Wanna surf the web for free in Tokyo? It’s finally time to catch the wave. Along with an influx of foreign tourists, Japan is seeing an explosion in wireless internet spots.

These days, it seems you can’t walk 100 meters in without seeing a “free Wi-Fi” sign of some sort in central Tokyo. Visitors and Tokyoites alike have thousands of access points to choose from, emanating via everything from vending machines to bullet trains. Users no longer have to rely on the generosity of hotels or internet cafes. Wi-Fi is now a top-down affair: some of the largest municipal and commercial groups in Japan are working together to make Wi-Fi an essential piece of infrastructure.

Wi-Fi wasteland

This represents something of a sea change for the Japanese capital. Six years ago, if you were a tourist and you wanted to get online outside your hotel without a local SIM card, you were pretty much screwed unless, like a desert wanderer stumbling upon an oasis, you found an obliging coffee shop.

“Tokyo is a Wi-Fi wasteland,” fellow Japan Times contributor Matt Alt noted in 2010, attributing the dearth of signal to the early spread of sophisticated mobile phones and 3G services, which took care of most mobile demand. But when smartphones and other mobile devices began flooding the market after 2009, demand outstripped supply. Foreign visitors turned to travel forums such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree website to get information on where they could get online.

Many Tokyoites looking to save on data costs still turn to old wireless standbys in the capital, including Apple stores, the Wired Cafe chain and Starbucks. The experience, however, can be disappointing.

“Primarily I’ve used public Wi-Fi at Starbucks but also in the Marui department stores,” says Jason Muell, a translator living in Tokyo. “I’ve also used it at a variety of cafes (Tully’s, etc.), but generally the experience is pretty poor. The vast majority of the time, ‘free Wi-Fi’ is actually ‘branded Wi-Fi’ for SoftBank Group Corp., KDDI Corp. or NTT Docomo Inc. and not available to the public. What’s worse, they generally all have landing pages and auto-timeout options, Marui being with worst, with only 30 minutes of free Wi-Fi before booting you. That said, Narita Airport has pretty good Wi-Fi access. Every time I’ve gone, I’ve always been impressed with their coverage over most of the airport.”

Online at the Olympics

Tokyo is now swimming in hot spots, thanks in no small part to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Olympics has had its fair share of scandal, including allegations of illicit payments in the bidding process, but it has helped spread wireless internet with surprising speed. While they aren’t involved in infrastructure building per se, the organizers see Wi-Fi access in competition venues and surrounding areas as extremely important.

“The setting up of Wi-Fi networks in public spaces in the vicinity of games venues is beyond the remit of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, but we are hopeful that the public and private sectors will work together to provide such facilities,” says committee spokesperson Hikariko Ono. The committee is also looking into collaborations on network access authorization requirements between the different Wi-Fi providers of Wi-Fi networks in and around games competition venues.

“The Organizing Committee is more directly involved in the setting up of Wi-Fi networks in games competition venues, and will request the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and other games venue owners to set up Wi-Fi networks that users will still be able to access after the Tokyo 2020 Games,” Ono says. “Such networks will serve as post-games legacies.”

Get connected: Shinagawa Season Terrace in Tokyo offers customers a free wireless internet connection.
Get connected: Shinagawa Season Terrace in Tokyo offers customers a free wireless internet connection. | MICHAEL PENN

The other agent of change is, of course, inbound tourism. There were nearly 20 million foreign travelers who visited Japan last year. The figure was a leap of almost 50 percent from 2014, and the government now expects 40 million by 2020 when the games will be held.

“This isn’t just because of the 2020 Olympics — we’ve seen an upsurge in the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan,” says Shintaro Ogi, an official working on Wi-Fi strategy in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. “We’ve provided municipalities with subsidies accounting for half the cost of Wi-Fi access points used for tourism as well as emergencies such as natural disasters.”

The ministry doesn’t know how many free Wi-Fi spots there are in Tokyo but Ogi says there could be some 1 million set up by mobile carriers across the country. He adds that the government has focused on increasing access to Wi-Fi over the past two to three years.

Wireless in the park

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is one of many entities that has been pushing to open up wireless. In December 2015, the TMG launched a group of wireless local area networks (WLANs) that operate under the ID FREE_Wi-Fi_and_TOKYO. The service is free, with no time limits for up to two weeks. The only constraints are the need to register an email address or SNS account, and agreeing to the terms of use. To help promote it further, there’s a 24-hour help line providing service in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean.

The service is available in locations such as Hibiya and Yoyogi parks, Ueno Zoo, the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and other museums, as well as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government offices in Shinjuku (a popular sightseeing spot for their upper-level observation decks), and the recently opened Tourist Information Center in the new Busta Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal. In addition, there are about 10 roadside maps and digital signs in Shinjuku and Ueno that are also Tokyo Metropolitan Government hot spots.

The good thing about the Tokyo Metropolitan Government network is that it gives users access to other WLANs in Tokyo, both transit- and area-based, without having to register for them. There are 143 stations on Toei and Tokyo Metro subway lines, including hubs such as Otemachi, Ikebukuro and Shinjuku, with free hot spots that are compatible with Tokyo Metropolitan Government registration. Tokyo’s fleet of public buses, which number around 1,500, also has Wi-Fi. Neighborhood WLANs include Shinjuku (Shinjuku_Free_Wi-Fi), which has hot spots in stores and on streets, and Marunouchi (JAPAN-FREE-WIFI), including the Shin-Marunouchi Building and Tokyo International Forum.

A wireless welcome

The explosion in Wi-Fi has targeted travelers in particular. Telephone giant NTT East has a program called Free Wi-Fi Japan, whereby tourists who present their passports can get password cards giving them 14 days of free wireless in eastern Japan. The cards are available at locations such as the Haneda airport branch of the Tokyo Tourist Information Center; they can also get an ID and password by downloading the Navitime for Japan Travel app.

New hot spots for travelers are popping up every day. On July 1, Keio Corp. opened Central Honshu Information Plaza in the underground Keio Mall at Shinjuku Station with free wireless internet for visitors.

Meanwhile, JR East now offers free public Wi-Fi with one-time registration at dozens of stations in the capital as well as on services such as the Narita Express. JR’s hot spots, listed at www.jreast.co.jp/e/pdf/free_wifi_02_e.pdf, are designated by green stickers and are often found near ticket gates.

Tourists look through a menu of internet services at a cafe in Toyko’s Asakusa.
Tourists look through a menu of internet services at a cafe in Toyko’s Asakusa. | KYODO

“We didn’t use the hot spots around town as we bought a SIM card when we arrived at the airport and also had a portable modem from the apartment we rented on Airbnb,” says Anousheh Tavakoli, who recently traveled to Tokyo from London with her husband and young daughter. “We did use the Wi-Fi on the Narita Express and also at Narita Airport — both had quite good speed and reliability.”

If you really need Wi-Fi on the go wherever you are, a range of paid access services can be found with better coverage than free ones. Docomo Wi-Fi for Visitor, for instance, costs ¥972 per week or ¥1,404 for three weeks. The access points — available at various locations, from subway stations to convenience stores and Harajuku boutiques — are indicated by a Docomo sticker featuring a cartoonish mushroom character. The service also comes with WPA2 encryption as well as call-center support.

One app to rule them all

The easiest way to hop from network to network is by using an app called Japan Connected-free Wi-Fi. NTT Broadband Platform, which provides many of the free public Wi-Fi spots in Tokyo, developed the application for iPhones and Android smartphones and launched it in 2014. The subsidiary of phone giant NTT describes it as indispensable for visitors looking for hot spots in Japan. The app has had mixed reviews on the Apple iTunes site, but most reviewers wrote in Japanese, suggesting inbound travelers have yet to make much use of it.

With one registration of an email address or SNS account, the app can be used to access more than 142,000 free hot spots across Japan. That tally has grown by more than 100,000 in two years, and more hot spots are being added every month or so. Session times vary, with some only 30 minutes long, but users can log on as many times as they want.

 A Wi-Fi hot-spot map of Tokyo’s Shibuya district
A Wi-Fi hot-spot map of Tokyo’s Shibuya district | TIM HORNYAK

NTTBP partnered with dozens of municipalities (including Hiroshima and Kanazawa), retailers such as Seven-Eleven Japan and Bic Camera, and transport providers such as All Nippon Airways and Narita Airport. Connecting is pretty simple: by tapping on the “connect” icon, users can see compatible Wi-Fi signals and log on. The app also has offline maps of Wi-Fi locations in areas such as Shibuya, Shinjuku and Marunouchi, as well as downloadable travel guides for Fukuoka, Kawasaki, Okinawa and Kansai, with more on the way.

“Over the past few years, free Wi-Fi hot spots have been increasing along with greater numbers of foreign visitors to Japan,” says Manabu Hashida of NTTBP. “The NTT Group operates approximately 150,000 hot spots across Japan. In cooperation with municipalities, we’re working on the installation of more free Wi-Fi facilities ahead of the year 2020.”

When I tried Japan Connected-free Wi-Fi on an Android smartphone at a 7-Eleven convenience store, it wasn’t perfectly smooth but it worked well enough. It took several tries to log on to the 7 Spot signal, but once a connection was made, I was able to check email, Twitter and Facebook, and surf the internet. Photo-heavy news sites such as BBC News and CNN were a little slow but fully loaded in less than 30 seconds. It wasn’t nearly as fast as using cellular data, or browsing the web on a laptop tethered to my smartphone, but then again you get what you pay for.

The fine print

If you want to use NTTBP’s free Wi-Fi service in Tokyo, you’ll have to agree not to upload computer viruses, send spam and engage in criminal activity. Here are some of the things that are prohibited under its terms of use:

• Any action that NTTBP deems offensive or may be offensive to public order and morals, including “obscenity, prostitution, violence, acts of savagery and abuse”;

• Any action that defames a third party and/or NTTBP;

• Distributing literature, advertisement, fraud information and/or “disgusting contents”;

• Running an election campaign;

• Creating pyramid finance schemes; and

• Any action relating to sex entertainment and/or proselytization.

Think before you click

If a hacker can get between you and your hot spot, he or she could access all the sensitive data you send, including passwords, email and credit card information. William H. Saito, a cybersecurity expert and adviser to the Cabinet, recommends that Wi-Fi users keep in mind the following points for safe surfing:

• In some cases, a hacker can pretend to be an official hot spot. After all, you can’t tell just by looking at the service set identifier (SSID), the alphanumeric ID for Wi-Fi signals.

• If you’re not using a password, assume that anyone nearby can “sniff” (read) your unencrypted internet activities. Thus, limit your activity to things that are nonsensitive or make sure the site or app uses secure sockets layer (SSL) or transport layer security (TLS), which are standard cryptographic protocols to ensure communications security.

• Even if you’re using SSL or TLS, however, hackers can read your content.

• Your best bet in both cases is to use a virtual private network (VPN), which provides an extra layer of security. Most smartphones and other mobile devices have a VPN function under the settings menu.

• Keeping your Wi-Fi connection active can also be a problem because it may connect automatically, for instance if you’re using an iPad, and send data unintentionally.

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