Visiting Japan presents some difficulties—most of which stem from the language barrier. Japan's use of Kanji characters makes it harder for us Westerners to read maps, train schedules, and even menus just by the recognition of words or letters. Here are five apps that will make your travel to the beautiful Land of the Rising Sun go that much smoother.
Tokyo Travel Guide and Offline City Map (free): Tokyo is a huge city made up of many different neighborhoods. So big that it is impossible to fit it all on a simple paper map for tourists. Having offline access to a city map is the key to figuring out where you are and where you need to go. This app uses Open Street Map for plans of the city and even includes an offline searchable function for numerous points of interest, shops, restaurants, and nightclubs.
Tokyo Rail Map Lite (free): Even though the Tokyo subway is nicely color coded and pretty straightforward to navigate, this app gives you offline access to the entire system, including connection information about each station. One online feature that comes in handy is the route calculator. Type in your starting and ending stations, then the app will tell you how to get there.
Imiwa? (free): While most restaurants offer English menus, understanding packaging or trying to ask for something in Japanese can be next to impossible. This Kanji-English dictionary proves invaluable when traveling around the country. We used it many times to ask for something in a pharmacy, understand what kind of food we were buying in a grocery store, how to use the high-tech toilet, or even to figure out which buttons to push on the ATM-style ordering machines in casual restaurants. The app even offers up five different levels of vocabulary lessons.
Hyperdia (free with in-app purchases): The Japanese rail system can be absolutely maddening to figure out, and unless you know the exact train time and platform number you need at each station, you can easily get lost. To make matters worse, the JR Lines app comes only in Japanese. The Hyperdia train timetable app lets you plan your trip by either typing in or even speaking your intended route and time of day for travel.
Maido ($3.99): This app is for your iPad and a good one to study closely before you head out on your trip to Japan. Learn the meaning of 77 gestures so you can be sure not to offend anyone when you arrive and be able to communicate even without speaking much Japanese. The fun illustrative photos themselves are worth the price of the app.