A couple of years back, I visited Tokyo and was struck by the fact that there was a genuine dearth of "free" Wi-Fi options. I recently returned to Japan's capital city to see if things had improved.
When I was last in Tokyo there were many wonderful things to see. Tokyo remains one of my favourite cities on the planet, because it's vibrant, quirky, generally technologically advanced and remarkably friendly towards the non-Japanese speaker. I can't think of too many other public transport systems worldwide that use a lot of English over the PA for each and every announcement when English isn't the primary language.
The one thing that was lacking, however, was much in the way of public Wi-Fi, which is a painful matter in this day and age.
So on a return journey recently, I wanted to ascertain if this was still the case, because typically speaking, using roaming data is a quick way to send yourself broke. Tokyo can be an expensive place to stay without adding data cost woes to the mix.
It turns out that while matters have improved, it's still a little on either the clunky or horribly insecure side.
On the clunky side, NTT East runs a network of free hotspots for tourist use only. You have to register before using the network, which can either be done through an Android or iOS app before you actually reach Japan, or at an issuing spot where they'll give you a registration card.
I chose the former, and I'm rather glad I did, as I never quite nailed down where at Narita Airport the local registration desk was. The app itself is quite rudimentary, and won't register you if you're coming from a Japanese IP address, so sorting yourself out upfront is important. That will give you a username and password to use at a variety of hotspot locations. One nice aspect here is that the app includes a Tokyo map that shows relevant hotspots and offers a rudimentary AR app to find them. Like most AR apps, it's a bit sketchy if you're surrounded by lots of tall buildings.
The NTT East offer is good for 14 days only, and if you don't pre-register outside Japan you'll need to provide your passport to prove your tourist bona fides.
Photo: Yoshikazu TAKADA
Starbucks also offers free Wi-Fi within Japan. It's certainly a ubiquitous chain in Tokyo, but I can't say that I used the free Starbucks connection, partly because of the accreditation process, and partly because I like actual coffee.
The process of getting accreditation involves registering an email address, then verifying it before trying to use a hotspot. Doing so without Internet access is one of those mind-bending catch-22 loops that could easily send you insane.
The process of getting onto the other large competing network, Freespot, is simpler, although this is a service offered by (largely) retail outlets, so you have to keep an eye out for signage indicating it's present.
Photo: Naoya Nakazawa
I also found during a one-week stay that there are a number of "free" Wi-Fi hotspots along major train lines and at Narita airport. Caution is advised here, though. If you're in desperate need they might be OK, but I wouldn't suggest doing your online banking from one of them.
Has free public/tourist Wi-Fi improved in Tokyo since I last visited? Absolutely, although it's not without its annoyances. That having been said, while I was prepared for a Wi-Fi adventure during my week, I ended up not using public Wi-Fi hotspots to any appreciable degree anyway.
I ended up roaming on 3G/4G data instead, and effectively for no cost.
This might sound like black magic, but it isn't.
That's a particular quirk of the prepaid Telstra plan that I use that states that if I recharge within the quota period, which I do on a calendar basis just before my credit expires, then any actual cash recharge amount accumulates. It has a calls, texts and data quota that suits me just fine when I'm in Australia, but for the most part my $30/month recharge just quietly ticks up month by month.
Very rarely do I use that accumulating credit to buy a local data pack, and the calls and texts are far more than I could possibly use in a given month. The trip to Tokyo presented the opportunity to use some of that accumulated credit, which was money I'd already spent for provision of mobile services months ago anyway, to buy an international roaming pack.
Yes, Telstra's international roaming packs are a sheer rort if you're spending real money on them. But accumulated credit based on what I'd already spent? That's a no-brainer. I happily roamed around Tokyo all week without a concern, and, to Telstra's credit, a very regular little SMS warning appeared every time I went through 20MB of quota.
Lifehacker Australia contributor Alex Kidman wishes he was back in Tokyo right now, roaming or not. The Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.