US Smartphone Coverage in Japan
If you're currently on either T-mobile or Sprint's phone plan, you're in luck. For most plans, both companies offer free text and 2g basic data roaming in Japan.
Sprint also offers a 3g unlimited data + text + phone plan for $5 more a month. Our family is on Sprint, so the choice was a no-brainer. We tacked on the add-on (which, for the record, they tell me is not pro-rated but monthly) for the mere cost of a few dollars each. As far as I can tell from our first bill after use, it's exactly as advertised. Everything was covered. Before leaving, I thought I wouldn't need phone services, but after departing, found that the ability to call either Japan or the US without charge was a real plus. I probably made a half-dozen calls within the country in the span of one week, as well as a few more back to the US.
If you use Sprint's add-on, you'll receive instructions for changing from CDMA to GSM, the international standard. You'll then connect to Japan telecom powerhouse Softbank, which, in 2013, acquired a controlling stake in Sprint. Softbank's coverage of Japan is ubiquitous. Even in Kamikochi, a remote mountainous region of Japan, we received clear signal. The only real adjustment I needed to make was to conserve more battery than I normally would: roaming takes extra energy.
As far as other cellular carriers, our traveling companions checked with Verizon, whose $40 plan included a scant 100kb of data alongside an equally scant 200 texts received or sent. AT&T has a $40 passport plan that includes unlimited text, 200MB of data and access at hotspots in urban areas like Tokyo and Osaka. As with all phone plans, terms are subject to change, so be sure to inquire directly.
A friend recently commented that it seemed everyone from Hawaii was going to Japan in the near future. As it so happens, in addition to our own traveling party, another group of friends was also in Japan. They used a hotspot rented in Hawaii. Hotspots are portable internet-connected units; you use wi-fi on your phone to connect to it. On their smartphones, they connected the app "line", for texting and voice. As it also so happens, a Tokyo-based friend mentioned the free app's popularity in Japan. I didn't personally research the cost of the hotspot, but Don Quijote and vicinity have stores specializing in them, which they advertise at a cost as low as $4 a day. A big benefit of hotspots is that more than one phone can connect to it at once.
You can also rent SIM chips while in Japan, but my own personal inclination would be to forego this option. You'd have to look around for a chip once you got there, complete the transaction in a foreign language (for most of us), and hope that it worked. I also did not think that the cost was less than that of using a service purchased ahead of time. If you are planning to stay for several months, perhaps the SIM option would make more sense for you.
Japan Travel Apps - Top 5
We're mostly an iOS family, with the exception of me, Ms. Android. Most of these apps, with the exception of the offline Japanese dictionary JED, are dual-platform.
1. Hyperdia - Transit Navigator
If you're planning to go anywhere by mass transit in Japan, you need this app. Type in the departure place and the arrival destination to get your choices. By default, it assumes you're leaving now, but you can always change the time by pressing the detail button. If you're limited to certain types of travel, say Japan Railway (JR), or Shinkansen, you can also select just the modes you want. Likewise, the results default to time as being the most important, but again, you can also choose between least transfers or money expended. This is a very flexible app with excellent functionality.
2. Pokémon GO - Game (& Navigator)
I don't play, but the kids do and they saw a number of landmarks they wouldn't have if they weren't playing the game. At least it made them look up and appreciate the natural wonder of (1) A Mario pipe, smack dab in the middle of Ikebukuro (2) A giant robot building, and (3) genuine natural wonders that showed up on the map as landmarks. Additionally, the app's GPS is pretty good, often kicking in where Google Maps didn't. We were occasionally able to navigate our way from lost to found via Pokémon GO. Sadly, however, no one caught the region-exclusive Farfetch'd.
3. Google Translate - Character Translator
I didn't use it as often as I thought I would, but for those difficult Kanji, it's a quick and easy way to research the character. The translation isn't always right, but the meaning of the character almost always is. Just point, shoot and translate. Given the level of noise in Tokyo, I have doubts that sound-based portions of the app would have worked. Still, for visual recognition, it's helpful.
4. ATM Navi by Seven Bank - ATM (Money) Locator
Money exchange is amazingly easy through 7-11 ATMs in Japan. The Hawaii State Federal Credit Union only charges 1% for VISA debit card use, and Seven Bank doesn't seem to have a surcharge. Additionally, 7-11 ATMs are ubiquitous. Seven Bank's highly functional app for finding ATMs works well even in the middle of Tokyo city, where GPS can often be spotty. As both a money finder and street finder, this is a five-star app.
5. JED for Android - Japanese/English Offline Dictionary
Apple lovers, you're out of luck. JED is strictly for Android. If you're on iOS, use Jisho.org through your browser for translation. If you're on Android, use JED for speed and simplicity. Offline apps are reliable, even where internet access is not available. Additionally, it's faster to load and uses fewer resources (i.e. battery). I used this app more than a few times. It's good to be able to look something up right away while it's still fresh in your mind.
Finally. a couple of notes
City-dwellers will tell you not to count on GPS in the midst of tall buildings. Tokyo is no exception to this rule. Different apps seem to have varying levels of accuracy, and sometimes more than one app is needed in order to figure out exactly where you are. Throughout the course of our trip, we used a number of GPS-enabled apps, including the ones above. We also used Google Maps from time to time, but found that because the text was usually in Japanese, inputting a desired location in English wasn't as effective as it is here.
Another point to make is that certain sites are region-restricted, meaning you may not be able to access all of the US sites while in Japan. Keep this in mind when you travel and don't expect that your bank, etc. . . will allow you to conduct business as usual. I'm a fan of VPN for both encryption and for masking originating location, but not all smartphone users will have access to a VPN service.
Lastly, don't forget to look up from your smartphone from time to time. Japan is a beautiful country, and a smartphone is just a tool.
I give myself a low B-
Earlier, I had written about why I thought world language in high school was a questionable endeavor. To prove my point, I spent an entire year actively studying Japanese to see how far it would take me. The "final exam" was a one-week trip to Tokyo to see if my studies allowed me to communicate effectively.
I surmised that 30 minutes a day of study would give me reasonable proficiency to communicate. Throughout the year, everywhere I went I took my app-loaded smartphone so I could steal a few free moments from each day to learn Japanese. Our trip recently concluded and I'll give myself a B-. My traveling companions give me an A. My son gives me an A. Maybe that's all that counts to me. For him, having seen the results of my studies gave him the proof he needed. He's had to drop his "it's impossible" attitude when it comes to the subject.
As for me, there is a little disappointment because 30 minutes a day just wasn't enough to be as proficient as I had hoped. I thought I would be able to get through all 36 lessons on Japanese audio flashcards by year's end. Instead I only got through 16 and I still feel as though I need to review the last five of those. It helps that the Japanese people are so patient. It also helps that they can empathize with me because English is a mandatory subject in Japan.
Perhaps the point about empathy may be the strongest argument for learning a foreign language. With teens, however, I doubt it has much impact. Growing up, I recall being somewhat xenophobic and making fun of foreigners' English. I never really drew the connection between that and the fact that I struggled through both French and Japanese as a high schooler. Maybe as educators, we need to press the point more.
Getting around Japan
For what it's worth, I surprised myself. On our arrival, we got lost. I was able to stop in at a 7-11 convenience store and ask for directions. Importantly, I was able to understand those directions. With a combination of that information and Google Maps, we found our ryokan (Japanese-style inn).
On the second day, I didn't use as much Japanese as I would on the rest of our trip. Instead, we eased our way into the Country by meeting up with a American friend living in Tokyo. Still, that morning I did use some Japanese at the restaurant we had breakfast at beforehand, and I did use it to read signs. As it turns out, learning both hiragana and katakana is a tremendous help in Tokyo. I'd say that a great number, perhaps even a majority, of signs can be figured out using just kana (character-style writing). Additionally, the transit systems all include the use of hiragana and katakana in addition to traditional kanji. These days, they often provide English translations as well, but some of the station signs remain in Japanese only.
By the third day, I was much more comfortable speaking Japanese. Words came out without the usual hesitation. On this, I definitely credit the free audioflash card series. Honestly, I can't say enough about Roger Lake's amazing learning tool. Throughout the day, I would use Japanese to communicate with others. For instance, at dinner, I was able to ask what certain sushi items were, and I was able to request other items not visible on the menu. It was the first time I had tried tsubugai (whelk) and it was certainly useful to know what it was I just ate (especially because it was incredibly delicious).
On the fourth day, I had a much better idea of what I was and was not capable of communicating. I used my new skills at the Midori Madoguchi (train service center) to ask, in Japanese, for directions to their foreigners' service center. I needed to request reserved seats on a limited express train to Matsumoto, a train station several hours outside of Tokyo. I preferred to do it in English to be sure I got it right. The next day, however, I would use Japanese to figure out how to get back after having missed our train back from Matsumoto to Tokyo.
On the sixth day, I was tired of following my husband and son to their favorite restaurant. I can't say my son is a prodigy when it comes to foreign language, but he is a smartphone prodigy: he quickly figured out how to use Pokemon Go to get to his preferred food choice. That day, my daughter and I ate across the street at a restaurant where not only was the menu in Japanese, there were no pictures accompanying it. Still, we were able to order soba and I was also able to ask one of the patrons what his meal was called. As it turns out, "asa soba" is a morning special. You get one of four choices of soba dishes for the amazing price of ¥330, or approximately $3. I'm not sure if was the actual meal that tasted so wonderful, or the sweet taste of victory.
You must have a natural gift for language
I've uttered these words before to others. Now, I'm mildly insulted by them. Still, those that say "You must have a natural gift for language," are people who just don't fully understand the dynamics behind learning a new language. You don't just wake up one day and know words. You need to be exposed to them in context over and over again before they make sense.
Instead of being hurt however, I see these conversations as an opening to convince people that if you really want something bad enough, you will figure out a way to get to it. I also reflect that we live in an amazing world where our phones can be everything from toys to tools.
It helps to have had others blaze the path before. Perhaps most inspiring for me was my son's former Japanese teacher at Niu Valley. She learned Japanese in college by constantly exposing herself to every opportunity for listening and speaking. My son's current instructor is also a second language learner and inspiring to him. There have been a few others too: friends who learned after several less successful attempts before.
Still, the majority of people I speak to are those who took the usual Japanese language school curriculum: the afterschool program every hopeful nisei parent enrolls his child in. These same students are the ones who go on to take high-school Japanese, get an easy A, but are no closer to speaking and communicating than before. That in itself serves as a "lesson" for those that are reluctant to apply themselves to begin with. Firstly they don't get that opportunity at an easy A because of those that have more background, and secondly because it doesn't seem to have amounted to much anyway.
Ambivalence plus a word to International Baccalaurate coordinators
I'm still on the fence over whether foreign language should be a high school subject. In a world where there is so much to new to learn, does it make sense to spend time on a subject many will never use even if taught at a level where it can be used?
The International Baccalaureate (IB) program prides itself on world scope. World language is a requirement. Might I suggest that the IB school year be divided differently? Perhaps 5/6 of the school year can be dedicated to traditional teaching with 1/6 of the year dedicated to language immersion. Surely that would be more beneficial to the goal. Further, perhaps only one language -- the foreign language most prevalent in the area -- ought to be taught.
Logistically, such a proposal is a nightmare. Where would you get instructors for the language portion of the year? What about the regular curriculum instructors? Should they also be required to interact in the world language unit? Yet, in the grand scheme of things, 1/6 of the Hawaii public school year dedicated to foreign language immersion amounts to the same amount of time I spent last year learning rudimentary Japanese. In week terms, 1/6 of the school year in Hawaii is only slightly more than four weeks.
Returning to the subject of my own learning, where do I go from here? Do I continue my studies or do I end them?
I have at least a few opportunities to use Japanese in Hawaii. My own mother who gave up on me learning Japanese many years ago, has been helping out lately by speaking to me in Japanese. It is grossly inefficient, but I'm glad she's willing to do it. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to join in on the conversation between my mother and my uncle and aunty. They were surprised, to say the least. Yet, sometimes I feel as though it's the equivalent of David Letterman's stupid people tricks: nifty but not necessary.
Ultimately, I think I will continue on with my Japanese language studies. It's a great mind exercise, not unlike crossword puzzles, which some would also argue serve no purpose. Perhaps I may -- not this year, but next -- attempt the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) for no other reason than the famous mountaineer credo, "because it's there."
October 15, 2016 - A former administrative assistant for the company that owns the Hawaii Kai Shopping Center is facing charges that she forged hundreds of checks to steal $286,000 from her employer. An Oahu grand jury returned an indictment Wednesday charging Adrienne M. Saffery with first-degree theft and 203 counts of forgery. The indictment also charges Saffery's husband, Lyle, with first-degree theft and 96 counts of forgery. Circuit Judge Colette Garibaldi set bail for the Safferys at $100,000 each. [Star Advertiser - library card required]
October 14, 2016 - DOE reminds parents that applications for the Preschool Open Doors program are due Oct. 31 for January-July 2017 term. The program provides subsidies to qualifying families for preschool tuition and the opportunity to gain essential skills to be successful in school and in life. Income eligibility limits apply. Children must be born between August 1, 2011 and July 31, 2012. Details & application: http://www.patchhawaii.org/families/paying/preschool
October 12, 2016 - Kamaka Ukulele becomes the first musical instrument manufacturer in Hawaii to reach its 100 year anniversary. In 1916 Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka established the Kamaka ‘Ukulele and Guitar Works in the cellar of his home on 5th Avenue in Kaimuki. The Honolulu Star Advertiser recalls its illustrious history. [Star-Advertiser]
October 11, 2016 - Hola Mexican Cantina Bar and Grill now hiring for Hawaii Kai Shopping Center location [Craigslist]
October 10, 2016 - After four months, Gyotaku restaurants have dropped their 4 percent kitchen-service charge after complaints from customers. Gyotaku operates four restaurants on Oahu, including one in Niu Valley. [PBN]
October 6, 2016 - Crosswalks; bus stops could be removed in Aina Haina. A proposed crosswalk and bus stop removal will be focused on a small stretch of Kalanianaole highway in Aina Haina. The study was brought on by safety issues after two separate pedestrian deaths. Right now, there are three crosswalks with no traffic lights between Waa and Kaai streets. The state is proposing to get rid of those, and the city is also thinking about taking away four nearby bus stops, a fifth would be relocated. [KHON]
October 4, 2016 - OK Poultry has returned to the Kaiser HS Farmer's Market on Tuesdays. The farm fresh eggs are a popular item among local residents.
September 30, 2016 - Honolulu Police Department (HPD) warns residents on law enforcement imposters. “A local male approached a Hawaii Kai residence, knocked on the door, relayed he was an officer with HPD,” said Sgt. Jerome Pacarro, Honolulu Police Department. The impersonator told the 95-year-old would-be victim he wanted to install a surveillance system in the home, but the man did not let him in. “For these kind of situations, please, please keep the door locked, and talk through the peephole through the door,” Pacarro said. [KHON]
September 26, 2016 - The Waimanalo Beach Park campground will be closed starting Wednesday, Oct. 5, to allow Department of Parks and Recreation crews to improve the campsites. Camping at Waimanalo Bay Beach Park and Bellows Field Beach Park will remain open during this time. The improvements at Waimanalo Beach Park include cleaning, landscaping, installing new bench tables and conducting maintenance. [KHON]
September 26, 2016 -Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and city officials are under fire from a nonprofit organization for “the continuing misuses of admission fees paid by visitors to Hanauma Bay.”
“The simple reality is that the City has intentionally, and persistently, misused these funds in violation of court rulings,” attorneys Paul Alston and Michael Purpura said in a seven-page letter to Mayor Kirk Caldwell that they sent on behalf of Friends of Hanauma Bay. [Civil Beat] This article was followed by an October 30, 2016 Op-Ed from Civil Beat, "Honolulu Should Audit Hanauma Bay Fund, Repay Any Misused Cash"
September 26, 2016 -Just around the corner from Makapuu, the turquoise ocean water is inviting and the view offshore stunning. The sight along one section of beach is also stunning -- but in a completely different way. Several areas are strewn with broken bottles, fragments of furniture, and lots of leftover litter. The group "808 Cleanup" alerted us to the piles of trash. It plans to help clear the coastline of rubbish in the coming weeks. [KITV]
September 23, 2016 - The state Department of Health sent a Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response (HEER) team to look into the discovery of discarded syringes at an East Oahu Beach Friday. Workers combed the beach near Makai Research Pier looking for anything that may have been missed. [KHON]
Tyson Foods has recalled more than 130,000 pounds of precooked chicken nuggets due to a concern that the product may be "contaminated with hard plastic," the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service announced Tuesday.
The Class I recall — which indicates the highest level of risk — applies to the following products:
- 5-pound bags of Tyson Fully Cooked Panko Chicken Nuggets with a "Best If Used By" date of July 18, 2017 and case code 2006SDL03 and 2006SDL33, and distributed nationally
- 20-pound packages containing "Spare Time Fully Cooked, Panko Chicken Nuggets, Nugget Shaped Chicken Breast Pattie Fritters With Rib Meat" with a production date of July 18, 2016 and case code 2006SDL03 and shipped for institutional use in Pennsylvania. [source:USDA]