For many people, a smartphone is an integral part of their daily life and a constant companion while traveling. It is one of the most convenient and useful tools for living and traveling in Japan and replaces the need for items like an (expensive) electronic dictionary or paper train schedules; and while they won’t help you become fluent in Japanese, they can certainly help make your daily life easier. The apps listed here are all available in English on the U.S. market. Also, while I’m an iPhone user, I tried to provide an Android alternative to the Apple apps where possible.
What We Cover:
- Japanese Dictionary Apps
- Instant Japanese Translation Apps
- Navigation Apps
- Japanese Gourmet/Food Apps
Choosing the Best Japanese Dictionary App
First off, you are probably going to want a dictionary. There are several on the market, which range in price from free to around $15USD. My personal recommendation is Midori, which costs $9.99USD on the iTunes market. This may seem like a lot for one app, but in my opinion you get what you pay for—and it’s still a steal compared to the hundreds you’d be shelling out for an electronic dictionary.
Some of Midori’s features include:
- Handwriting recognition
- Favorites/list-making capability,
- Stroke order animations for individual kanji
- Wildcard search option
With the handwriting recognition, you can draw kanji with your finger or stylus to get a definition. It’s usually very convenient, although there are times when I mess up the stroke order or stroke count and it can’t recognized the kanji. I use the list-making feature to make lists based on subject matter, JLPT level, or manga I’m reading. You can export these via e-mail as plain text or CSV files to study later. Midori also has text translation for copying blocks of texts from websites or emails. Finally, it also has a name dictionary, which is very handy when you know the kanji but not the reading of a name.
If you don’t want to spend the money, though, imiwa? is a good alternative that many find adequate and is free on the iTunes market. It’s not quite as full-featured as Midori, lacking native handwriting capability, but you can’t beat the price.
For Android users, there is the excellent JED Dictionary which is also available for free. It has several nice features such as being able to filter results based on content type (meaning, reading, kanji), the ability to tag words to export to Google Docs and Anki, and stroke order animations. Unfortunately, it isn’t being updated regularly and thus won’t work on all devices.
“Instant” Japanese Translation Apps: Yomiwa, Japan Goggles, & JOCR Offline
In addition to a dictionary, you may want a little extra help in the form of an instant translation app. This industry is still very much in the innovation stage, but the idea is that you point your camera at a character or set of characters and the app provides the translation. Compared to the hassle and frustration of searching for difficult kanji that you don’t know the stroke order for, this sounds like a dream come true. There are several apps on the market which experiment with this feature.
The best so far seems to be Yomiwa for iOS. There is a trial version available for free with ads and a paid version available for $0.99USD. Yomiwa has definitely helped me when I read manga and come across a kanji I don’t recognize. If you don’t know the stroke order or reading, it can be hard to search for in a dictionary app, but with Yomiwa you just need to get a good shot with your camera. Sometimes that is a piece of cake, but other times it seems impossible to capture the image in a way the app can read it. I compared the results with the similar app Japan Goggles, however, and Yomiwa more consistently returned a useful result.
On the Google Play market, there is an app called JOCR OFFLINE which offers similar capability, and works, as advertised, offline. Overall, the apps are useful in a pinch but not consistent enough yet. Still, I am excited to see the technology improve in the future.
Apps to Help you Navigate through Japan
There are also a couple apps to help you with navigation. Google Maps works fairly well for driving and walking routes all across Japan. But it’s not great for public transportation. For that, there is an iOS app called Japan Transit Planner available for $2.99USD. It is from the same company as Norikae Annai, a great train app which is unfortunately only available in Japanese. With Japan Transit Planner, you can find train routes and station timetables, and save routes—up to 50 search and timetable results which can be accessed offline. However it doesn’t have live updates on train delays like the Japanese version. You can input romanji into the Japanese Norikae Annai though, so you may be able to puddle through with a little practice even if you can’t read much Japanese.
Android users are in luck. There is a great train app on the Google Play market called simply Japan Trains. It uses the database of Hyperdia, a popular route-finding website, and is free! You can use it offline, which is great while traveling, and it even gives you the platform information. Like Japan Transit Planner though, you won’t get real-time updates on delays. If you’d like additional help for understanding Japanese subways, check our Tokyo Subway Guide.
The GuruNavi App: A Japanese Food and Gourmet App here to Help!
Finally, if you just need a bite to eat, GuruNavi can help you there! Based on a Japanese app of the same name, it supports not only English but also Chinese and Korean. It’s available on both the Android and iPhone market. You can search for restaurants by cuisine, area, or current location. It has maps and pictures as well as lots of search filters such as English menus, English-speaking staff, in-app coupons, all-you-can-drink (nomihoudai), and more. It has good coverage of major metropolitan areas like Tokyo and Osaka, but quite a bit less for smaller cities.
While the apps you will like and use are ultimately subjective, I hope this article has helped narrow done the options.
Some useful apps for Japan may need wifi, check out our wi-fi articles on what to expect in Japan.