Using Google Maps and Google Translate to navigate Japanese transit systems (and other useful things)

Our first full day truly off the boat with luggage in tow, we made our first travel error by hopping on a train going in the wrong direction. So much for my travel wiles! It’s not something I do often, but I’ve definitely done it before. Usually, I catch it sooner, though: It took me 30 minutes before I noticed we were getting more rural instead of the expected Tokyo skyline. A personal “best.” Aaargh. Oh well, easy enough to get on a train going the other direction; just an annoying waste of time and some extra schlepping of luggage. But, this was when I discovered a really great trick for navigating Tokyo trains, metro and bus: Google Maps combined with Google Translate. [Both require Internet connection (although there’s an offline option for Google Translate where you download a specific language; see below), so get a SIM card if you can. See my earlier post about NTT Docomo card. It’s been great for us.]

Google Maps will actually tell you the next train going to your destination, give you the platform number (a vital bit of info when nearly everything at hand is in Japanese), and count down until departure. If you miss that train, you can re-search for the next fastest departure and it will find other routes as well.

screenshot_20160920-110118 Unfortunately, we discovered in Kyoto that while much info provided by Google is in English, Google often gives you bus, bus stop names and other info in Japanese characters:

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This is where Google Translate comes in handy: Take a screen shot. Open Google Translate [choose Japanese to English, of course] and tap on the camera icon. Instead of taking a photo now, select the little box with a mountain scene in the bottom. This will take you to your recent photos where you can choose the screenshot. Let Google Translate scan and find the Japanese writing. When it’s finished scanning, you’ll see the Japanese writing (and sometimes other words) in boxes:

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Then, just scribble over the Japanese writing with your finger and Google Translate will translate the words you’ve chosen into something you can read:

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You can use the same method with screen shots of locations on Google Maps.

We use Google Translate all the time when we travel. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty amazing (and sometimes funny). Using the eye symbol feature (where available), you can translate live time. It’s like peering through a magic window into an English-language world wherever you are. It even preserves fonts in live-time. In Belgium, we’ve been able to look at a hand-written chalkboard menu in Dutch and see the translations, as if written in chalk in English. Wow. On our current Asia trip, we use the simple photo translate option for information plaques and the like. It was a huge help when I needed prescription eye drops in Kyoto and the pharmacist spoke no English. I could translate my needs by typing a couple of words in Google Translate on my phone (and pointing to my eye), then read the dosage information of the package by taking a photo in Google Translate.

You need an Internet connection to use Google Translate, unless you choose “offline translate” and download the language of your choice–a great feature.

Thank you, Google. I love technology!

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