I’d like to contrast the mobile technology I had during the first and latest time I was in Japan. It’s fun to reminisce! But having google maps was completely transformative on my holiday experience.

First trip, 2007

The first time I went to Japan was in 2007 and I was there for 6 months on a Working Holiday Visa. At the very start I never had any working phone at all as the mobile networks over there were unbelievably strict compared to UK. At the time, there was no such thing as a Pay As You Go SIM and you had to be a resident to get a phone! It was possible to get a foreigner SIM card that could do phone calls and email (Japanese used email instead of SMS), but they were crazy expensive and only for up to a month.

I had a printout of the hand-drawn map to get to my first hostel, in Asakusa, Tokyo. After getting out of the train station, I ended up having to ask at a Family Mart (they didn’t know) and then at the Tourist Information which, luckily, was right next to the station to even know what way up the map was supposed to be! After orienting myself I was finally able to find out where to go. It was less than a 20 minute walk in the end, but that took a good hour to find it 

After being in the country for a few days and finding a guest house to stay at, I managed to get a Japanese feature phone that flipped open and had keypad buttons. It could make phone calls, do email and had an English to Japanese dictionary built in!

Whenever I left my guest house room to go anywhere, I had to first find the place using Google Maps on my laptop. I remember the room I stayed in didn’t even have wifi! It was Ethernet only and I had to go to the local department store to buy a cable! After finding a place in Google Maps, I had to then search for the nearest train station’s name and then search for it in a Japanese train listings website, called hyperdia. This then brought up a list of possible routes in text form, so I had to order by price or time in order to get the most appropriate route, and then take a picture of it using my digital camera. Because I lived in Tokorozawa, the outskirts, almost every journey required at minimum 2 trains on different train companies, so knowing in advance which stations and train line names was essential.

During the journey I had to constantly check the camera pictures to know where I was supposed to go, and also the train maps on each train to work out how many stations to go.

After getting out at the final station, I had to then refer to the final walking directions on my camera to get to the final location. That usually meant having to first find a map outside and then orientate my camera screen to the signpost map. Luckily Japan has maps everywhere and they are almost always orientated to the direction you are facing, not north. That made it easier for me to orientate my camera and then I could get my bearings. If I was lucky I was on the correct side of the train station. Otherwise I had a trek to get back into the station and get to the other side to determine where to go.

It was a hectic time, but that was all I knew. And I was thankful even these things existed, because without my laptop in my room, how would I have gotten any information at all! The camera provided a quick and convenient way of seeing the information I collected from the computer before leaving.

Latest Trip, 2019

Fast forward to my last trip in Japan, from November 2019 to February 2020. Landing in Kansai International for the first time. I took my 4G phone with me from back home, and bought a Pay As You Go Data Sim Card (3gb for 60 days) from the airport. A pretty tight data allowance (I had to be strict on my daily allowance, so no streaming and no youtube, although these weren’t locked out, one time I had a PAYG SIM that did actually stop streaming and Skype) but web pages and Google Maps would be no problem.

Taking the train to my first hostel was a breeze. Use the airport wifi to check my email, get the address and open in Google Maps. It automatically gave me the train and walking directions, and even saved it in my phone so I could access it without mobile data.

The GPS took me straight there. 2 trains, underground changes, and the phone even vibrated to remind me when to get off the train. After I checked in, I got some sleep and then used the phone to find a MacDonalds the next day for a coffee. I could then just search for ‘things to do’ and it immediately came up with activities within walking distance, zoom out and it was within the city. And all with directions, reviews and opening times.

No matter how lost I became in Osaka, the phone would tell me where I was and how to find civilization. On the 2nd day I was able to find a really amazing waterfall about an hour north of the city. I used the phone to record my trip and then edit and upload to YouTube.

Difference between 2007 and 2019.

The experience difference between the two was unbelievable. The first time I had to meticulously plan a trip before starting, whereas with the 4G phone I could just step out with a general inclination and find things to do on the go. My geek mind would of course say the 2nd scenario is more enjoyable, because it helped me to find exactly what was good, and then take me there. However, in some ways the sense of adventure and spontaneity was gone. The phone just told me where to go, and then I followed a line on my phone to get there. Of course I could have just put the phone away, but if it’s right there and I’m trying to get somewhere, then I found it irresistible to pull out the phone and have it tell me where to go.

A British couple I met in Tokyo brought up this issue too. They had been in Tokyo for 3 months, but never went out with a phone. They said it allowed them to wonder about and take in the sights far better as they wouldn’t find themselves dependent on the phone’s map!

It was such a huge difference in experience between the two. The first time did feel more adventurous but I often got lost or was late to meet people. I remember considering it to be some huge achievement to find even the first hostel in Tokyo I was staying in. And a day trip consisted of walking round the block! But there was so much to take in. I was looking all around, looking for signs to help, and being wary of not being able to get back to where I was staying. When inevitably I got lost, trying to retrace my steps, or getting hungry and just stopping off at whatever restaurant I could find. 

Contrast that to my 2019 time. A new city (I had lived in Tokyo for 2 years, but visited Osaka maybe twice) but I was immediately off to a running start, going directly to the places I wanted to visit. But I never had any sense of nervousness because I could just look down and my phone would tell me if I was on track and where to go if I wasn’t. I was very easily able to find my favourite burger restaurant (Kuai Aina) and not have to settle for whatever was around but the sense of adventure was gone. I was able to plot a walking trip from Umeda train station down to Namba and know it was a 55 minute walk, and be guaranteed to get to my hostel straight after the walk, as I stayed near Shinsekai. It was a nice walk by all means, but would it have been better if I didn’t always have a line on a screen tell me where to go and how long into the journey I was?

A comparison might be in GTA 5 vs Yakuza games. When you are driving round, GTA gives you a map and a GPS line to follow. Simple, you just follow the line to get to where you want to go. In Yakuza, you are in a small pedestrian district, with no line. You can access the map to get a locator, showing your position and the destination, but walking there provides no on-screen help. My memory of the area in the Yakuza game is far more vivid than the sprawling areas in GTA 5. Both amazing experiences, but even now it’s hard for me to choose the better one. There was a huge range of different things and areas to see in GTA5, but yet also a whole lot of nothingness in between. It’s not that there actually was nothing, but I just spent my time going between places just following a line on the GPS. Yakuza was absolutely jam-packed in every corner of its small map, even getting to a point of just knowing where to go based on a street name or shop.

I think in real life I am more happy with how things are now, because we now live in a new age of accessibility that allows us to quickly zero in on what we want, but I am still grateful for the experiences of small wonders, just aimlessly walking about and coming across some fun streets, sights and restaurants that I wouldn’t otherwise have found. They were good times

App recommendation

Google Maps! For the reason above

Youtube Reccommendation

Rambalac https://www.youtube.com/c/Rambalac/ These are a collection of high resolution walking videos, mostly around Tokyo, between stations, but also in the countryside and also other major cities and tourist places. Theres no narration or speaking. Just the ambient noises of the surroundings. Especially during the Lockdown time, it’s great to put on a walking video on the big TV and take in the sights and new places in the city I once lived in. It’s an interesting place just to wander about and see what’s there

Share Button