The Cheaper and Sexier Alternative!

If you are a regular here at FSMdotCOM or at least , you’ve been here a couple of times, you know that im highly interested in the Japanese iPhone scene. I finally found someone that can fill me in.( and you of course ).

This article was written Maree Carr

The latest iPhone 3G seems quietly popular here in Japan. From what I’ve seen, it’s mostly gaijin (foreigners) who have them, which probably seems a little contradictory to the perceived technological addiction so many foreigners conjure when they think of the Japanese. In fact, to my surprise, I actually find Japan to be a little technologically… delayed. But that’s a whole other story (upon which I can elaborate at a later date should anyone be interested).

As for the iPhone, there only seems to be one player involved in the retailing of such an amazing piece of technology; Softbank (formerly Vodafone Japan). Softbank also seems to be the most popular phone provider for foreigners as they offer English support (of which I can tell you is basically useless. More on that later!).

After having made the decision that the iPhone was for me (due to my intentions to travel extensively internationally in the future and the desire to carry just one phone that would work across all systems) I decided to start my phone plan research while I waited for my “gaijin kaado” (foreigners card) to be processed therefore enabling me to sign up to a contract. It seems that the concept of capped plans (such as those in Australia and the UK (and possibly elsewhere)) have never reached the shores of Japan, as the phone plan system here is more complicated than the theory of relativity. Even after having read a catalogue in English and having dragged a native speaker with me to Softbank, I still left empty handed and more confused than I was previously!!

After a second attempt, venturing out on my own with what little Japanese I have, to obtain the 21st centuries Holy Grail, it seemed as though I was to again return home empty handed. It appears that most things in Japan are made as unnecessarily complicated and surprisingly inefficient as possible. For what purpose, I can’t begin to imagine but believe me, the language barrier in Japan is the easy part about living here! Yes – I know you think I’m making this stuff up cos everyone knows how efficient and technologically advanced the Japanese are, right? And maybe if you compare the place to Zimbabwe, you’d be right! The Honda robot and the Toyota Prius are lovely and all, but believe me, that’s about the extent of it. You still have to pay your bills with a paper copy at the local convenience store. A far cry from the online and amazingly convenient BPay system Australia has so lovingly embraced (I could give you so many more examples). But I digress…

I was about to give up and head home feeling more frustrated than a teenage boy at a strip club when I decided to stop in at McD’s for a quick bite. After all, it was raining and I needed some comfort food to relinquish my annoyances. I sat down and glanced over at the customer sitting at the table beside me and to my absolute delight I noticed that not only was he speaking on the latest iPhone but he was FOREIGN and an English speaker no less! JACKPOT! After he finished his call I politely interrupted and asked him about the iPhone and the cost per month. I also had my Softbank catalogue on me so he talked me through the recommended plan options that I sign up for. Hallelujah! I finally understood what was going on and upon my return home, stopped briefly at a little phone store near my house and an hour and a half later, I was connected on an unlimited data plan! WOOT! I won’t get into the specifics of the plan details here, but should anyone want advice, please feel very free to contact me.

Anyway – the iPhone has been my absolute saving grace since being in Japan. It dawned on me that this little baby could surf the internet so there surely must be a way of syncing that connection with my laptop. Thus began my love affair with Jailbreaking and tethering and all the wonders and pirated benefits it beholds.  I had some minor problems jailbreaking my iPhone with the original firmware but had no problems with the latest 2.2 version. I have also tried unlocking the phone but at this stage I’m not entirely sure it has worked and probably won’t be able to tell until I return home to Australia in 6 weeks. I’ve heard stories that due to the different system that Japan’s telecommunications work on (that’s right, forget using your GSM phone in Japan! I can assure you it won’t work. Just another inconvenience for the general world populace), the iPhone has been fitted with a different version of firmware that might inhibit the unlocking process. This rumour is yet to be confirmed by yours truly. Stay tuned.

Anyway – while my friends in Japan thought it was a little decadent to be carrying around such a piece of technological genius, I actually had the upper hand. They all signed up with various carriers for unspecified periods and wound up with cell phones reminiscent of the mid 90’s. Yes – again, wtf re the technological advancement in this country!!? The phones here are all chunky flip in a variety of seizure-rific colours. The problem is that they also then had to sign up for separate internet connections as well. I was actually coming out financially ahead with the iPhone given I could tether it to my laptop and save the secondary expense of an internet connection (which takes a MONTH to set up here).  I was a little nervous about receiving my first phone bill and wondered if they (the powers that be, aka Softbank) would realize my excessive data use and send me a bill totaling the sum of the Winfrey empire, but instead they waited until I went back to Australia on roaming and subsequently returned to Japan, to do that. Yes – 1 week in Australia on roaming with the iPhone wound up costing me a mere $2,500 AUD. Small change! *vomit* …more on this later. So in the end, it costs me nothing to tether my phone to my laptop.

The other money saving feature of the iPhone is the amazing apps you can download both legitimately and, well, illegally that enable you to send SMS very cheaply and make phone calls for free therefore side-stepping the incredibly expensive phone charges here in Japan. My favorite apps are probably of no surprise to the avid iPhone lover, but just in case, I shall list them here. Some are legit but a lot are…n’t, if you get my drift:

  • BiteSMS (send sms for a mere 10c as opposed to the $1 that Softbank charges (re international))
  • PdaNet (for tethering your phone to your computer)
  • Truphone (make free calls via wi-fi)
  • Around Me (works perfectly here in Japan!)
  • Facebook
  • Currency converter
  • iCompta (a very comprehensive budget program allowing you to work across different currencies)
  • WritingPad (just drag your finger across the keyboard to type! Brilliant!)
  • Darkroom (for photos)
  • Shazam/Midomi (identify that song!)
  • Installous
  • Installer
  • Cydia
  • Fex
  • Instinctive Shuffle

The easiest way to get 3rd party apps onto your phone is through the online Appulous webpage (I find this easier than using the Installous app as you can do it from your computer and save fiddling with external websites and broken links on your iPhone). Install miPatch Firmware through Cydia. Reboot. Find the app you’re looking for on Appulous and download the .ipa file to your desktop, then open iTunes and drag the file into the Apps window and finally, sync your phone. Easy peasy!) However, sometimes the links through the Installous program/Appulous site etc are broken or don’t work. What you can then do is a Google search for the .ipa file you want and download it from another website to the desktop and follow the same procedure.  Forget all this SSH’ing into your phone etc. Totally unnecessary, I’ve found.

Now as previously mentioned, it seems that it’s mostly foreigners who have come to love the iPhone (granted every Japanese person who sees the phone thinks it’s awesome even though they seem a little scared of its power) and so I’m sending out a very dire warning to those of you intending on taking your phone on a little holiday abroad. TURN OFF ROAMING THROUGH THE SETTINGS MENU. DISABLE ALL POWER TO YOUR PHONE. BURY YOUR PHONE IN A SIX FOOT HOLE AFTER HAVING FIRST LAYERED IT WITH CHAINS AND PADLOCKS AND EVEN WHEN YOU WANT TO DIG IT UP TO KISS IT GOODNIGHT AND TELL IT HOW BEAUTIFUL IT IS, DON’T. I’m convinced all phone companies have some sort of monitoring device implanted in the phone to enable charges for even looking at your phone while abroad. As previously mentioned, after having taken my phone back to Australia over the New Year period (7 DAYS!) and barely having used it due to internet access where I was staying, and the fact that I had my Australian mobile phone to make all my calls/send sms etc, I still wound up with a phone bill totaling that of a small African nation’s annual budget. 134,975yen to be precise and no amount of ranting and raving at Softbank customer service would change the fact that I would be eating rice for every meal for the next 2 months in order to pay this mo fo. But the icing on the cake was the 2 days in which they gave me to pay the account. Oh yes, very reasonable! It was as though Softbank was holding my baby ransom! I became panicked and very flustered. I called the service centre to report a very obvious mistake on my account and after I was assured it was all legit, demanded to speak to a manager! After a lengthy and very colorful rebuttal to the information that I wasn’t able to speak to a manager, I was then told that a manager would call me back within 3 days. MY PHONE WOULD BE DISCONNECTED BY THEN you moron! Anyway – to cut a VERY long story short, I eventually spoke to a manager the following day who at least allowed me to shift the due date to my next pay date. I found this amazingly simple to do after being told the previous day on two separate occasions (even once when I had a native Japanese speaker call and talk on my behalf) was refused outright that this could be done. Japan really can bite sometimes. It’s allllll about the process. And it seems I wasn’t the only one to be caught unawares, as I was informed at the Softbank store, when I went to pay my bill, that another expat Aussie had been in the week before with a bill even larger than mine for the exact same reason. I’ve heard similar stories coming from the US also. So it seems that despite my attempts to buy a phone that would be convenient when it comes to travel, it has turned out far from. Surprise surprise.

But generally speaking, I have absolutely no regrets with the iPhone and after all is said and done, I think I get a fair deal through Softbank for the services I use. That is one thing Japan has over Australia; from what I can tell, Australia has yet to release an unlimited data plan for the iPhone therefore rendering a lot of it’s features for the high-end user (aka me) relatively useless given the excess data charges that would be incurred as a result. But I can talk more about the Australian scene once I get back there. 6 weeks to go!! …but who’s counting?