iPhone as a traveling companion

(FYI – I retook the screen shots so ignore the VodaNZ tag and dates on the iphone screen shots).

I think swine flu has gotten a bad rap.
I for one would like to thank it for scaring the hell out of the Japanese and leaving Air New Zealand with a bunch of empty planes with a schedule to keep. So when the $700rtn flights to Tokyo ex Auckland turned up on grabaseat I couldn’t help but take advantage of them (recession be damned). With less than a week from booking to flying out I had little to no prep time to learn some more language or figure the lay of the land. I did find on my travels that my iPhone 3G was a great thing to take on the road so here are my thoughts on the apps I found either useful or useless. Enjoy.

Shibuya Japan bia the iPhone

To start I wasn’t sure if Japan would even accept GSM based phones, it has always been known as a land of futuristic but very much proprietary phones. The good news is as long as its a 3G (2100mhz) mobile you should be good to go. There are 2 provider options for roaming, either DoCoMo or Softbank, my phone defaulted to Softbank on arrival but a bit of researched showed DoCoMo’s prices to be (marginally) better. For a full idea on costs on roaming Vodafone has every countries rates listed here.

Surprisingly Tokyo seemed to have little wifi, free or otherwise. I would randomly check my phone for any networks and find no AP’s near me. Starbucks yes, but even in the middle of Shinjuku besides one of the busiest train stations in the world – nothing.
This is quite surprising for the country with the fastest internet connections around you would assume that it would be saturated with wifi but it just wasn’t the case. I assume as everyone has cabled internet or data on their phones so wifi just hasn’t become as ubiquitous as it is in other countries.
Most hotels (including ours) offer free internet in all rooms and with an addition of the underrated but incredibly useful Airport Express we had a full 802.11n network ‘in room’.

Currency for the iPhoneBy far the most useful program when traveling was Apples own in built app, Mail. Sounds strange but by emailing yourself import info, pdfs & jpg maps one could have on hand a good amount of the internet offline. Each morning before leaving the hotel I would email anything that maybe useful to have on the day – whether it be the ‘How to plan your day at Disney Sea‘ from themeparkinsider.com or where the best tech shops in Akihabara are. Find a web page, save as pdf, email to self. It was truly a useful thing to have.

Outside of Mail, the single most useful application I found was the free Currency (itunes link) currency converter app. Japanese Yen is one of the more confusing currencies to work out in your head (I think it was something like remove 2 zero’s and times by 0.6) and having this on hand, even as a rough guide really helped either not spending a fortune on a bottle of water. Each morning I would open the app, which in turn would update to current exchange rates.

I also installed OffMaps, a Google Maps replacement that allows caching of maps from the open mapping database and store them locally on the phone. It sounds good, with an active internet connection all you need to do it go to the city you want to save and then select an area to download. Lonely Planet Japanese Phrase BookThat all worked as planned but once untethered from the internerd everytime I would open the program and use the GPS button it would ping me back to Auckland and make it a mission to get back to Tokyo and even harder to find out where the hell I actually was. Add to that the fact the maps were almost information-less, no landmarks or street names. I imagine as the mapping is open this should improve and the applications current user interface bugs get fixed this app could be a real god send.

Other programs I installed and had varying amounts of success with were  Tokyo Subway 2009 and the Lonely Planets Japanese Phrasebook. I think the subway app explains itself and was always useful to find which line runs where and where a suburb was in relation to where we were.

The $13.99 Lonely Planet app contains 600 common Japanese phrases. Each phrase displays the English pronunciation, Kanji characters and when clicked pronounce the sentence out the speaker or headphones.
I did find the few times I did try and use the app the sentences I needed was slightly different to what I really required or missing completely. Lonely Planet also do a Tokyo specific guide which looks useful but it did get to a point where I didn’t want to spend more on apps for than the holiday itself.
In the end I found my Girlfriends copy of The Original “Point and Speak” Phrasebook prooved to be extremely useful as it contained images, pronunciation and Kanji lettering of pretty much every thing you could ever need to ask someone or solve any problem you may run into. This book will hopefully be ‘ported’ to the iPhone but for now the analogue option wins out. If you are going to Japan – you need this book.

On trips to other locales I imagine a GPS navigation app would prove to be quite useful. Recently I’ve been playing with the first app to be available to the NZ market – I plan on posting on this soon.

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