Speeek, the Japanese - English / Chinese translator

Speeek, the Japanese - English / Chinese translator

Softbank’s software division BBSS have just launch Speeek! for Japanese travellers heading for China [iTunes] and English-speaking countries [iTunes].

It’s a voice-enabled dictionary that contains 1500 phrases commonly used when arriving at an airport, checking in to a hotel, eating out, using local transport, sightseeing and having basic conversations. As well as set phrases for the user, likely responses are also given.

I’m thinking that this could also be useful for those studying Japanese – spend hours practising pronunciation by attempting to ask it questions in Japanese.

Having said that, if it’s anything like Google’s Mobile App it will be of more value for comedic purposes than actually getting a translation of what you want to say.

n700 shinkansen_1739

Good news for iPhone users who frequently travel on the N700 Shinkansen on the Tokaido line – in March 2009 JR will be launching Broadband.

Having said that, usually I find the 3G network perfectly adequate – faster than my broadband connection back in the UK. Mind you, it did have problems updating Google Maps fast enough to keep the speeding bullet on-screen when tracking it using GPS last week.

Incidentally, according to EveryTrail, we were cruising towards Osaka at over 400KM. (Surprised, I checked with a member of the train crew who seemed just as surprised as me. As she explained, 280km/h was the train’s top speed.)

Train Timetables

I’ve found the iPhone to be an ideal companion when travelling by train or bus.
For a start there’s Ekitan [iTunes - Japanese account required], the most user-friendly iPhone Japanese train timetable I’ve yet to find – loving the new GPS feature for locating the departure station, although it could do with being a bit snappier. Like the fact that station names can now be input using romaji, although output remains Japanese-only.

I’ve also trialled one of its main competitors – Jorudan Co. Ltd. [iTunes] The unimaginative name is a forewarner of the general dullness of the app, which is totally lacking in iPhone sexiness. Not recommended.

If I’ve lost track of where I am when on a train, it’s handy to be able to fire up the GPS and get a quick fix. Like the other day when on an unfamiliar line in Saitama. Being an old train it was lacking in digital displays showing the vehicles progress – but Google maps showed me exactly what I did(n’t) want to know – I was travelling in the wrong direction having gone past the stop where my in-laws were waiting to pick me up.

Bus Travel

I also used to avoid using buses in Tokyo because I never knew where I was supposed to get off, being unable to make out what the driver was saying (other than “the bus is stopping at the traffic lights / the bus is moving / the bus is leaning to the left / right / the bus is a light shade of gray / the driver loves to talk”). Now I simply track the vehicle as we travel, and get off when the blinking blue blob seems as close to my destination as I think it’s likely to get.

Whilst Google maps does now provide support for bus routes (at least in the major cities), I’ve found that the timetable is by no means comprehensive – it doesn’t list our local bus route at all.

I should point out that if one heads out into the Japanese countryside, the story may be very different when it comes to map support. I recently made a trip out to Hanno (Saitama), only 40 mins from Ikebukuro, but upon arrival found a complete lack of 3G connectivity. Whilst the GPS continued to show my location (as the blue flashing blob), the map failed to load in the background, making it pretty useless. “Ah, I’m in that gray square…”

With it being such early days we can expect to see big advances in navigation tools for the iPhone in Japan. Things I’d like to see include:

1) Walking directions in Google Maps (for figuring out how long it takes from A to B)
2) More accurate GPS results in all GPS apps
3) Station names in English in Ekitan
4) Intelligent searches in Google Maps – that is, searches possible even when the address supplied is incomplete or in the incorrect order
5) Alarm in Ekitan that goes off when the train is approaching your stop (could be linked to time rather than GPS so that it works on the Subway)
6) Comprehensive bus routes
7) Teleporter

I look forward to seeing what 2009 brings.

One thing I was always wanted to be able to do with my old phone in Japan was check train times. Yes, you can do that with Japanese phones already, but the interface is enough to put off anyone who finds Kanji challenging.

Ekitan for the iPhone has changed all of that. Whilst it stills works primarily in Japanese (a recent update means you can now enter station names in Romaji, but the search results are still only displayed in Kanji), the interface is so beautifully intuitive that it doesn’t really require much bravery to use.

It will not only tell you what time the trains are leaving – it also gives you the price, number of changes, time taken, alternative routes and the status of all railways (useful to find out it there’s any serious delays).

The update to version 2.1.1 (iTunes Link) brought significant improvements, with the addition of GPS support. Not sure which station you’re at? Ekitan will use GPS to figure it out! There’s also bookmarks for those regular commutes, and a detailed search history.


The recent introduction of an English keyboard is a clear attempt to better serve the many iPhone-wielding foreigners in Japan, so my guess is that we can only see further improvements there in due course, such as the introduction of romaji names for all stations.

Ekitan is 350 yen and available from the App Store (Japan).

Developer’s website