5 Apps to Make Your Life in Japan Easier

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Ten years ago, nobody had heard of it. Yet, exactly one decade ago this month, the smartphone was launched and changed all that.

Of course, there was Blackberry, Microsoft and Google, but when Apple announced it would enter the lucrative yet high-risk mobile phone market, established players like Nokia smirked. But 10 years later, Nokia is nowhere to be seen while Apple is about to release its eighth generation iPhone.

There’s no doubt these have become tools integral to our lives. And as smartphones become more ubiquitous, so do the applications users can put on them. However, an app’s relevance very much varies from place to place.

So, whether you’re just visiting Japan or a discerning smartphone user who has been here a while, here are five useful apps to make life in Japan run more smoothly.

1. Go-to Restaurant Finder: Gurunavi

Google Play / iOS

Gurunavi has existed in one form or another since before even the first iPhone hit Japan. The website and application has built a reputation for itself as the country’s go-to app for restaurant reviews, recommendations and reservations.

Conveniently, it now a dedicated English iOS and Android app. With this, you can search restaurants and bars by genre, price range, location and review score. You can also make reservations directly through the app, as well. With several thousand venues available to search all across Japan, there are options to suit all tastes and budgets.

Bear in mind though, that an English language listing on Gurunavi does not necessarily mean that an English menu or English-speaking staff will be available at the restaurant. But — hey — this is Japan! Stumbling through the Japanese menu, ordering something different from what you expected, is undeniably part of the fun of dinner dates here.

2. Be Prepared: NHK News and Disaster Updates

Google Play / iOS

Of course, we all hope that our time in Japan will be hazard free, but the reality is that it’s one of the most seismically unstable countries in the world. Earthquakes, landslides, flash floods and tsunamis are daily — albeit statistically unlikely — threats that we should be prepared for.

For those times when the worst does happen, an app such as NHK News and Disaster Updates is invaluable. It provides real-time updates and news on any tremors or other natural disasters in Japan as they happen. It will also send an alert to your phone in the event of an earthquake warning being issued. This is especially useful if you’re using a cell phone that you purchased outside Japan.

Almost all phones issued by Japanese carriers have a native earthquake warning app, but of course, phones from abroad do not. So this NHK app makes a very worthwhile substitute.

A couple of important notes: This app is dependent on having an active data connection. Remember that in times of disaster, internet access may be compromised. Also, being an NHK app, the news updates will be in Japanese only. However, these updates are typically accompanied by graphs and other visual data that are easy for English speakers to understand, too.

3. Getting There: Japan Trains

Google Play

Japan Trains was one of the first Android apps I was introduced to when I came back to Japan in 2013 and got myself a new phone. Like most great apps, its beauty lies in its simplicity and ease of access.

Japan Trains is a comprehensive train schedule checker, with real-time updates, to help you plan your route to perfection. Operating completely in English, you type in your departure station, your destination and either your departure time or intended arrival time. The app will then present you with five or more different options, showing where you need to be and when, which platform you leave from and how much it will cost.

You can also optimize your search by price, speed, local or express train and a host of other specific options. There are some ads on the page, it’s a free app after all, but these are never intrusive and you don’t feel like you’re being spammed. As far as free apps go, for traveling around Japan, this is an excellent first choice.

4. When Google Translate Doesn’t Cut it: Imiwa

iOS

One thing there is no shortage of on smart phones these days is language learning apps. However, sometimes we don’t want to dive into a full-on language lesson — sometimes we just need to quickly look up that elusive kanji compound that Google translate just can’t seem to get its head around.

Imiwa is a highly intuitive “one-stop-shop” for all your daily Japanese dictionary and translation needs. Its crisp, clear presentation also makes reading, and hopefully memorizing, the items you have looked up a lot easier.

Not only does the app offer translations and advice on different readings, but it also shows you how to write the characters correctly using the appropriate order, with sample sentences also added to back up understanding and encourage regular usage. One thing to be aware of with this app due to its size is that you need Wi-Fi to download it.

5. Making New Friends: Line

Google Play / iOS

“Hey, can I get your phone number?” 

Building up the courage to ask this question to a lovely lady or gent used to be the tricky part. But now, when you’re hitting it off, it’s far more likely you’ll go right to: “Hey, are you on Line?”

Line is one of those apps that make you sit up and go: “Oh, that’s so Japanese.” In essence, Line works the same way as WhatsApp, Viber and other free instant messengers, but with the addition of cutesy anime characters, literally thousands of emoji and the ability to integrate mobile gaming and other shared hobbies. You can even create shared photo albums after a great trip or take a poll in a group chat to see which night is best to meet up.

With Line, it’s also very easy to add friends. Simply tapping your phones together or scanning a QR code is all it takes. With hundreds of different sticker packs available, it can make online communication a breeze. That being said, having your date cancel by way of a sad Pikachu animation doesn’t really do anything to soften the blow.

Do you us any of these apps? Are there other platform-specific mobile applications you would recommend readers to make their life in Japan easier? Let us know in the comments below!

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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  • warchem says:

    Hyperdia is great for figuring out the best way to get anywhere by train. It gives you the price and several options for getting there. You can also set it so it only gives you routes that are covered by the Japan Rail pass.

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