The hotels are booked, your itinerary is set, and you’re excited to head to Japan for some much needed exploration. If you happen to get in on a late night or early morning flight and are staying at a hotel without a shuttle, you might be worried about finding your way to your accommodation. Japan is generally well equipped when it comes to public wifi, but to access it, you sometimes need to have a valid phone number, or pass a security check by registering with an email account (which requires prior Internet access). The best way to ensure you can stay wired and have the Internet access you need, is of course to secure a SIM card or Wifi rental but again, if your flight doesn’t fall within an airport Post Office’s open hours, you won’t be able to get to your rental item until you arrive at your hotel.
We downloaded the following apps and gave them a try to see which were the easiest to use and which had the best features. Overall we discovered that no (free) offline maps are perfect. Each has their useful features and more clumsy aspects. So the best thing to do is to consider how you travel and how reliant on your phone you want to be, and choose from there.
We have a few tips for travelers who won’t have immediate Internet access or for those who want to have a backup and maintain access to their itinerary and to basic directions offline
1. Japan Official Travel App 7/10
This App was developed by the Japan National Tourism Organization and has a wealth of in-depth information for helping you get around and plan your Japan vacation. Because this app has the power of the JNTO behind it, it has regularly updated articles with travel tips and activity introductions, so it has an insider perspective when it comes to recommendations. made. This App is special in that it covers the entirety of Japan, from the big cities to the rural countryside.
When you open the app, you will have the following five functions available to choose from:
The Discover Function allows you to explore the different regions of Japan, by learning about local customs, regional specialities and famous places. Within this function, you can search for new things using two search bars at the top of the screen.
Scroll through the bank of articles based on your category of interest, or by the area. When searching by area, an interactive map will appear. Select the circled area representing the part of Japan you want to discover. Immediately, all the travel articles in the archive associated with the area will appear. You can further narrow down the articles by category. For example, we selected Shikoku. We right away found an article with a great 2 day plan for visiting a resort including an amusement park and onsen in Kagawa prefecture (gotta make sure to try the udon while there).
The route function is one of the most user-friendly and most comprehensive out there. (This function is only available while online). Enter any address or category of interest in the ‘To’ search bar. You will have a list of different types of available transport, from taxi, train, to walking routes when the destination is within walking distance. It also includes the cost of fares (both ticket and IC card) and for those travelling in Japan on a JR Pass, you even have the ability to priorities routes that will allow you to use it. For example, let’s check out a route from inside Tokyo Station to Kiddy Land, a store in Harajuku.
After selecting your route, click on the small map icon that will appear on the right hand side of your route. This will take you to your map.
A nifty little feature included in the map is a distances measuring tool. It looks like a black string tethered to your current location. As you move the screen (only one finger needed), the tool automatically calculates the distance to the x at the other side of the line. This is great for when you’re debating between going multiple places and you need to consider time and energy levels.
Spot Search works on and offline. Search for nearby facilities like ATMs and hospitals, and when offline, you can even search for the closes available spot with free WiFI.
Travel tips has your links to more in-depth resources, in addition to your emergency information, such as reports of recent natural disasters, coupons, and information for you closest embassy.
This contains your general setting, including language and notifications. If you feel like leaving much appreciated feedback for the JNTO, there is also an option here for that.
Unfortunately, when offline the functions are quite limited outside of spots. This app is great for pre-planning and for those who want to get a deeper understanding of Japan as they travel. The route function is a big recommendation for those with access to WiFi.
2.Tokyo Offline City Map (6/10)
As you probably guessed from its name, Tokyo Offline City Map is a GPS and guide App made for your use in times when you don’t have Internet connection.
The App has a simple interface with four basic functions for you to choose from.
Discover contains an archive of relevant articles for you to access the best of the best, from food to accommodation. The app is currently under construction, so the articles are limited but are supposed to increase in the near future. You can also ‘like’ individual articles in order to refer back to them later.
My lists is the place for you to save locations and have them automatically appear starred from you on the map. To add new places to your list, simply go to the map, find the place you’re searching for using the search bar at the top of the screen, and long touch the location to drop a pin. A little star will appear next to the notification for a dropped pin, and pressing it will allow you to easily add it to your list.
Open your map, and immediately your GPS location will appear. To find things in your surrounding area, simple type into the bar located at the top of the screen. For example, by entering ‘coffee’, shops with coffee in the name or that are registered in the Tokyo City Maps Directory will appear. We did find that this search application offline did not yield the best results, with many of the search results not even near our current location.
While you can view the map and your location on and offline, unfortunately the route creation option is not available within the App. When clicking on the map, you will be redirected to the either Googlemaps or Applemaps.
As we mentioned, unfortunately, while the Maps function is completely available offline, the routing function is not. When you attempt to route yourself to a specific location, automatically, the app will ask to connect you to Googlemaps or Applemaps. This is a great map to use if you’ve roughly sketched out the areas you will be and just plan to use a map as a walking guide. However, the app does live up to the description listed on its page, describing it as an ‘easily portable and compact city map.’
Finally, while the app is free, there is an advertisement banner that pops up occasionally at the bottom of the screen, and within the app, you will be asked to download other affiliated Apps.
3. Google Trips 6/10
Google Trips is an incredibly useful App that hit the scene in 2016, and has been updated regularly since. The App’s main feature is centralization: it allows you to keep track of the entirety of your trip in one place, with an interface built for mobile. From flight and hotel reservations, to walking directions between sites on a given day during your travels, the app gathers all the essential information you need and presents it with a logical clean interface. When checking in and out of hotels, this makes it incredibly easy, as you don’t need to go online or search through your emails to find the reservation information.
To begin, make sure that you have a Gmail account, and that all your reservations are being made here, as Google Trips can only use the information that passes through a Gmail or Google account.
There are 7 features you can use with Googletrips:
As shown in our screenshot here, all your reservations, from flights to hotels will be put in a scheduled format for each day of your trip. Clicking on the individual reservations will give you more details about your stay and the full address and official contact
Locations you have bookmarked and are considering visiting. You can also add to this list easily by a simple google or googlemaps search. Use the star icon, and it will come up in Trips under your ‘starred place’ list.
Getting around has important general information in regards to public transportation. However, this is not a navigation function. As you’ll see in the screenshot below, when you try to navigate to a location, you will immediately be redirected to another Map application.
Things to Do
Go here for recommendations for the most popular tourist spots and leisure activities for your area.
Limited to a day or two in a particular city without much time to plan? These day trips offer simple courses to cover some of the main tourist spots for different districts. A useful part of this feature, is that it calculates down to the time needed to walk or take the train between your different activities.
Food & Drink
This feature links you to popular restaurants and bars nearby. You can view suggestions via Googlemaps and easily read the ratings and reviews to get a good sense of where you’d like to go based on budget and mood.
Need to Know
This section is one of the most useful. It includes emergency numbers and locations of hospitals that offer English speaking services with phone numbers, locations, and links to their sites. When you’re actually in the face of an emergency, having the time to search and find these kinds of facilities in a foreign country can feel impossible. Having a directory that you can access immediately makes narrowing things down much easier.
When using Googletrips offline, you shouldn’t expect to find your hidden gem, hole-in-the-wall type locations. Remember, the app is pulling reviews and suggestions from an enormous online data-pool, therefore the places that have the most information on the Internet will be the ones that appear in your general searches and suggestions, not unlike a simple Google search. The power of word of mouth and local knowledge is still so great in Japan, so looking for information outside a general Google search is important for getting a personalized experience. Especially when it comes to travelling Japan, its in the nooks and crannies and the little known places that you will find some of the best food and the most interesting people. In addition, there is little information available for small towns and countryside areas, as the app focuses on big city travel.
For that reason, it might be best to think of Google Trips as the frame for your vacation. Use the App to nail down and keep track of the big details, but consult other blogs and travel guides to tailor your trip details to your interests and hobbies.
A final note on Google Maps…
Google Maps is a great, and perhaps the go-to map for navigation in most cases. In Japan as well, though not all roads and buildings are labeled with the English names, the maps themselves are very accurate and updated regularly. However, due to lack of permissions, the offline function for Googlemaps, whereby you can download the maps for entire cities and utilize the GPS function is not available. Most likely, this has to do with data ownership issues, though it did not seem to be stated explicitly on the Google Maps site. Great recommendation for those with WiFi or phone signal, but unfortunately, it’s not something for the offline user.