Traveling with my iPhone (and MacBook Pro) in Japan

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View
I've just returned from my 16-day trip to Japan. I travelled from Tokyo to Kyoto and further west all the way to Hiroshima. With me throughout these adventures were my iPhone and MacBook Pro.

Originally, I had planned to take only my iPhone, leaving my MacBook Pro at home (not wanting to carry around its extra weight and bulk). I ultimately changed my mind, primarily after assessing the restrictions and costs associated with using my iPhone overseas (as I detailed in my recent iPhone Atlas column). This decision turned out to be a wise one, but for a reason I had not anticipated (as I will explain in a bit).

True, it was not essential that I have either my iPhone or my MacBook Pro with me. You could argue that it it would actually have been better to leave them home, so as not to be distracted from the real purpose of my trip: enjoying the sights and culture of Japan. However, having access to the Web was more than occasionally helpful in getting background information related to our sightseeing.

I also appreciated the ability to track the fast-changing news events back home, most notably the presidential campaign and the economic crisis. While I might have been less anxious if I were totally unaware of these events, I inevitably heard about them anyway -- via CNN on television (there is an English language broadcast in Japan) and the International Herald Tribune newspaper. Web access merely provided a convenient way to quickly get details unavailable from these other sources.

Finally, while I stuck to my resolution to refrain for any work-related writing while on the trip, I did minimally use Internet access to keep up with my email and Mac news. I especially followed the hoopla surrounding the release of Apple's new laptops and Cinema Display. With just a minimum investment of time, I avoided being overwhelmed by a backlog when I returned home.

iPhone vs. laptop; Wi-Fi vs. Ethernet

Getting back to my original intent to have only my iPhone with me in Japan, I had planned to use it to connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi when in my hotel room, avoiding the costs of 3G network roaming. This was not a good plan. Not one of the hotels I stayed in had Wi-Fi access! And I was staying in some first-class hotels. They did have Internet access, but only via an Ethernet connection. I am not sure why Wi-Fi wasn't generally available. Perhaps, I was just "unlucky" in my selection of hotels. But I don't think so.

I was especially surprised because I think of Japan as generally more technologically advanced than the U.S. I expected Wi-Fi access, if anything, to be more widely available in Japan. Maybe these hotels put in Ethernet networks before Wi-Fi was well established -- and before most hotels in the U.S. had any type of in-room Internet access. As Wi-Fi usage became common, U.S. hotels installed Wi-Fi networks, while Japanese hotels stuck with their already installed Ethernet networks.

However, I suspect that even this is not the primary explanation. For one thing, I found Wi-Fi access to be in surprisingly short supply anywhere. In the U.S., Wi-Fi is available (often for free) from coffee shops, fast-food restaurants, book stores, libraries and assorted other locations. You'd be hard-pressed to be in any metropolitan area and not find nearby Wi-Fi access. In Japan, Internet Cafés were more the rule, where you pay for time on one of the café's computers. This is typically less than ideal for foreign visitors, as the café's keyboards and screen displays use Japanese characters.

I did discover free Wi-Fi access at a McDonald's in the Kyoto Station. Perhaps, due to my inability to read Japanese, I was unaware of other Wi-Fi locations. Perhaps Wi-Fi access is much more common that it seemed. But, again, I don't think so.

As for Ethernet access in hotels, this was more than adequate for connecting to the Internet via my MacBook Pro. Surfing the Web via the connection was no different than doing so in the U.S. It some ways, it was preferable to Wi-Fi, as Ethernet is generally faster and more reliable. However, it was completely useless for my iPhone. There is no way to connect an iPhone directly to an Ethernet network. Had I stuck with my initial intent to bring only my iPhone, I would have had no in-room way to connect to the Internet at all.

In retrospect, I wondered whether a work-around would have been to take an AirPort Express with me, using it as an intermediary between the Ethernet connection and my iPhone. However, I have never tried to connect to an AirPort Express from an iPhone without having a computer available to initially set up the network. As such, I am not certain if or how this would have worked. While I intend to experiment with this before my next trip, I am sure others already know the answers (if so, feel free to chime in with your comments).

Bottom line

In the end, almost all of my Internet access in Japan was done via my MacBook Pro. I hardly ever connected to the Internet via 3G on my iPhone. I transferred only around 16MB of data for the whole trip, primarily from checking AP and New York Times news articles (I never used my iPhone for email). I stopped accessing the Internet via my iPhone altogether during the last week of the trip, as I was concerned about late charges not being posted to my bill until after my one month of International Data Package access ended (if this happens, you are charged the much higher non-package rate!).

While I was glad I had both my iPhone and my laptop with me, I am not sure I will be taking them on my next international trip. It certainly would have been easier not have the laptop to lug around. And it would have been cheaper to keep the iPhone at home (or at least never use it for phone calls or Internet access). Perhaps by my next trip, I'll have a compromise solution: a much lighter alternative to my current MacBook Pro -- a new MacBook, a MacBook Air, or an entirely new product that Apple may announce at the upcoming Macworld Expo.

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26 Comments Leave Your Own

Gerson Campos

mmmm. do you know what ethernet sharing is?  your mac can share your internet connection over any available data port on your mac.


if you access the sharing panel in control panel ..you have internet sharing!!!!

that way you just leave your mac open and sharing and just carry your iphone around in your room.

Ted Landau
[quote comment=“4879”]Do you know what ethernet sharing is?

Yup. I am aware of this. But what I was looking for was a way to use my iPhone for Internet access (non-3G) without needing my MacBook Pro at all.

-Ted

Cliff

Two words: Airport Express.

Ted Landau
[quote comment=“4884”]Two words: Airport Express.

I mention the AirPort Express possibility in the third-to-last paragraph. I was hoping for a few more words than just two. In particular how to, if possible, use an an iPhone with an AirPort Express but no Mac at all.

Rob Woof

The Airport Express can be configured with a single configuration that you iPhone can be linked with. The one thing you will need to watch out for is that the Ethernet needs to be DHCP (usually the case in hotel rooms…). You plug the Express into the Ethernet, then plug it into the power. If there is a sign-on page for the hotel so they can bill you, that will usually come up when you first try to open a web page. In summary, I haven’t tried it in a hotel myself, but I don’t see any reason why it should not work. My roaming history with my AirPort Express is limited to using it on networks where the internet access is not controlled (e.g. the in-laws’ non-wireless router).

bluey

hi,
i’m doing a fairly similar thing at the moment….am in Yokohama though.  similar coz i have my MacbookAir and my 3G iPhone….but i also do have my Airport Express with me.

1. yes, i can use the iphone just with the airport express - it works fine.  in my hotel room, i have the airport express connected to the ethernet lan…then both the Air and the iPhone connect to internet that way.

2.  i think the reason for the lack of hifi - is that they’ve had data via phone for so long…they don’t need wifi ‘out on the street’.  i saw everyone accessing data services via their phone, and lots of laptops….but it was all via 3G (or CDMA, i think).  i agree with you, it is annoying not to be able to access wifi - i haven’t found a single place with wifi in all of yokohama nor hakone….for 4 days now.

Ref Librarian

I have never used AirPort Express and my iPhone overseas but it works just fine at a Marriott in the US. I just opened Safari and accepted the terms. Is that what you are asking?

iVoid
[quote comment=“4880”][quote comment=“4879”]Do you know what ethernet sharing is?

Yup. I am aware of this. But what I was looking for was a way to use my iPhone for Internet access (non-3G) without needing my MacBook Pro at all.

-Ted

Yeah, kind of pointless to setup a adhoc wireless network to get interent from your iPhoen when your MacBook is right there to use.

meatleg

I’m in Japan, and my iPhone connects through my APX every day when I am at home.  It just connects the same way my computer does.  I tell it to connect and put in the password (it stores the password after the first time).

If you are in a hotel though, some hotels here (most I believe) make you pay for your connection, usually expecting a password in a web browser interface.  As long as you don’t have to put in PPPoE info into the APX for connection, you should be fine without your laptop in a Japanese hotel.  I have had success in using an APX in a hotel, but I will admit it has been a while.  Maybe someone else with more frequent experience can chime in….

Jojo

I hope you enjoyed your time here Ted.

Your assumptions are quite right. Internet access here is pervasive and it’s been going on for longer than in most other places but? wi-fi is very seldom found anywhere, even inside private homes. You go to any big computer store and will find a huge section on LAN cables and accessories. You’ve got Cat-5 cables, Cat-6 Cables, flat cables, a infinite number of colored cables to suit all your tastes, connectors, pliers, DIY kits… and a half dozen of wi-fi routers and antennae. Houses are very small and people tend to spend most of the time in the common area rather than spread all over the place. Lots of youngsters live in what’s called “one-room-mansions” (mansion=condo here) so it makes no sense to have wi-fi when the whole of your abodes is about 190 sqft. (and it’s not a typo). The size of a standard/big independent family home is around 1,200 sqft in a lot under 3,000 sqft.

On the other hand, along with South Korea, we enjoy the fastest commercially available public internet known to man. Standard nowadays is 100 Mb/s Fiber Optics (Hikari) and they are already pushing the 160 Mb/s packages. I think the slowest you may still find is the sluggish 50 Mb/s ADSL with 12 Mb/s upstream… Ah! I forgot, it’s around $35/month for those speeds. Sorry guys!  :oD

Back to the topic, on your next trip try the Toyoko Inn, it’s a very well spread chain of business hotels VERY inexpensive but nice, conveniently located in the best spots downtown, with English website and wi-fi among other amenities. On a side note, two weeks ago I spend a night in a Sheraton in Sapporo and the room had paying LAN access but no wi-fi at all. Nowadays I tend to leave my PB 17” at home in short trips, it’s not worth carrying it around.

Marcus

What a coincidence.  I’ve just returned from 3 weeks in Italy and had the same situation.  In my case, I brought only my iPhone and left my MacBook at home.  I immediately thought how could bringing an Airport Express have worked for me without a MacBook to set it up?
Hope someone can share some knowledge on this.

Mike

I’ve heard in the past that there are privacy laws in Japan that prevent any public access points.  I think there was special consideration to allow a company to set up a service at the Narita airport, but that was the only one at the time.

Deano

After 8 years working for a Japanese company in SF, and being married to a Japanese wife for 3, I’ve been on similar trips quite often.

Basically, even the “best of the best” hotels in Japan have BARELY (last 3-4 years) gotten on board with in-room Internet access. In 2003, I went to a very “technologically-advanced” part of tokyo for a product launch, and stayed in a hotel that had “innovated” in-lobby wired access.

The main thing is, you’re confusing Japanese interest and advancements in things technological, with general Japanese attitudes about certain kinds of technology, and indeed about who certain technologies are marketed towards.

I think, for hotels, they simply never saw the advantage for the longest time. In busy cities, clients just stayed to sleep, or had ready access to cafes/McD’s with access… In more rural/touristy areas, Internet access takes away from the local beauty.

And don’t get me started on the 30Mbps DSL for $19/month, or the horrid flash-based unusable websites that are all billboard, and no consumer awareness… :/

In the end, it’s really about “when the local market ‘gets’ it”. Until then, wifi is going to be something mostly of interest to foreign guests, and primarily available at the major foreign chain hotels (I’ve never had availability issues at a Japanese Marriot/Hilton/etc, though the signal strength is rarely great). But if/when they do get it, watch out! You’ll be using wifi on your phone to call the waiter back to your table when he forgets the napkins…

Dominic

Yeah I spend most of my time in Japan and I can vouch for there being very little open wi-fi available. If one has YahooBB (owned by iPhone carrier, Softbank) as an internet ISP, then you can log-in to wi-fi at most McDonalds’ restaurants for free. This doesn’t help tourists or casual users though.

I think 3G networks of some form or another have been so widely available for so long that wi-fi hasn’t been needed as the Great Wireless Saviour. Sub-notebooks with 3G connectivity have been widely available and widely used for many years, you must have seen them here and there Ted. Not to mention that more internet service-surfing goes on from Japanese cellphones than on PCs (so I’m led to believe) and you can begin to clue into why wi-fi hasn’t become ubiquitous yet.

I still wonder why Starbucks doesn’t have some sort of wi-fi - heck even a metered connection would do as a casual connection. They’re all over the place.

Some of the Japanese internet cafes have notebook counters, where you can plug in your MBP, (eg many of the WIP cafes) but while it’s not prohibitive, it ain’t cheap either.

@ meatleg,

You still need a Mac to configure the APX for each different connection before using the iPhone so that wouldn’t have helped Ted if he hadn’t taken the MBP.

KenC

I haven’t been to Japan, but have been to China, with my 12” PB in the past, and this past year with both, my 12” PB and my iPhone EDGE. China must have more wifi than Japan. I’ve gotten it in coffee bars and at the airport for free. In the hotels, I’ve used my AirEx, and i’ve set up my 12” PB to share a connection, when someone surfed on my iPhone while I used my PB, when I was without a AirEx.

Honestly, in the future I think I can leave my 12” PB at home, and just take the iPhone 3G, and pay $50 for 50MB. I did the $25 for 20MB, and that was fine, great in fact, but I was watching my data usage like a hawk. Google Maps was great, but used up tons of data. $50 easily is worth it to add to my enjoyment of a trip. You get Maps, so you know where you are, better than the locals! You can look things up. In fact, in China, where 3G is not yet deployed, EDGE was fantastic, far better than in the US. They must be blasting it all over the place, cause I was getting 4 and 5 bars in the rural countryside. With the iPhone and the international data plan, you don’t have to go searching around for a wifi connection. No smokey internet cafes.

Bob

You can preconfigure the Airport Express before you go anywhere (in fact, I am in the same exact situation as you as I write this, and the Airport Express was a lifesaver).

You simply configure the AX to use the Ethernet port just like you were plugging it into a Cable Modem or DSL.  You can even do this at home with your internet connection to test everything.  When you go abroad, just bring an ethernet cable (and possibly a little coupler) long enough to reach to the nearest power outlet, and you are good to go.  I carry one or two of those little retractable jobs (ZipLinq?).  Use all the same parts and setup at home, that way you can identify any problems before going away.

Good news is that nobody can sniff your wireless connection (if you use WPA), though in theory they could still see some traffic on the wired LAN depending on what type of security the hotel employs to separate users from each other (likely none).  So the last layer of protection that helps is to use something like “HotSpot Shield” which is free from Anchor Free for the Mac.  It simply routes your internet traffic through a secure VPN-like connection, keeping prying eyes from seeing this like your Bank passwords, etc.

Hope this helps, and the AX is the best “Travel Router” IMO, even though it has never been marketed that way.

Bob

To address the concerns of having to setup the AX differently for different internet connections.

This will likely not be necessary, as long as the hard wired Ethernet connection assigns you an IP address via DHCP (all the ones I have seen do).

Therefore, one setup should work for all connections.

Eric the B

[quote comment=“4901”]@ meatleg,

You still need a Mac to configure the APX for each different connection before using the iPhone so that wouldn’t have helped Ted if he hadn’t taken the MBP.

Not sure why you find that…I was in Japan this past summer, traveling around and visiting friends and family. I brought my AirPort Express to use with our iPhones. I just plugged the hotel and friends’ DSL cables into it.

At first it didn’t work, but I realized that it was because I use it to extend an AirPort Extreme here. It wasn’t set up right. So, I poked the little button, plugged it in, waited for it to reset, and BAM instant WiFi. No computer needed with an “out-of-the-box” set up. Actually, while roaming the streets, I would stop outside Apple stores to grab their free WiFi (surprised nobody mentioned those, unless I missed it), a tiny Indian place in Nagoya had an open network, and a ryokan I stayed at in Nagoya not only had WiFi, but an eMac in every room!

In addition to the Toyoko Inn mentioned above, the Tokyu Inns (at least the one near Osaka station) have free DSL that worked flawlessly with the APEx. The whole trip, no paid DSL, no WiFi fees, no iPhone roaming charges. Loved it! wink

bc

Hello Ted - hope you had a great trip.
in the comments to your pre-trip column, in fact I suggested you bring along an Airport Express for this very reason! grin 
That’s what I do, as I travel frequently to Japan, several times per year (for many years) and have yet to find wi-fi in the hotel room. Yet I’ve taken a few trips armed only with iPhone or iPod Touch and been able to access the provided wired-internet with my AEx, and keep 3G data off. I did the same on a recent trip to S. Korea, the AEx came in handy in the hotel room again.

setting the Airport Express up is easy, just set it up at home first using your Mac and Airport Utility first, then connect your iPhone, it will remember the router from then on. then just bring the AEx along on your next trip. no need to worry about changing the settings once you’ve done it the first time.

for the hotels that require you to login via a web page first, even if free access—no problem. just plug in the AEx, wait for the green light and then open Safari on your iPhone and you can login there. very painless.

Open Wi-Fi hot spots are possible to find in Tokyo. but much less common than in N. America. On Sundays when they close down the main street in Ginza to traffic, I was able to find one or two while walking down the middle of the street! and elsewhere the occasional coffee shop. but anyhow harder to find than I originally expected too.

p.s. I’m noticing these days in Japan, even the smaller Japanese style business hotels mostly seem to offer free wired internet these days (wasn’t always like this) - and more often these days I notice the wired speed is VERY fast.

Robert

I got back from Japan at the end of June. I must have been lucky as I always found a wifi network. I stayed in Tokyo, Nikko and Hiroshima.  I stayed with family in Tokyo in the Nishsi Azubu area and I always had Wifi I used my brothers Wifi although there were at least 6 other networks that were strong . The worst was in Nikko I stayed at an Onsen and had to position my notebook in order to get a decent connection. I dont use Apples wifi network sniffer though I use another one and it seems to be much more sensitive ( i can’t recall its name right now). I did not have an International phone and used Skype in order to make and receive calls. I will say that our cell phone networks here in the states lag horribly behind what I saw in Japan not to mention our public transportation but that is fodder for another thread. I also recall seeing a website that listed all the free wifi spots in Japan listed by city (once again I can’t recall the name of it).

Dick

Strangely, this was my exact experience in ...

Las Vegas and California this August with my brand new iPhone 3G.

Wireless was generally only available in the lobbies of hotels and wired access in room. And free Wifi was rare. I also wondered how I would configure the APX.

coaten

When I stayed at the Osaka Hilton a few weeks back, there was Wi-Fi in the hotel foyer (or lobby, if your language leans that way) but you needed to ask for a key at the hotel desk. This cost 700 yen for 1 hour’s access. The key had a serial required to be entered for Wi-Fi access, which was very fast.

However, I used my iPhone on 3G sparingly and the roaming charges were acceptable, falling within my monthly limit and actually not costing anything at all.

bc
[quote comment=“4916”]I…I also recall seeing a website that listed all the free wifi spots in Japan listed by city (once again I can’t recall the name of it).

was it this site?  http://iphone.jiwire.com/  It’s formatted for the iPhone. finds hotspots in many countries including Japan, there’s a regular website version too at http://www.jiwire.com/

of course, using this wifi finder site requires that you have an internet connection in the first place, which may be a problem if you’re trying to find a hotspot!

I still recommend taking along an Airport Express at least for use in the hotel with your iPhone. even if I’m traveling with my Macbook Pro, I usually still bring the AEx to un-tether me from the tiny little desk they usually provide in Japan.  an added bonus - the USB port on the AEx can be used to charge your iPod, iPhone or other gadget. in some Japanese hotel rooms AC power plugs are scarce, so this comes in handy if you’ve got a lot of gear to plug in. And if you’re traveling with family members, of course more than one of you can get on the net at a time with their own device when using an AEx. Once a coworker staying in a room next door had no working ethernet in his room, and so I just added his PC to my wireless network.

sometimes when I travel in US or Canada, there’s also lack of wifi in the hotel room, it’s not just Japan that I’ve found the AEx useful. it’s always in my travel bag.

Stephen

I hate to say it, but an answer is to look past Apple products. Plenty of WiFi routers allow for config via a browser, no Airport Utility needed! Bet I could find several that would allow me to use Mobile Safari to config them with an iPhone.

Next instead of carrying an expensive and heavy MacBook, MacBook Pro or even MacBook Air I carry a 2 pound EeePC running Linux (they have one that runs Windows) that only costs $299. Runs Skype, Firefox, has webcam, has Ethernet, and WiFi! I throw it in my suitcase when I travel and leave my Macs at home. If lost or stolen I would not cry. Since it is all solid state it takes a beating. Just spent a week in Canada with it.

This is why I am still waiting for Apple to come out with an innovative NetBook. The market for these tiny, light, inexpensive machines is bursting and Apple has so far ignored it. My EeePC is much lighter, smaller, and cheaper than a MacBook Air and has more ports. Sure it is not sexy, but gets the job done. I sure wish Apple had a small Mac type product like this.

bc
[quote comment=“4936”]I hate to say it, but an answer is to look past Apple products. Plenty of WiFi routers allow for config via a browser, no Airport Utility needed! Bet I could find several that would allow me to use Mobile Safari to config them with an iPhone.

the point is you never have to configure the Airport Express from the iPhone. set it up just once via your Mac back at home. Toss it in your bag - it takes almost no space to carry. from then on, just plug it into the AC, plug in ethernet, and you’re good to go. no reconfiguration necessary while on the road. all the hotels I’ve encountered use DHCP, so just plug in and it works.  I’ve used mine successfully this way for a few years now.

the whole AEx itself (there’s no AC cord) is not much bigger than just the AC power brick I’ve seen on some other wi-fi routers.  although I think there is (was?) a similarly sized travel router from Linksys.

I agree it would be great to have an innovative Apple netbook however

but back to the original point of the article - by adding only this one small <7oz router to your bag, you CAN travel with only your iPhone and still at least have internet access in your hotel room.

Tanja

I lived in Tokyo for 2 years recently and I know what you mean about the wi-fi.  I had wi-fi in my apartment but it really didn’t leave the room.  The walls are thick due to earthquake standards.  Everyone I knew had this same problem.  So, we didn’t use wi-fi.  At Starbucks, they have it.  Hotels never have it, even the fancy 5star ones.

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