Smartphones are the new guidebooks, translators and maps of travel combined—and in Japan, they’re pretty much indispensable.
Even if you like to be old school, or managed just fine in the rest of Asia without one, in Japan a smartphone can seriously save you. Whether it’s the surprising lack of English (or the confusing examples that are there) or finding that random hostel you booked three months ago, sometimes having a digital friend can make all the difference. We would say this of course, being a website, but we also promise we’re telling the truth. To prove it—here are the best apps and websites for traveling in Japan. Read it, try them, have a great trip and then email us to say thanks (only kidding, it’s Japan—you’ll have to fax our robot secretary).
One thing to be aware of: Japanese websites and often apps too, are not known for their great interfaces. Not sure why they haven’t quite caught up here, but keep in mind that even the newest apps—if created by Japanese companies—might seem clunky, unintuitive and sometimes just downright bad. We suggest you try a few and see which ones work for you.
1. Transport: The big one
Trains are a fantastic way to travel, from the bullet train to the metro. Working out the best routes and the times can be a bit confusing though, just take a look at the metro maps in Tokyo for inspiration there. For this, we suggest that you combine two apps (or an app and a website anyway).
Google Maps (we know, keep reading)
We suggest Google Maps to figure out where your nearest stations are. It’s an obvious one, we know, but it’s a good one, especially when paired with our other suggestions. For actual A–B transport it’s pretty reliable in Tokyo too, but less so elsewhere. Download the areas you’re traveling to beforehand if you’re not getting wifi, and pre-save locations, then you can find them offline!
Hyperdia: For A–B travel
Available in English, Japanese and Chinese, this site is updated very regularly with information from Kotsushinbunsha, so it’s about as reliable as it gets. The only issue is you need to know your stations before you start (which is where Google Maps comes in). Giving you full train routes across the country with the added option of selecting (or excluding) not only bullet trains but JR Pass–friendly ones, it soon becomes indispensable. There are also options for highway buses—check them out if bullet trains start looking too pricy!
Tokyo Subway Navigation: Get to know Tokyo
For specific Tokyo travel, this app is good for getting to know the city. It navigates around a detailed subway map and gives you a simple time, price and transfer list alongside the line you need to catch, and the direction. You can choose from entering station names or finding the station on the map. This makes it great for figuring out routes and getting to know Tokyo.
Note: There is a ‘for tourists’ version of this app—but we’re not entirely sure why, except you might just prefer the interface which is a bit cleaner and allows you to navigate between lines, stations and services like Lost and Found. This app doesn’t work offline, which is odd as the regular app does.
Suica Card: Track your travel
If you’re already planning to use a Pasmo or Suica Card, firstly, well done, and secondly, why not app it up? You can use The official JR Suica App to track the balance, load and use tickets on your phone which is super handy—but it’s currently only available in Japanese and on iPhone. For Android users, you can connect your Suica to Google Pay instead. For Pasmo users you can . . . get a Suica? There isn’t an official Pasmo App at the moment, but there are some unofficial options out there (this is also the case for Android Suica users).
2. Food: Avoid getting hangry
With over 160,000 restaurants to choose from, and only our reccomendations to help you (only kidding—but not really), finding dinner can become slightly overwhelming after a day’s worth of sightseeing. While there’s a solid point to be made for wandering into whichever spot tickles your fancy, there’s also a good one for going to great places you’ve previously looked up.
Tablelog (search for 食べログ)
This is the food bible of Japan, and while it is in Japanese, Google Translate/Chrome is your friend. Tabelog has photos, extensive reviews and a tough rating system though. The general rule is that anything over 3.5 stars is decent, anything above 4 is great and if you see a 4.5 it’s exceptional (and rare). If you have the time and patience, you can translate the reviews to find reccomended dishes, or just use the main page to check stars, location and photos.
Gurunavi: The food encyclopedia
The contender for biggest food encyclopedia of Japan, Gurunavi (short for “gourmet navigator”) is a huge compendium of dinner options. Available in English, it is certainly more tourist user–friendly, allowing you to select down to very specific categories. You can see average prices, availability of English-speaking staff, address, nearest station—it has everything, except ratings. So, potentially check out locations here, then see their rating on the Tabelog website.
Happy Cow: Go green
If you’re vegetarian, vegan or otherwise specific about your food then Happy Cow is your new best friend. Providing locations, ratings and reviews of all the veggie-friendly establishments in the area, Happy Cow is the easiest way to find meat-free meals in Tokyo (and beyond). If you pay for the full app, you can save locations offline, otherwise the free version works fine, You can even search cities in advance.
3. Wifi: Keeping connected
If you’re not planning on renting portable wifi, or getting a SIM card during your stay in Japan, then finding free wifi will become your new hobby. To make your life easier (and less Starbucks orientated) you can download these apps (in advance) and get on the net, as the cool kids say. This is our best list of cafes to go for wifi, so if you pair them up, you’ll be living the life of a well-connected and well-caffeinated riley.
Travel Japan Wi-Fi: All the wifi
With over 200,000 hotspots across the country this app lets you connect automatically, eliminating the annoyance of signing in eight-thousand times a day. The map function allows you to find the nearest spots and can be downloaded to work offline which is great. The spots to look out for are the blue-lettered Wi2 (and many variations)—you’ll start seeing them everywhere and can get pretty strong connectivity.
Japan Connected Free Wifi: Almost all the wifi
Another similar app with 170,000 spots and auto-connect features to avoid constant signing-in. The app has a map function too and works in 16 languages, which is pretty impressive.
4. Language learning: Get talking
Even if you’re only here for a few days, the ability to get a few sentences out and recognize the odd character can be really helpful. If you’re a keen linguist, you might be well on top of this already—general language apps like Memrise and Duolino are good for building vocab and basic grammar. Meanwhile, WaniKani, Obenkyo and Anki all offer a more in-depth experience—the ones below will be great while you’re on the move though.
Google Translate (Again, we know—keep reading)
While you have probably used it here and there, Google Translate has a couple of features that really make it stand out. The best one is the camera function—see a sign, snap a picture and read the contents (it’s especially perfect for menus). Remember to save the Japanese option for offline use and try the writing option too if your camera can’t read handwritten kanji. As an add on to this, use Chrome when you can—it auto-translates websites which helps when researching.
Imiwa and Yomiwa: In-depth Google Translate
If you’re aiming to learn while you go, Imiwa and Yomiwa are similar to Google Translate in function, but also offer explanations of kanji and their radicals (the lines that make them up). These apps more for middle-range learners and great if you want to learn new kanji you spot when out and about. Imiwa has writing and reading practice while Yomiwa has the camera app—those with iPhones can combine the two for a stacked version of Google Translate.
Dr. Moku’s Hiragana & Katakana: Easy learning
If language learning isn’t really your thing, this app can be a fast way to learn the two phonetic alphabets: hiragana and katakana (not kanji, the Chinese symbols, although there’s a version for that too). The app employs the mnenomics method—using visual keys to help you remember each symbol’s corresponding sound. Learning these two alphabets can be very handy; hiragana can often be found written above kanji so children can read them, it’s especially handy for train station signs. Katakana is used for foreign words and is usually found on menus—so if you combine the two you’ll have a real head start without worrying about grammar. Note: Only the trial is free, so give it a go and if it works for you, it’s worth it.
5. Cash money: Currency converters and paying on the go
Japan is a cash-based nation and making sure you have some (and knowing how much) is key to having a good time. Flashing your Mastercard, Visa or Amex isn’t going to help you much in Japan, unless your in a large store or hotel. While the rest of the world has moved to contactless and beyond, here you’ll need to find ATMs and have backup cash on you. If that makes you nervous, remember Japan’s low crime rate (when it comes to theft).
The XE Currency Converter: How much is that exactly?
Remembering exactly how many thousands of yen make a few dozen dollars can be pretty confusing, especially if you’ve been country-hopping for a while. The XE app provides up-to-date conversions between dozens of different currencies and allows personalized settings. You can send money, check the exchange rates and track up to ten currencies at a time, allowing you to plan ahead if you’re moving on. If you’re looking to send money to Japan we have some tips, and a few for if you’re sending it back home as well.
Google and Apple Pay: Skip the coins
Japan’s issue with cards is one of trust, and having pre-loaded cards like Suica or Waon is much more popular. The cards are accepted in lots of chain stores as well as being used for transport (in Suica’s case) and have now been linked to Smart Payment Systems Apple and Google Pay. This weird intersection of technologies is not yours to question, but you can make the most of it and use the apps to connect to cards and pay using home funds. We don’t suggest you rely on this for all costs but pair it with cash as well, as many places still don’t accept anything but the real deal.
6. Emergency and safety Apps: Literal lifesavers
So along with cherry blossom and hot springs, Japan’s close ties with nature also mean pretty frequent natural diasters (compared to most countries). Earthquakes, flooding and landslides are the most common, and while we’re not trying to bring down your holiday mood, if the worst does happen, it’s better to be prepared. While Japanese phones have in-built systems to notify you, many still prefer the app below. While you’re here, there’s also personal disasters to consider as well. Break a leg on a night out? Need some emergency dental treatment you weren’t expecting? There’s an app for that too …
Yurekuru Call: Earthquake early warning system
This is the most popular app in Japan for earthquake warnings, offering a good early notification system (often faster than built-in phone options) as well as info on the quake’s epicenter and strength. You can set your location as well as threshold for notifications based on seismic strength. The app works in English and allows for the option to be notified of early warning drills should you wish to participate. While all systems only offer a few seconds warning, they can give you time to get into a better position.
Japan Hospital Guide
If you’re not indestructable (and even if you think you are), this app can be a lifesaver if you have an accident. Hospitals in Japan are a bit of a nightmare (closing for lunch, closing on weekends, closing on alternate staff member’s birthdays, and so on) and that’s before we even reach the language barrier. Luckily, the Japan Hospital Guide offers A Google Maps–based navigation system for clinics and hospitals including opening times, contact numbers and directions. Keep in mind that the app requires your location to function, so give it access in advance.
7. Social media special mention: LINE
There are a few apps that can be really handy, but don’t quite fit into any of our categories. LINE is an app only really used in Japan and was launched to help with communication following the 2011 Earthquake in Eastern Japan. It’s a messaging app and although there are timelines and profiles, etc., most people don’t really bother with that. LINE is good for adding new ‘friends’ you don’t necessarily want to add to your real-life social media (meta much). The messaging app allows for calls and blocking, so use them as you wish. It is also used by lots of stores and sites for discounts (scanning QR codes, etc.), so if you’re planning on shopping it can be handy to have.