Going on holiday is always great fun, and being able to get around easily and eat vegan food is part of the adventure. Having a few good apps to help you is all you need.
These are the apps we used most in Tokyo. All of them are free although some require a Wi-Fi or data connection while in use. The list is as follows:
- Google Maps
- Google Translate
- The official Tokyo Subway app
- Happy Cow
- Bonus: a couple of extra apps that are nice to have, but not essential
1. Google Maps is the outright winner in this list.
Japanese addresses are quite hard to fathom to a westerner like me. Walking around in Tokyo, it’s almost impossible to find any street names or house/building numbers. Google Maps makes a decent job of getting you to your destination and I’d estimate its accuracy at 90% or higher.
Please remember you will need a permanent data connection (3G, 4G, portable wifi etc) for this though, as Google does not provide Offline Maps functionality for Japan, presumably for copyright reasons. We’ll look at Portable Internet devices in the next episode of these notes.
You’ve probably already got this app on your phone. If not, you can get it for free from the Google Play Store or iPhone App Store.
We also tried Maps.Me (also known as “Maps With Me”) as an alternative. Unlike Google Maps, this a fully offline map on your mobile phone. It doesn’t need any kind of data connection at all, not for searching and not for navigation, so it’s effectively free. All you need is a mobile phone with GPS, which is pretty much all of them nowadays, and a a few hundred Mb of free space on it to store the downloaded maps (remember to do this at home on wifi before you leave).
It’s not bad for navigation but it’s definitely not as accurate as Google Maps. It was fine for getting to a train station or a particular building/temple/palace etc but, down at ground level, it didn’t have sufficient detail to be reliable for day-to-day use.
2. Google Translate
Google Translate is a close runner-up for “couldn’t survive without it” apps. We used it constantly in shops, and not just for buying food. If you follow a vegan, vegetarian or dairy-free diet, you will need this app for checking ingredients. Almost anything in Japan can contain dashi (fish stock) or milk. We found potato chips that contained pork and shellfish, and almost all store-bought bread had milk in it.
Short of carrying around a piece of paper that says “I am a vegan, can I eat this?” in Japanese (and I had that too, get yours here: http://www.justhungry.com/japan-dining-out-cards) you’ll need to use Google Translate a lot.
It uses the camera in your phone to translate in real time. In simple terms, it takes a picture of whatever you’re looking at, then uses some clever artificial intelligence and the app’s built-in dictionary to come up with a translation. Tip: download the Japanese dictionary to your phone beforehand on your home wifi for better performance.
From our experience, it’s not as good with Japanese Kanji characters as it is with Roman alphabets like French and Spanish and it has a tendency to come up with the word “bastard” a lot in food ingredients (yes, really!). That aside, you’ll quickly spot if something contains one of the many allergens that have to be listed. Check out this helpful video too that shows what to look for. It doesn’t include any “bastards” either, I promise.
We tried the Microsoft Translator app too, which is also available for Android and iPhone. Compared to the Google app, it was veeerrry veeerrry sloooow to make translations. More importantly, it’s simply no good most of the time. It has a weird interface and it frequently failed to come up with any sensible translations at all.
3. The official Tokyo Subway app.
This app gives you the answers to questions like “How do I get from place A to place B on the subway?” and “Where do I need to change trains and how much will the journey cost?”
This is a great app. It has a nice clear interface and it’s very easy to use.
Get the appropriate version for your phone (Android or iPhone) via this page: http://www.tokyometro.jp/en/tips/connectivity/smartphone/index.html
4. Happy Cow
If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, you probably know this app already. It gives you a list of all the vegan and vegetarian-friendly restaurants and shops around you (using your phone’s GPS) and has user-submitted reviews, photos etc. It also links directly into Google Maps for directions to whichever restaurant or shop you choose.
Note: If you use this app, please help the community by uploading your own photos and reviews after you’ve visited somewhere. Even a two-sentence review is fine. People like me rely heavily on this app and the more of us that contribute to it, the more useful it becomes for everyone.
Download it from the Google Play Store or iPhone App Store on your phone.
5. Close, but no cigar
There were a few other apps that we used regularly, so we give an Honourable Mention to the following:
- ATM Navi: Cash is still king in Japan. Credit and debit cards are less commonly accepted than in the West, and Apple Pay/Android Pay don’t work there at all. When you need cash, you need cash right now and the ATM Navi app will take you to the nearest 7-11 convenience store with an ATM machine. This page has links to appropriate versions of the app: http://www.sevenbank.co.jp/english/personal/atm/app/
- Japan Connected Free Wifi: Free wifi is fairly easy to find in Japan. As well as the usual places like Starbucks and McDonalds, you can also get online for free in most shopping centres, department stores and many train/subway stations. The Japan Connected Free Wifi app seems to have aggregated many of these into one app with a sort-of single sign-on facility. It worked well for me. Get the app via this page: http://www.japan-guide.com/ad/nttbp/
- Tokyo Handy Guide: The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has an official tourist guide app, which is quite comprehensive. As well as information about specific areas like Shinjuku, Shibuya and Asakusa, it has a very good “what’s near me right now” feature, that uses your phone’s GPS to tell you about places of interest within 500m, 1 Km, 2 Km etc. There are a few maps included too, but they aren’t very detailed and you can safely ignore them. Overall though, it’s a good app to have when travelling around the city. You can get it via their website: http://www.metro.tokyo.jp/ENGLISH/TOPICS/2016/160128.htm
If you know of additional apps that might be useful, please leave a comment below. I’d be glad for your input.
Peverilblog’s Notes from Tokyo
- Part 1: On being vegan in Japan
- Part 2: Television, Cuteness and Vending Machines
- Part 3: Essential apps while visiting Japan (this page)
- Part 4: Old & New, on speaking English, and Wifi