flashcards

The killer feature for this app, and the one that really sets it apart from Kotoba!, is the integrated Spaced Repetition flashcard function. This can be used with any word list within the app – not just those that you create yourself. Pre-loaded lists include JLPT (pre-2010 for reasons explained above), expressions, proverbs, interjections, nouns, verbs, adjectives, particles, a huge array of subject categories such as Art, Chemistry, Food etc …and many more.

What this means for the student then is that there’s no need to export your lists to import to a similar SRS such as Anki – although should you wish to you can share lists as text-emails for import – let’s hope that CSV exports are on the cards for a future update.

Another feature that makes this app stand out from the crowd in the ability to import vocabulary lists – provided they are in the same format as when exported – just copy and paste from the email app into a new list.

A nice little touch is the ability to change the color of the app; personally I’ve gone for purple now.

A video demo of the app can be found at www.codefromtokyo.com/japanese

Summary

So there we have it – two powerful dictionary apps for Japanese language learners. Considering the price tag (free), Kotoba! is an incredible resource, and for those who just need a dictionary and are not actively studying Japanese, it makes sense to choose it over Japanese.

For serious students of Japanese however, the integrated SRS makes Japanese a better choice. It has some really handy extra features, and I find it to be a more ‘beautiful’, iPhone-esque app – little things like that instant search function, the smoother kanji stroke animations, the text styles used.

Whilst some may think the price tag a little high, it compares well with many other major dictionary apps, and in my view is well worth the investment.

Code from Tokyo is also due to release an iPad version soon – look forward to seeing that in the app store.

Live Link 3G J [iTunes Japan only, Free] from Yudo.jp brings free video conferencing to the iPhone in Japan – over the 3G network.

Using Live Link 3G J is simplicity itself: both iPhone uses launch the app, and enter a matching keyword of their own choosing. A few seconds later the screen is divided into two – the top half showing video from the remote iPhone camera, the bottom showing that from the local camera.

Of course there’s one fundamental problem with the system that is unlikely to be fixed anytime soon – the iPhone only has a camera facing away from the user. So whilst you can share what you can see, you can’t easily use it to do video conferencing in the traditional ‘face to face’ sense.

In the current version 1.0.0, users have the ability to mute the mic, pause the outgoing video stream, lower the quality of the video (useful if bandwidth is poor), and choose which audio to listen to (that of the local iPhone or the remote paired iPhone).

Version 2.0.0, announced on the company site on the 20th March but (at the time of writing) yet to surface in the iTunes Japan App Store promises to bring:

  • Reduced latency (delay)
  • Wifi support
  • User profile registration
  • Twitter integration
  • Improved sound and video quality

Importantly, there is also mention of ‘Global Compatibility’, meaning it should eventually become available outside of Japan. The company has also announced a paid version which will allow users to decorate their videos with hand-drawn messages.

Future updates are said to include a friend function and push notifications. Importantly, there is also mention of ‘Global Compatibility’, meaning it should eventually become available outside of Japan.

The ease with which one can connect to other users came as quite a surprise – whilst testing the app for Mobile in Japan with two iPhones, I managed to connect to two complete strangers by entering the keyword ‘aaaaa’. I’m not sure who was more surprised – them or me!

Whilst this app may not be suitable for couples living apart (not being able to turn the iPhones on themselves and still gaze into their partner’s eyes), it could be very useful in situations where you quickly want to show someone something, whilst simultaneously explaining it. Think business plans, or a view of your surroundings when trying to meet someone  in a strange place.

A word of advice though – choose your keywords wisely; you don’t want to be giving people heart attacks as I did tonight.

Someone has uploaded an unofficial demo video of the app here.

With over 150,000 apps now available via the iTunes App Store, original and potentially life-changing offerings are increasingly few and far between.

However, this week a new Tokyo-based developer appeared on the scene, showcasing three new apps at TOKYO’S NEXT MOBILE APP STAR event, held Tuesday at Super Deluxe.

Due to technologistical restrictions, it’s only today that the Professor has been able to publish these videos in the public realm.

Professor Appleton, now based in Japan, has been researching mobile technologies since the 1940s, and his offerings clearly demonstrate the deep understanding he has of the needs of mobile users today.

App 1: Where’s my iPhone Gone?

App 2: Mother Translates Live

App 3: Future Twitter

A few weeks back, friend and fellow iPhone fan @namyhei asked me if I’d like to join her at the Softbank 30th Anniversary Open day, held last Sunday at their headquarters in Shiodome, Tokyo. The idea for the event came from a regular Softbank employee, whom a few months back had tweeted CEO Masayoshi Son (@masason) saying that she wanted Softbank to hold an Open Day, with guests provided with lunch in the company restaurant. Son-san, known for his active Twitter use and at times unconventional leadership, decided to make this a reality. Entry was to be limited to 1000 lucky twitter-lottery winners – of which we were two.

We didn’t really know what to expect, other than that there’d be some kind of Twitter themed talk, and that we’d get a free lunch in the cafe at Softbank HQ, overlooking Hamarikyu Gardens and Tokyo Bay. Of course the hope was that there would also be an important announcement – it seemed like a bit too much trouble to go to for just some kind of glorified tweetup.

Four-legged mascot

Having arrived fashionably late so as to miss the morning filler-programs (iPhone app presentations featuring a lot of apps we’d seen before… and as we later learned, Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son mingling with the guests >< ), we took our seats in the auditorium, ready for the Main Event.

Things got underway at 2pm, with the Softbank dog, Otoosan (the ‘father’ of the Softbank family as seen in commercials, and probably the most famous living dog in Japan), making his appearance on stage, led by Dante Carver, the New Yorker who plays the brother in the family. Aside from generating a lot of excitement amongst Otosan fans in the room, they also demonstrated how we should clap for the cameras, and encouraged us to make use of the free wifi network, which by this time was totally crippled as 2000 people tried to simultaneously tweet pictures of the four-legged star on stage.

Soon after, Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son took to the stage, and round one commenced – a Twitter discussion with Twitter celebs @nobi, @knnKanda and @matsuyou. They all looked just like their avatars.

The conversations that followed were wonderful, with all speakers telling personal stories of how Twitter had affected their lives – stories that the majority of people in the audience (including us) could relate to, having experienced similar situations themselves.

Twitter guests

The event organisers had also arranged for several of Son’s followers to attend and tell their stories. The first was a 16 year old boy from Kyushu – one of the very few people whom the CEO follows. Son explained his reason for this: many years ago, he’d been a school boy in the same area, and he wanted to get a glympse into his past life, and to see how things had changed. The boy was completely unfazed by being in the spotlight, and gave a memorable little speech, which almost brought tears to our eyes!

Following that was a woman who’d made a cookie that looked just like an iPhone – there had been some back and forth between her and Son after she’d sent him a picture of it via Twitter; this then led to her presenting Son with his very own – he was delighted! (see 20:30 in the video above)

The final guest was a Korean follower of Son’s, who used Google Translate to read his tweets – an example of the ‘borderless’ nature of Twitter.

Free in-home Femto-cell access points

Son used the opportunity to address the most common criticism that he receives – poor coverage. He noted that they had inherited a pretty poor network from vodafone, and that they were only 1% behind the other major mobile providers with 98% coverage (not that you’d think so as a user!). However, they weren’t being complacent, and 2010 would see a large increase in the number of transmitters. But he went further than that, announcing free Femto-cell access points (mobile phone transmitter) & dedicated ADSL line in homes where their signal didn’t reach (see 48:30). Furthermore, they’d provide free wifi routers to restaurants, bars etc for use by customers with Softbank handsets.

HTC Desire

As covered in this earlier article, Son went on to announce the HTC Desire running Android 2.1, making sure to point out just how superior it was to models available on other networks.

The 81yr old politician who stole the show

Next up on stage was someone we weren’t expecting at all – the 81 year old politician Koichi Hamada, (@555hamako), who with over 133,000 followers has become something of a Twitter Celebrity. In an inspired PR move, a Softbank counter was wheeled on, staffed by the girl who appeared alongside SMAP in a recent commercial. It was pretty comical watching Hamada read through the terms of the White Plan (Softbank’s standard phone plan), before signing it, and being handed his first iPhone (see 1:00:00).

Hamada was not one to be pushed around though, and when it came time for him to leave the stage, he remained where he was, leaning on his cane, until finally allowed to sing a traditional Japanese song from the enka genre! (1:20:00).

Softbank & Ustream Partnership

The final announcement for the day was that of three brand new Ustream studios for free, public use. The first opened that day at Softbank HQ (where DJ Taro and Sascha were keeping things rolling – the other two will be opening soon in the Softbank Shibuya branch and Shidax Building [English press release]).

In the final section of the presentation, Son reappeared dressed in period costume in reference to Sakamoto Ryoma, the drama about whom Son is a big fan of. There followed more discussion, and a prize giveaway – although we skipped that in order to get our free lunch before the rush.

The party continued in the restaurant with DJ Taro and Sascha presenting, interviewing and on the decks for some time. Being a Ustream fan I was entranced by the bank of monitors used to mix and output the final stream – this is something I have to try myself!

Heading home at the end of the day I couldn’t help but think about what a great PR event it had been. I’d been bribed with a free lunch overlooking Tokyo Bay & both a chocolate and cuddly-toy version of Otosan, I’d been enchanted by the charisma and ‘normalness’ of the richest man in Japan, I’d been starstruck by a bunch of Twitter celebs, entertained by an enka-singing politician, and entertained by two of Tokyo’s best-known DJs.

The Softbank Open Day shifted my attitude towards the company to a certain extent. I feel more inclined to forgive them their faults (crap coverage, poor in-store customer service), and instead see them as a company breaking the typical Japanese mould and doing things in a more open, human way.

Son san is now at the core of this image I have of the company (as opposed to the queue at my local branch). By holding imaginative, original and entertaining events such as this (and then going on to give memorable live-streamed speeches such as this one to new employees) I think Son stands a good chance of keeping my business for life. And based on how much my phone bill is each month, that’s something worth fighting for!

IMG_1051

This is a quick first-impressions review of Layar 2.0, an augmented reality app released for the iPhone 3GS by sprxmobile [iTunes – free].

For starters, this app is very cool, and definately has the “Wow – we’re living in the future!” factor. It far surpasses the AR apps released by Presselite (Bionic Eye Tokyo, Tokyo Metro) mainly due to the fact that it has a myriad of data sources – the primary ‘layar’ plugging into Google Local Search, thus enabling it to draw from a wealth of existing reviews / photos / location and contact details.

Other layars already available include Twitter, Flickr, Wikipedia, Panoramio – plus many more localised layers (the Layars displayed will be local to the country that you have your iPhone set to in International settings, or you can manually set the location in the app’s own settings panel).

Here in Japan you’ll currently be offered find ATM guides, station guides, Hot Pepper, a hair salon search and more.

The user interface is a refreshing break from that adopted by Sekai Camera and the afore mentioned Presselite apps. The manner is which their airtags float around is ‘cool’, but not very practical. It’s far easier to navigate the 3D grid laid out before you in Layar.

This is of course an extremely young market, so expect to see rapid developments over the next few months. It’s great to have some more companies entering the arena with different approaches to UI etc, and it’ll be interesting to see if any one of them comes to dominate the market.

Ok, let’s see some screenshots.

The main menu: choose a layar
layar_screenshot_1035

The primary layer is ‘Layar Local Search’ which utilises Google Local Search. Just enter your search term. As with Google, you can enter your search terms in Japanese or English. You also have the option to define the the spread of your search.

layar_screenshot_1022

A search for ‘station’ (it brought up train stations, a gas station and a couple of other results, such as ‘Gohongi House’)

layar_screenshot_1022

Map view (Google map inside the app – clicking the blue jump icon will take you to the iPhone’s native Google Map app)

layar_screenshot

Ok, let’s search for restaurants:

layar_screenshot

Restaurants: Map view

layar_screenshot

This is where it gets sexy: click on the small blue jump arrow bottom right, and you’re given 3 choices:

layar_screenshot

Click on ‘Call this spot’ and your phone will dial the restaurant number. Click on ‘More info’ and this is the kind of thing you’ll get:

layar_screenshot

Customer reviews, directions / contact details, photos, it’s all there.

Click on ‘take me there’ and the route will be plotted for you on the Google map.

layar_screenshot

Of course, much of this functionality is native to the iPhone’s Google Apps map – but the seamless integration with the AR makes it far more attractive.

Twitter

So what about the Twitter Layars? I tried two out, with similar results.

So here we have Tweeps Around in AR mode. The light blue blob indicates the current active tweet, and below you have the tweet itself with the avatar.

Layar: Augmented Reality Twitter Japan

The cool thing is, is that as you turn around, the highlighted tweet changes – so you feel that you’re kind of scanning the air for tweets! At this point you are officially living on a Star Trek set.

You can switch to map view too of course – here we see that in Tweetmondo.

layar_screenshot

List view

layar_screenshot

Flickr

It soon picked up a couple of photos I took near the station the other day.

layar_screenshot

Flickr layer options

layar_screenshot

Flickr list view

layar_screenshot>

Wikipedia

layar_screenshot

Summary

Layar is a fantastic AR app, and provides a nice cross-over between the closed database approach of Presselite and the user-generated content of Sekai Camera. I believe the layer approach is a winner, opening the door for massive expansion.

As with all AR apps, it falls down when it comes to accuracy. One nice feature however is that it tells you how accurate it is at any one time, so you know how much to trust it. Another thing I like, is that unlike Sekai Camera it is displayed in Portrait mode, making it easier to use as a one-handed navigation device when walking.

The recent debut of two such strong players is great news for AR development, and I expect that within a year we will no longer actually need to look at anything except our iPhones as we go about our daily lives.

sekai camera shibuya station

There’s been much made of Tonchidot‘s Sekai Camera, one of the first Augmented Reality iPhone apps to allow users to add their own content to the virtual-world database powering it.

And rightly so. Whilst Augmented Reality has been around for a long time (starting out in the military), this is the first time that it’s been made available to consumers without requiring specialist hardware. All you need is Japan’s best selling mobile handset, the iPhone.

We recently tried Sekai Camera out on our 3GS, and were pretty impressed by what we saw.

The iPhone’s GPS is used to locate nearby airtags, with the built-in compass figuring out what to direction your facing to only display relevant tags. The tags constantly wobble around in mid-air as you move (3G users who don’t have the compass can manually scroll through north/south/east/west, but should upgrade to the 3GS for ease of use and overall sex appeal).

First off then, we powered up Sekai Camera opposite Shibuya Station. As you can see there’s a fair number of tags. The white ones seem to be pre-defined – these include banks, stations, building names etc. The coloured tags are text air tags that have been added by users themselves. They don’t tend to say anything very profound, and may remind you of your first few Twitter tweets, when you had to tell everyone that you were just having a cup of coffee / brushing your teeth.

Tap on an air tag, and it fills the screen. Wait a moment, and any text displayed on it will appear in another window along with the details of the user who uploaded it (not shown below).

sekai camera_shibuya

If you’re anywhere crowded (like Shibuya) there can be far too many tags to see any in detail. To deal with this there’s a built-in spiralator: tap and hold your finger on a tag for a few seconds and they’ll all arrange themselves in a neat rotating spiral allowing you to read them one by one.

sekai camera_spiral

Adding your own airtags is easy. Once you’ve registered (username / password, done in-app) just choose your tag type from the menu on the right hand side: Text, photo, or sound.

Then, enter your text / take your photo / record your audio, click on ‘post’ – and it’s up. It should then show up on your screen (and that of anyone else using the app in the area) within a few seconds. Here is Paul‘s head floating in a pub in Shibuya.

sekai camera_paul

The next thing to do is take a photo of the person you’ve just made an airtag of and get them to point at their own head. Believe me, it’s trickier than you’d thing as these tags tend to wobble quite a bit (thanks for your patience Jonny!)

sekai camera_jonni

In tag-rich areas there are some filters which may come in handy. Under ‘Filter’ you can choose a date range (anything from tags posted in the last 24 hours, to forever), and distance from your present location (50m – 300m).

You can also choose whether or not to show your own tags, other air tags, landmarks and shouts (a shout is an airtag that someone posts by clicking on ‘shout’ – this booms out through the virtual world and fills the screen of nearby users – as a shout might fill their ears).

There’s also a ‘pocket function’ – this stores all of your bookmarked tags, and will display them on a map.

Ok, that sounds like it coulld be fun – but is it actually useful?

Erm, in a word, no.

At least not yet – but expect that to change in the near future when the next update is released.

So why’s it not all that useful yet? Well, for a start, as mentioned above, it’s like the early days of Twitter when everyone was desperate to tell others that they were feeding the cat. There’s a lot of noise out there, and whilst the distance / time filters do help, they still don’t control whose tags you see and whose you don’t. Imagine a Twitter where you basically have to follow everyone near you.

Secondly, the limitations of the iPhone (notably the compass) mean that you don’t always get accurate accurate placing of air tags. This will of course improve with future hardware updates.

But having said that, this app is AMAZING! It’s such early days for this technology, and to have a smooth user experience at this stage is, in my book, quite staggering. We will undoubtedly see significant upgrades and additional filters / functionality added in the near future (this post will be updated with news on that in a few days).

In the meantime, I’m going to be busy filling Tokyo’s virtual AR world with quality photo tags of bowls of ramen and text tags saying “I’m her now”.

ekotan_0983

Having been consistently disappointed by voice recognition apps in the past, it was with some scepticism that I installed Koetan Tokyo from Traffic Gate, Ltd.

[iTunes, Free]

Using it is very simple. You can ignore all the Japanese.

Image 1

– Tap the big black button in the middle.
– Say the name of your starting station. Pause a moment. Say the name of your destination station.
– Add the word “まで” (ma-de = ‘to’).
– Press the button in the middle again.

The app will now connect and search for your route (this only takes a few seconds. Of course you must have a data connection).

ekotan_0984

Image 2
The results screen shows several results, one of which is bound to match yours. Not once has it failed to place my  route at the top of the list. As you can see, it’s in English and Japanese, so this is a great way to see how station names are written in Japanese too.

ekotan_0985

Image 3
Having selected your route, the detailed results page appears. Yes, it’s all in Japanese, but even if you don’t read Japanese you can see all the important info, including time taken, cost and the number of changes. The route is diplayed below.

Click on the car / map option (地図によるルート)to see the route on the apps built-in map (image 4).

koetan_0986

You can then click on マップ (top right) to view the map in the iPhone’s native Google Maps app (image 5).

koetan_0987

Like many of these kinds of navigation apps (such as the Tokyo Metro App), Koetan! does not provide you with real-time timetable information – it’ll just give you the route and time it’ll take, so if you need precise timings you’ll still need an app such as Ekitan (Japanese only).

Another limitation is the fact that it only covers Tokyo (no Saitama, no Chiba etc) – no doubt this limitation is one reason it’s so accurate in terms of voice recognition, as there’s not all that much for the software to choose from.

However, this app is a fantastic way to quickly get this basic info without having to type in the station names, which is often the thing that causes the most problems for non-Japanese speakers.

Tokyo Metro App name: Tokyo Metro

Part 1: the Basic App

This is a great navigation app for Tokyoites, with a decent resolution pinchable image of the Tokyo subway network and, unlike most timetable apps which require an internet connection to function, this one will work mid-tunnel too.

It includes a GPS-enabled station finder for those times when you haven’t a clue where you are, or you can just enter the name of an area of Tokyo and it’ll pick out your nearest stations for you. A recent update brought the ability to simply select your start and end point by tapping on the stations on the map.

The app has a range of interface languages to choose from – this is a welcome addition to the line-up of japan-based public transport apps available, most of which require at least some knowledge of Japanese (Ekitan remaining the cream of the crop at present).

Whilst lacking that certain iPhone sexiness, the metro map is easy to use, with relevant stations being highlighted following searches. There’s also a link through to Google Maps, allowing the user to move seamlessly from the train to above ground to continue their journey.

There’s certainly room for improvement though, something the developers themselves acknowledge with their mention on the iTunes product page of updates currently being worked on.

Improvements to the basic app that would be good to see in future updates

Currently, the list of train lines is static, and merely serves as a key to understanding which line is which on the main map. Ideally, tapping on a line name would bring up a scrollable linear map of all stations along it, complete with interchanges for other lines.

As noted above, with the app using a local database no network connection is needed to plan a route. However, this also serves to curtail it’s functionality, as even when you do have a network connection results are limited to showing where to change trains and how long the total journey will take – there are no real-time departure or arrival times so for that you will still need something like the above-mentioned Ekitan.

Additionally, searches net only one result when multiple journey options may be available.

Being designed for non-Japanese readers, the lack of additional Japanese script for station names is understandable – but deprives users of the fun of learning kanji whilst they travel.

Part 2: Augmented Reality

Tokyo Metro appThe release of a new version of Tokyo Metro with an augmented reality location engine got quite a bit of attention from the international iPhone community – but how does it stand up to actual use?

Well, it’s a mixed bag.

How to use it

First off, you need to install the AR databases. These are sold separately from the app itself – you will be prompted to buy them within the app itself when you go to Settings and turn on the available Points of Interest. At present these come in several database sets (each set costing about 115 yen to download) include American Style restaurants, Japanese Style restaurants, Cafes, donuts and ice cream outlets, convenience stores and other misc leisure places. It should be noted that the same databases are used for Presselite’s other Tokyo-centric AR app, Bionic Eye Tokyo, so if you already have them for that the app will automatically use them.

(N.b. if you receive an error message when trying to buy these AR databases, reinstall the latest version of the Tokyo Metro app).

Having bought and installed your AR databases, from the app’s main display tap on the Locate icon. It will default to showing you a standard list of stations in the local area. From here, if you click on ‘Map’ you will see (surprisingly) a Google Map with all the POI listed. To enable Augmented Reality, click on ‘POI’ (Points of Interest). This will fire up your iPhone camera, and all enabled points of interest in the local area will show up, floating in the air (as shown above).

The app uses not only GPS, but also the iPhone 3GS’ built-in compass, so as you turn around, so the floating tags will change (see below about compass accuracy).

One neat thing is that as you then tilt the phone down towards the ground, the floating tags are replaced with a list, as shown below.


tokyomet_ar_screenshot_0979

Click on any of these and the display will change to an arrow pointing towards the place.

tokyomet_ar_screenshot_0980

When it comes to options regarding what is displayed: as well as the basic enabling / disabling of POI databases, you can also set the localization distance (200m – 3km).

The Verdict

Well this is very cool. A few years ago I never would have thought I would have this kind of AR device in my pocket, and especially not in the form of what has essentially just been a minor software install for the phone I already carried (is the iPhone not the sexiest device on Earth?!)

But to be honest, cool does not equal functionality in this case. Why? Accuracy. I’m guessing that this is not due to the app, but due to the limitations of the iPhone itself in this case and the limits in accuracy of today’s GPS (how many times have you used Google maps on your iPhone and have it tell you you’re on the other side of the street?).

Because of this, if you’re using it in AR mode to find a place the chances are you may be going in slightly the wrong direction. You are also at risk of tripping over big rocks in the road / falling down storm drains and breaking your leg because you have your eyes fixed on the screen.

BUT – the Google Map integration is good (just like the native google maps app but with more POIs). Using it in Map view allows you to make up for any inaccuracies in the positioning device.

The AR function is however great for impressing friends at parties who have yet to see convenience stores and Starbucks floating in the air.

It’s an incredible reasonable price for what is essentially cutting edge consumer technology, so if I were you, I’d get it.

N.B. Presselite’s ‘Bionic Eye Tokyo’ has no functionality that the Tokyo Metro app doesn’t have.

Iphone - a great travelling companion

The iPhone and a Japan Rail IC card - a great combination to improve efficiency

Management and Technology consultants Bearing Point made news late last year when it became Softbank’s first corporate client for the iPhone 3g, equipping 1000 employees with them in a bid to improve the productivity of its consultants by giving them easy access to information. In an interview today with Nikkei Net, Bearing Point are reporting that the iPhone has changed the way that they work.

More efficient use of time

Before the introduction of the iPhone, having arrived at the office employees would spend 30-40 minutes every day checking their emails – time that could have been better spent visiting clients. With the iPhone, consultants and sales staff are now able to connect to the company’s mail server and deal with their inboxes during what are often quite lengthy train journeys around the city – time that previously had been totally unproductive, and boring for the staff involved.

Thus, the average time it takes consultants to acknowledge emails has improved dramatically. Not only this, the company’s internal communication culture has changed, with emails becoming short and to the point – a positive by-product of having such a small keyboard to type on.

Cost benefits of the iPhone

The company also praises Softbank for its fixed-price unlimited data plan, which now allows effective budgeting, something that previously had not been possible. When asked about the costs of voice calls, whilst the company provided no details of any overall saving, it did point out that 47% of internal calls were now made by iPhone (fixed line extensions having been phased out for many staff) – and with Softbank offering free calls between users of its network from 1am to 9pm this naturally has had a big impact.

Security

When it comes to corporate use, the iPhone is often said to be inappropriate due to its relative lack of security. But due to the way in which they use the device (i.e. phone calls / email access / internet access) Bearing Point wouldn’t agree . Having restricted access to the iTunes App Store, and without programs such as MS Word or Powerpoint or any easy way to transfer documents to or from the iPhone, this is not such an issue (consultants also carry laptops and data cards should they need to work with documents when on the move).

Who’s responsible?

With the phones being on loan to staff from the company, there’s just one main rule: don’t lose them! Staff are warned not to leave them out ‘on display’. If they wish to download games, they can, but are required to pay for the cost of the data.

The company has also notes that less time is wasted with faulty phones. With an automatic backup being made of the phone when synched with iTunes on a company PC, should there be a problem, it doesn’t take long to restore lost settings or data. Additionally, specialist staff are not required: the users themselves are able to sort it out.

Bearing Point are now looking into setting up a VPN server for their iPhone-enabled staff.

Overall, the company is delighted with how the iPhone has changed the way its staff work, and find nothing to fault in the device.

(Original article: 「iPhone」1000台で働く形はこう変わった ベリングポイント、導入半年
Nikkei Net, 13th March.

dsc00032[update] The video feed will be available at http://www.qik.com/tamegoeswild

It’s the most epic iPhone challenge yet seen in the world (probably).

Joseph Tame, known for his addiction to his iPhone (a.k.a. ‘my baby’) is going to attempt to complete the Tokyo quarter Marathon in record time whilst carrying 30,603 pairs of eyes on his forehead. This epic feat has been made possible by months of training, an Apple iPhone, Qik.com and a new invention of Joseph’s, which he calls ‘A Modified Hat’.

He will be joined by his trainer, Tom Kobayashi.

35,603 people applied to run this epic race across Tokyo – only 5000 got in: Joseph and Tom were two of the lucky few.

Knowing how disappointed the unlucky unfortunates must be feeling, Joseph vowed to make things right. He decided, he’d let them run with him.

The full story of this epic adventure will be featured on the new podcast that Joseph co-produces – Japan Podshow.

To get live alerts via twitter of Joseph’s progress & broadcasts, be sure to follow him @tamegoeswild.

Exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of this epic challenge is also available on YouTube.

Be there and submit your comments as he runs to make his iPhone vibrate – he’ll know he’s carrying your eyes and your hopes too.

UPDATE! JOSEPH POSTS VIDEO RESPONSE TO CRITICISM

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.

iAnki

Anki

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)

Currency

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)

Everytrail

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 uStream.tv] 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)