Tokyo Unplugged

Oct. 8, 2014

My first night in Tokyo offers a lesson for tourism planners as Japan seeks to vastly increase the number of its visitors leading up to the 2020 summer Olympics.

Wireless access and mobile connectivity are pretty much a given in the world’s leading cities. Plugging into that global connectivity shouldn’t feel like reinventing the wheel.

So why did I spend my first night in a Tokyo hotel room unplugged and out of reach of all of the things we take for granted today? The ability to check my email, read the news, Google stuff I want to know, and talk in real time with loved ones about my arrival in a new city – I couldn’t do any of that with my smartphone.

I was told in my home country of Singapore that a roaming plan for my iPhone would be expensive, so I should look into local options once I reached my destination. I had assumed when I arrived at Haneda Airport that I’d just buy a SIM card for access to voice and data for the month I’d be in Japan.

But there were no easy answers at the airport, and my inability to speak the language didn’t help. I left the airport without a SIM card, and when I got to my hotel, I had my laptop computer but the wrong converter. I had a little battery power left and there was wireless service in the hotel lobby, but no wifi upstairs in the rooms.

The next day I ran into someone who was both tech savvy and had spent a good amount of time in Japan. He told me to get a mobile phone for calls, and a SIM card for data. It’s much cheaper, he explained, not to use your iPhone for voice calls.

Two days after my arrival, I got my SIM card for data and a mobile phone. The phone works but its keys are in Japanese only, so I can’t save contacts or understand how to use the other functions.

Tokyo wants to boost tourism, and its charms are endless, but tourists who come for the better part of a week shouldn’t have to spend the first days of a vacation figuring out technology in what is otherwise considered a tech geek haven.

Given the importance of smartphones for tourists — maps to get around, figuring out public transport, interactive tourism features that rely on GPS and a connection, guided museum tour apps, Instagram and Twitter to share adventures, holiday photos, Skype, translation, paying for things with a digital wallet — all that will help make the Olympic games a financial boon for the host country.

I hope the country and telecom providers are thinking about this now.

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