Navigating Tokyo

3 Jan 2018 by Business Traveller Asia Pacific
Navigating Tokyo

The cliché about getting lost in translation is one thing. Simply getting lost is another. Tokyo has always been notoriously difficult to get around, from the confusing address system (not based on street addresses) to a mind-boggling network of train lines. Wifi hotspots, accessible data and English-language apps have also typically been few and far between. Short of a personal guide, a good GPS system (and a stellar sense of direction) used to be the only hope for foreigners to the city.

However, with the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games on the horizon, and not forgetting the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Tokyo is seeing a swathe of tech infrastructure and service industry upgrades that promise to make the city more accessible and easier to navigate for the growing number of foreign visitors.

App-ropriate solutions

Tokyo has one of the most efficient public transport systems in the world – a train company’s recent apology for a 20-second delay made headlines around the world – but the sheer size and complexity can be confusing to say the least. This is especially true at major stations like Shinjuku and Shibuya, where the crowds and vast number of exits and platforms are overwhelming.

To combat this, the government has implemented more tourist information offices dotted around the city. One recent service has been the addition of non-Japanese guidance staff at busy locations such as Tokyo Station who can give directions and other information in a variety of languages.

Service providers are also upping their app game to help people navigate Tokyo and beyond. The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), for example, recently launched the Japan Official Travel App (jnto.go.jp/smartapp/eng) available in Chinese (simplified and traditional), English and Korean, offering a mix of content such as travel articles with practical information on how to get around, route searches for trains, maps, and guides to manners and customs – quite a handy free resource to have in your pocket.

Another new app that could be useful for anyone aiming to get out of Tokyo is the Tokaido Sanyo Shinkansen Reservation App (smart-ex.jp/en/lp/app). With it, JR Central and JR West have teamed up to create the first app in Japan that allows train bookings in English – in this case for the bullet train – and also allows you to change bookings up to four minutes before departure. It’s currently available for download in the US, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore, although a spokesperson for JR says it will soon be rolled out in other countries and similar English apps will hopefully be following to allow bookings on a greater number of trains and lines.

Tokyo water taxi

Getting connected

Of course, apps aren’t much good if you can’t access them, and despite Japan’s high-tech image, it’s been something of an oddity that wifi accessibility has long been extremely patchy while out and about in the capital. However that appears to be changing. Teaming up with rail and bus operators, plus certain tourist spots and public facilities, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Free Wi-Fi & Tokyo (wifi-tokyo.jp) delivers connectivity in an increasing number of locations around the city. It still isn’t perfect but it is a move in the right direction.

Another app offering this service is Travel Japan Wifi (japanfreewifi.com) from Wire and Wireless Co. A recent partnership with flag carrier Japan Airlines (JAL) has also seen the launch of an upgraded version, the JAL Explore Japan Wifi app, available for both Android and Apple devices. With this app, travellers can automatically connect to more than 200,000 wifi hotspots operated by the company across Japan in public areas such as airports, major train stations, restaurants and key tourist locations. The app is specifically designed to cater to foreigners – residents in Japan are not even able to download the programme, and it’s available in English, traditional and simplified Chinese, Korean and Thai, while Japanese is not supported.

If, however, you want guaranteed data during your stay, sort out pocket wifi when you arrive at Narita or Haneda airport. Alternatively, a free SIM card courtesy of new start-up Wamazing was rolled out in February 2017. Foreigners can pre-register for the service and then pick up their free SIM from vending machines at Tokyo Narita airport. The SIM also comes with 500MB of data or usage for five days – whichever you hit first. Additional data can be bought through the Wamazing app (apps.wamazing.jp), plus access to services such as hotel reservations, taxi hailing or booking activities. So far the app is only available in traditional Chinese, aimed at travellers from Hong Kong and Taiwan, but Wamazing plans to offer English, simplified Chinese and Korean in the future.


Given Japan’s reputation for robotics, it comes as no surprise that Tokyo is also turning to automatons to help visitors. In November Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, unveiled five multilingual robots at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building as a test run before the 2020 Games. The five – all of which can communicate in Japanese and English, with some able to use Chinese and Korean, too – will be in place until February 2018 to see how well they can assist visitors with such things as tourist information and directions.

Taking things even further into the future, you will soon be able to pay for and access a range of services with the tap of a finger. The new “Touch & Pay” authentication system is part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s efforts to promote biometric identification services, and since October it is gradually being rolled out at hotels and tourist sites across Tokyo. By 2020, it should allow travellers (after registering passport, credit card and fingerprint data at the airport or a tourist office) to check in, buy tickets, use lockers, and more across Tokyo using finger scans or e-passport scans.

Plain sailing

If trains, buses and taxis aren’t your thing, and you have some spare time in between meetings, Tokyo has another mode of transport up its sleeve: water buses. Aiming to offer an alternative to the city’s highly congested roads, a number of companies have launched services around Tokyo Bay, mainly operating routes around Odaiba and up the Sumida River to Asakusa. Tokyo Cruise Ship company offers the most daily services, with the scenic journeys lasting between 20 minutes and an hour, and starting at ¥780 (US$7; suijobus.co.jp/en).

If the schedules don’t suit, there’s also a flexible on-demand service. Tokyo Water Taxi began operating its first diesel-powered vessels in mid-2016 around Tokyo Bay’s waterways, and plans to have a total of 60 iconic yellow boats operating by the time the 2020 Olympic Games rolls around. Some landings welcome visitors without a reservation, but it’s best to book (there’s a maximum capacity of six people). Journeys cost around ¥2,000 (US$18; water-taxi.tokyo).

Essential apps for negotiating Japan

Google Translate

This app allows you to translate to and from multiple languages by typing or pasting in text or by speaking into your phone’s microphone. Its finest feature, however, is the camera input. With it, you can scan something like a Japanese menu and get a fairly accurate translation appear over the top of the words it detects.


Free for 30 days after you first install it, this app makes navigating public transportation easy, providing timetable information and detailed route searches for trains, subways and planes nationwide.


Type in parameters such as your location, the kind of food you want and even your budget, and this app will list all the options, including info on whether or not the restaurant has an English menu or English-speaking staff.

Room for growth

Japan’s target of 20 million inbound travellers annually by 2020 was reached four years early – the government has now revised that target to 40 million. To cater to that growth, an additional 10,000 rooms are slated for the capital before the Games, many of them ticking all the five-star boxes. Looking at the newest offerings, Hoshino Resorts Co opened the Hoshinoya Tokyo early in 2017 in the central Otemachi district, not far from Tokyo Station, offering a blend of high-end resort and traditional Japanese inn.

The Aman group has launched a similarly sleek, relaxation-focused property nearby: the Aman Tokyo. In November, Marriott introduced the group’s millennial-focused lifestyle brand with the opening of Moxy Tokyo Kinshicho, and also has a pair of Marriott Edition properties scheduled for 2020, one in the Toranomon business district and another just off the main avenue in the prestigious Ginza area.

Looking forward also reveals that Accorhotels will make a brand debut in the Japanese capital when it opens its 143-room Pullman Tokyo Tamachi in autumn 2018, while luxury serviced residence Oakwood Apartments Nishi-Shinjuku is scheduled to open in the summer. A 190-room Four Seasons property is also planning to open in Otemachi by 2020.

By Rob Goss

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