Travelers photo of Fuji

When I traveled to Japan, Project Fi connected me to the internet, Google Maps told me where to go, Google Translate filled in the gaps of my Japanese. Not only did tech change the way I traveled, it changed the digital landscape as I traveled.

Technology Makes it Easier to Travel

Even though I am learning how to speak Japanese, I am not fluent and knew I would need help getting around Japan. Fortunately, Google’s Project Fi (learn more about Project Fi here) kept me online in Japan. In the US, Project Fi combines T-mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular by switching to whichever network is faster in the background. Outside of the US, Project Fi connects to local carriers that have contracts with Google. I had great LTE service within five minutes of landing in Japan. The plan is also very affordable, just $20 for basic text and call services with $10 per gigabyte of data. The only downside to Project Fi is that it’s only available for Nexus phones at the moment.

Japan’s Unique Technology Culture

Train Travel: I was able to easily navigate Tokyo’s complex rail system using Google Maps. Trains dominate transportation in Japan. Shinkansen, or bullet trains, travel all over Japan and often leave on the second. They run every few minutes and can be boarded without a reservation.

Tokyo's train system

Deciphering Menus

Google Translate helped me to figure out what to order at restaurants that lacked menus with English or photos. I was also able to translate Japanese text by taking a photo of it with Google Translate.

Staying Social

The social media landscape is similar to the US, but Japan’s dominant social app is Line. It is a direct messaging app with similarities to Facebook. However, the biggest differences include not needing to confirm your identity (to the same degree as Facebook) and the app is optimized for messaging and purchasing themes and stickers.

Major entertainment brands from gaming, anime, and Disney have stickers and themes that people can purchase. Stickers are images or animated memes that people can send to friends. Popular sticker packs include Winnie the Pooh, My Neighbor Totoro, and Pokemon. Line also has several different ways to add friends that include shaking your device, scanning a QR code, or sharing a username. The app also does not require a password or email for the initial sign up, which makes getting started very easy.

For the Love of Pokemon

Like the US, Japan loves Pokemon Go. I walked into Kinshi park, near the center of Tokyo, at night to see hundreds of grown adults and teens playing Pokemon Go. Since Pokemon Go was released in the US a few weeks before it was released in Japan, my friend reached a high level before arriving in Japan. One the app was only released for a two days in Japan, my friend happened to show his level to several high school students. They were deeply impressed with his progression in the game and proclaimed that he was strong.

Playing Pokemon in Kinshi Park

Relying on Cash

Japan is a cash society. When traveling in America, I use a slim wallet that holds about 5-7 cards. I do not carry cash. On the other hand, in Japan cash is an essential to purchasing food and goods at most places. It is possible to use train cards to pay for food and products at many places like convenience stores and vending machines.

As a traveler, it would be nice if all payment terminals gained compatibility with phone payment systems, like Android Pay and Apple Pay, resulting in a revolutionized payment structure.

It is theoretically possible to use a phone in public transportation. Tap your phone at the gate and you could be through the system with NFC technology.
We’re inching closer to this becoming a reality with modular smartphones, like Google’s Project Ara.

Technology Ubiquity Outside of Travel

California, Iowa, and Delaware are currently considering or experimenting with digital driver’s licenses. In the future, we may only need to carry an app that has your official government identification. Could this include digital passports someday?

My bet is that it will take a while. Even when I have a digital boarding pass for Air Canada, the staff often end up printing one out since it does not have the gate information. Although, Google Now has been pretty accurate about displaying gate and scheduling information when I am at the airport since it knows my flights by reading my email.

The greatest difficulty to that method is battery life. When I traveled around, I had to carry a heavy battery back to keep my phone charged. For phones to be dependable to carry all critical information, they need batteries that can handle days of constant use between charges. They also need to be slightly more rugged so they could be dropped on the ground or in water without breaking.

The cellphones of the future

What are some of your favorite travel apps? How have they changed the way you travel?

Let us know in a comment below.