Traveling with my iPhone (and MacBook Pro) in Japan

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.