Most travelers to Japan (along with your author) come from places where the second we hop off the plane in a new place, we turn on our smartphones, tablets, laptops, and even our PSPs to log on to the internet to orient ourselves. But Japan has always been stuck in a weird “warp zone” where apparently the numbers 802.11 and the word “gratis” or “public” never even became platonic friends.
In the past few weeks, I talked about the best option, which was to use a rental portable hotspot device, or purchase an internet-only prepaid SIM card in your GSM 3G capable phone or tablet. But what if you simply need the net in “spurts”? Some just need to be able to jump onto Foursquare or Zagat and find the next sightseeing spot, or shoot an email or IM to friends to check on a meeting spot, or check Google Maps to get directions and train schedules.
Plus, if you’re only in Japan for a week or two, or you know you’ll have your documents squared away really soon so you can get traditional cell service, then doing without the prepaid SIM card option is OK because the landscape has drastically changed from even two years ago– there are lots of options now to connect to wifi spots for little or no cash needed.
There are a lot more wireless spots that you simply must be a part of a network to use. Chances are if you have a wireless phone or home internet contract, you can use that company’s wireless LAN network to use the internet when you don’t have cell service or want to save packets. But what if you’re fresh off the plane? There’s an option for you too. NOTE: You’ll need a credit card to use these.
As a tourist, the first place to check is the airport when you land. Of course there’s free internet in Narita, Haneda, Chubu, and Kansai airports. But after you clear immigration and customs, check for booth manned by NTT, the country’s telecom giant. They are providing tourists with free use of all NTT hotspots throughout eastern Japan. The offer is only for tourists, so long-term residents can’t take advantage of it; they need to see your passport during the registration process. If you missed that, then don’t worry, check out this app that can help you register for all the free wi-fi spots nationwide.
Starbucks Coffee (Free)
Usually the most obvious choice because that’s what most travelers expect. There are at least 200 of them all over central Tokyo alone, and up until the last part of 2012, none of them had free wi-fi, unlike their American locations. Luckily that’s changed, and the majority of them offer free wireless, nationwide. Consult their English site at Starbucks Japan Wi-fi and create an account before you walk in. Better yet, don’t even worry about that— because now you can use your Google, Facebook, or Twitter ID to log in!
There are still more of these than Starbucks in Japan, and they all have free wi-fi in their stores. All 10,000+ nationwide! Simply log in to the 7-Spot website, but you’ll need to know Japanese or know someone who does. You can always ask one of the clerks to help you out. BONUS: This also works at Denny’s, Ito-Yokado Supermarkets, Seibu and Sogo Department stores.
Yet another convenience store chain, they also have free wireless access. Just look for the “Fami_Mart” SSID on your phone whenever you’re near the stores. Just know that you need to agree to a splash screen in your smartphone or PC that will be in Japanese. Ask the staff for help in simple English, and you should be OK.
Train Stations (Free)
If you’re in Japan, then you’re using the train or subway somewhere more than likely. In the Tokyo area, Tokyo Metro and Toei subway provide free internet access in their stations for up to 30 minutes. There is also a plan underway for Tokyu, Seibu, Tobu, Odakyu, Keio, and other private train companies to do the same; just turn on wifi on your device and check the access points.
JR-East is also rolling its free wireless out, but starting with major train stations like Tokyo, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Ueno and Shinagawa first. The starting screens on rail operated wireless sites usually have the most up-to-date train info and schedules along with maps, but will most likely be in Japanese. Also certain trains on the Yamanote line now have free wi-fi access as well; you know you’re aboard one of these because there will be signs plastered near the info LCD panels above the doors.
I personally use this because it’s cheap, everywhere, had a good English website, it’s and not a hassle to set up. They power the wi-fi in Starbucks, and are part of the NTT group, so they have good service. You can buy time limited passes from 6 hours all the way up to a whole week. For those who have a Japanese credit card, (to verify address) there’s also a monthly plan available.
This is a slightly different approach where you share some of your home’s broadband with the FON wi-fi network through their special wireless routers. Since one of Japan’s wireless carriers, Softbank, is a part of the FON network, then you’ll be able to use their large network for free while you’re in Japan. In addition, a lot of home brodband gateways have FON built into them here as well, making the network even larger. Visit FON’s website for details,
Photo Credit: Takamex