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Living in Japan: There’s an app for that

by Rick Martin

As 2010 draws to a close, smartphone use in Japan has risen to an all-time high, accounting for around 50 percent of all handset sales here. Yet it shames this columnist to admit that I’m still rockin’ an old Windows 6.1 phone — insofar as a Windows 6.1 phone can be rocked at all — because as someone who writes a lot I’m still very much tethered to my laptop. So, in an effort to discover which applications Japan-based smartphone users have loved this year, I decided to ask a variety of people which are their favorites and why. The valuable insights they’ve shared tell me that I might not be able to put off buying a smartphone any longer.

Smarter navigation

Whether using Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android, for newcomers to Japan there have never been more tools available to help you get around. Train route apps abound, including both Jorudan and Ekitan that have applications available for iPhone and iPod touch. In November, Hyperdia — in addition to having a route-search app for iPad and iPhone — released Hyperdia Lite, an application for Android. Android users can also opt for Japan Trains, a popular train route tool that works especially well for tourists because it doesn’t require any Japanese reading skills.

Travelers should also enjoy a couple of apps from developer LucSens, Japan Goggles and Lost in Japan seemingly miraculous applications that allow users to take photos of Japanese words to get an English translation. LucSens founder Iulian Florea explains that the apps even work for vertical text: “You just turn the phone to the right and the whole interface changes to a vertical one.”

When it comes to finding places of interest to visit, there are more than a few apps that can serve as your pocket Yellow Pages here in Japan. Sandra Barron, trend writer at Japan Pulse, recommends the Tabelog app for smartphone users in search of a place to eat: “Just tell it what kind of food you’re looking for, and it can use your GPS to map what’s nearby and give you info about the places,” she says.

Similarly Sekai Camera, an augmented reality application that annotates the world around you with practical notes, can be a great guide as well. It’s particularly useful, especially now that the developer Tonchidot has brought in new content from external providers. Location-based notes from restaurant sites Gurunavi and Hot Pepper, as well as real-estate services such as HOME’S and SUUMO can now all be viewed superimposed over the image as you look at the world through your smartphone camera.

Another great guide app that utilizes GPS is Tokyo Art Beat (TAB), which searches out art galleries in your vicinity, lists reviews of the exhibitions and gives directions using Google maps. Having launched back in February, the app was recently named “Most Downloaded App in 2010″ in the Japanese App Store’s Lifestyle category. The folks at Tokyo Art Beat have also developed a museum coupon application, cleverly named Mupon, which as you might expect offers great discount coupons to many of the best museums all over the city.

Smarter Japanese study

For those of us trying to master the local language, technology has completely overhauled our study methods in recent years. Students prone to carrying around pocket dictionaries (of book or electronic varieties) would do well to look at Kotaba, a multilingual Japanese dictionary app for iOS which was recommended by a number of people I spoke to.

Tsukuba University grad student and blogger at HashTagMag Eboni Staton says that she can’t live without the application simply named “Japanese,” which she describes as a “comprehensive dictionary and great study tool for help with all levels of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Text).” At ¥1,200 it is expensive compared to the many free dictionaries out there, but for serious students it might be worth the investment.

Android users in search of a smartphone dictionary need look no further than JED, a Japanese-English dictionary which comes strongly recommended by local system administrator and Android enthusiast Kyle Hasegawa. The app contains entries from Jim Breen’s Edict and Kanjidic2 websites, so students familiar with these will be pleased to have them to-go.

Tokyo-based iOS and Android specialist Mark Hiratsuka recommends Rikai Browser (for iPad and iPhone), which gives pop-up annotations translating selected words. The app’s developer, Long Weekend, also makes Japanese Flash, a slick-looking flash card application to help with your language study. Mark also recommends Wakaru, a web browser and e-book reader with similar functions to the Rikai Browser.

For kanji reference, Ashley Thompson, who writes the Surviving in Japan blog, points us to Shinkanji for iOS which allows you to search for kanji by entering the English or, and perhaps more useful, by writing it on your screen with your finger. There’s also a radicals search and support for useful lists, like categories of kanji corresponding to JLPT levels. Ashley recommends Katsuyo as well, which is a useful application for practicing verb conjugation.

Ask the locals

It should come as no surprise that many of the apps people chose as their favorites are not always Japan specific, proving that app stores know no borders and truly remarkable apps can succeed anywhere. Even in Japan, Angry Birds are wreaking havoc.

The recently popular Instagram, a “life-sharing photo app,” is favored by Japanese users too. Instagram has a number of photo filters that allow you to take unique-looking photographs to share with friends. Graphic designer Akiko Hayashi loves it because “You can easily create art pieces anywhere, anytime and upload them right away. It also has a social network feature. It’s fun and inspiring.”

Incidentally, Instagram was recently named number one on Techcrunch.com’s Top 40 iPhone apps of 2010.

For shutterbugs on Android there’s picplz (it’s on iOS too), an application similar to Instagram which community manager and writer Satoka Fujita finds handy. She explains that “one good point is that you can also see the original photos without the filter effect on the web” after it has been uploaded.

Another application that has made it’s way into Japan is the Ustream viewing application, obviously a consequence of SoftBank’s investment and promotion of the Ustream service domestically. Local iPhone artist and musician Craftwife (who makes incredible music on her iPhone!) remarks that she tunes in to live broadcasts quite regularly using this app: “Dommune is a very powerful Ustream music channel. They broadcast a nice music program almost every weekday night. Who could have predicted that people could watch exciting live music on this small device?”

Odds and ends

The Simplenote note-taking application was recommended by a number of people, including industrial designer Juho Viitasalo who lives in Osaka. “Simplenote makes sure that I never forget an idea or a thought. It is fast and simple and that is why it feels like I have an assistant to whom I can tell my ideas.”

Likewise, film director and Hitotsubashi University MBA candidate Ryan Wong says it’s great “for longer notes, like ideas for papers, presentation outlines, and price comparisons.”

Writer and designer Craig Mod, coauthor of “Art Space Tokyo,” lists the Amazon Kindle app for iOS as his favorite, noting that it “shows how real cloud sync and seamless integration should work for content and marginalia between multiple devices.”

Rounding out the rest: It was a little difficult to present all the recommendations that people sent my way, but if you’d like to see the complete list of apps online, simply visit www.bit.ly/jtappslist.

Needless to say, as much as I’ve been tempted to take the plunge and finally pick up a smartphone before, I’m considering a new year’s purchase right now. I really don’t think I can wait until Santa’s next visit.

Rick Martin is a contributor to Gizmag.com. Read more of his work at 1rick.com.