I’m At Shinjuku Station But Which Shinjuku Station Are You Talking About? A Final Review of Apple Maps Japan Transit


Apple launched Japanese transit for Apple Maps with the release of iOS 10.1 and macOS Sierra 10.12.1. This review takes a look and compares it with the local competition, Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps. This replaces an earlier partial review of the iOS 10.1 beta version.

To keep things simple the review covers three key areas: UI & signage, indoor mapping, and agency data. I’ll use the traditional Japanese style three rank rating of previous reviews:

Rating System
O (maru) = good
∆ (sankaku) = fair/meh
X (peke) = NG/fail

Transit UI & Signage
The first real Japanese transit preview image that Apple released was similar to the left hand image below:

Right from the start we arrive at what I think is the most controversial aspect of Apple’s Japan transit service that I suspect will be a deal breaker for many Japanese users: Apple goes all in with the new international station letter code + number signage that has recently been rolled out in metropolitan areas. It’s so new that nobody knows what a JB 05 or JY 11 or IK 01 mean yet. It was designed for international visitors who can’t read kanji, not the Japanese who live here. Google and Yahoo Japan don’t use the new signage at all and stick with traditional kanji characters and transit line color coding. It’s what everybody has been using for a long time.

Apple’s mistake is using ONLY the new signage in the single most important transit UI component: route search result list view. It reads like a string of emoji. The new code signage is not meant to replace kanji but be used together. Apple could have used kanji names with the new signage as secondary information just like the real Shinjuku station sign at the top of this page. A tasteful blend of old and new would have been innovative yet respectful of Japanese kanji culture. Instead, Apple throws out the old and forces the new which really isn’t designed for Japanese users.

I am sure that the Apple Maps public transit team had good intentions but the result smacks this side of “is this a Japanese product or just some westerners’s idea of one.” Apple will be criticized for this UI gaffe, deservedly so.

The signage UI blunder is doubly unfortunate because it distracts from some nice transit UI improvements Apple is bringing to the party. For example, selecting Shinjuku station in map view (images below) offers all the various train and subway lines grouped neatly with easy access to destination and departures. To me this is a better deal than digging around in Google or Yahoo Maps to find the same information.

Taking a Ride
If users are not too discouraged by the route search result UI to look at route details, they might like what they find. Once you are in, route/trip details are well done. The new signage is used as backup to the kanji, not a replacement. They work well together which was the intention of the signage designers.

Another nice touch that Apple offers is a spread of departures times instead of locking you into one set departure time like Google and Yahoo Japan. This is smart. Maybe you were walking slow or catching Pokemon on the way to the station. What ever the reason, changing the train departure times in Google and Yahoo Japan maps on the fly is a hassle. Another nice touch is that on route Apple transit uses GPS to grey out stations as you pass them.

Lack of Live Data
The transit step by step on route process is completely different from turn by turn, it is very manual. There are no Siri prompts and your progress does not show up on the lock screen. GPS gently guides the transit steps but once you hit the green departure button, transit route and times are locked in and dead.

Apple, Google, and Yahoo Japan transit services all lack live data and contextual awareness. If you are late to the station, miss a connection, stop to have a cup of coffee, or a transit alert shows a stoppage along your route,  the transit service should offer updated routes and times. Turn by turn directions are live, transit directions need to be live too. If Apple delivers on this before Google or Yahoo Japan, Japanese users might flock to Apple Maps.

It would also be nice to have notification options to sleep on the train or talk with travel companions and receive alerts when an important transfer point is coming up in 5 minutes. Stand alone Japanese transit apps all have this but it belongs in built-in maps as well. There are lots of incremental improvements and innovations Apple can do here.

Apple Pay Integration
There are some interesting transit and fare options that you can access at the bottom of the route search results list.

The IC Fare toggle at the bottom of fare options is the Japanese transit hook into Apple Pay Suica Apple has been talking about but there is no option to filter out expensive Shinkansen or express train fares

In addition to on the fly transit type selection, options include JR Express train/Shinkansen settings for transit fare calculations based on non-reserved seating, reserved seating and Green car seating. Unfortunately there is no option to filter out Shinkansen and Express Trains from route searches.

There is also an IC fare toggle to calculate fares for IC cards when possible. This is the Japanese transit hook into Suica Apple Pay that Apple mentioned in the iPhone 7 keynote and in the Apple Pay Japan press release.

Apple Pay integration is simple and shallow: Apple Maps transit calculates the fare and warns you if your Apple Pay Suica card does not have enough SF (stored fare) for the route.

If you have Suica Apple Pay, Apple Maps alerts you if Suica SF (stored fare) is insufficient for the route.

The current implementation is hobbled by JR East Suica limitations: Apple Pay alerts won’t work if the route includes any Shinkansen travel or areas without Suica coverage. Wallet alerts are basically limited to non-express train routes within the JR East rail network Suica orbit. JR East has said they expect full interoperability with other JR group companies by the summer of 2017. When that happens, Apple Pay integration might become useful.

Transit UI: O
Signage: X
Apple Pay Integration: ∆

Transit UI & Signage Summary
Apple’s choice of locking users into the brand new and incomprehensible transit signage is unfortunate. The overall UI is clean and nice looking but route search results should mark ‘fastest’, ‘cheapest’, ‘fewest transfers’, etc., route options more clearly. Step by step transit routes are very manual, a plus, but need more GPS and contextual awareness. Notification options would be a plus too. Apple Pay integration is a good idea but is currently limited to regular train fares in areas with JR East Suica coverage, and there are no filter options to omit expensive Shinkansen and express trains when searching routes and fares

Station Footprints & Indoor Mapping

Before we get into it let’s compare Apple’s transit preview image from July with the real thing.

As said before, a preview movie trailer has scenes that never end up in the finished film. In this case the traditional dashed line railroad indicator seen in the preview, Google Maps, and Yahoo Japan Maps is gone. On the plus side transit lines are thicker, station footprint and indoor mapping colors are heavier with more contrast.

On the negative side Apple still has not learned that you do not do colored text labels with kanji characters. It’s one of biggest UI mistakes that western designers make and remains a huge UI problem for Apple’s cartography in Japan maps. Google and Yahoo Japan have long since dropped blanket use of colored kanji characters from their Japan map cartography. Apple should too.

Indoor Mapping – Map View vs. Transit View
The rule of thumb with Apple’s indoor mapping of Japanese train stations is this: indoor mapping ≠ indoor route guidance. Apple shows you the outline of what is down there underneath Shinjuku station but only gives you exit/entrance information, nothing more. You are completely on your own to wander the underground maze of a Shinjuku or Tokyo station to find stores, train platforms, ticket gates, though Apple Maps Japan transit will help you find your final exit.

Finding the exits and entrances of indoor mapped areas isn’t as easy as it should be either. One of the major differences between Google and Apple is that Apple has separate view settings for map, transit and satellite. Google uses a single map view with layers the user toggles on or off. Both approaches have downsides.

A Google maps view of a dense and complicated area like Shinjuku station is overwhelming with too much information to be useful when when you are on the go. Apple’s use of a separate view to reduce the information overload has merit but Apple’s method of switching views is clumsy, time-consuming and unintuitive. Only by toggling to transit view do you get train/subway lines, bus stops, and indoor mapped station exits/entrances.

Apple’s initial rollout of Japanese indoor mapping has a curious feel of being half finished: it only exists to show you how to get in and our of a train station when in step by step mode, and doesn’t match on-the-ground signage unless you are on route. Touch an exit point and you only get very tiny exit icons (stair, elevator, etc) and generic station information that tells you nothing about the exit.

The big question is where does Apple’s indoor mapping effort go from here. Will they go the Google way of mapping everything above and below ground, or take the Yahoo Japan way of just showing above and below structures directly related to the station? If Apple only wants to show exits and entrances they could vastly improve the current experience by increasing on route exit signage size and providing information cards with real information.

Station Footprint & Indoor Mapping: 

Indoor Mapping Summary
Indoor mapping is incredibly difficult to do well. Google offers a rich layer of indoor mapping that is overkill and too complex when on route in a crowded station. Apple’s indoor mapping feels incomplete: it is there for the step by step on route instructions, not for quick navigation or look ups. Even at this basic level Apple needs to improve the signage and exit/entrance information to make it remotely useful.

Agency Data
Apple Maps relies on 3rd party supplied data. The Japan product has long suffered from “C” grade suppliers. When incoming data is poor quality, there is little Apple can do to fix it other than changing the supplier. For example Incremental P (IPC) supplies Japanese map data, if you go to Shibu Onsen in Apple Maps you will see a strange data cut-off slicing across the area. Look at the same place in IPC’s iOS app and you see the same cut off.

This is one kind of problem. Another problem is Apple not getting 100% throughput of the data they get from the supplier. Here are two screen shots of a nearby park. IPC supplies a lot of map detail that Apple simply does not load into their system.

The challenge for Apple’s transit team was to get the best agency data AND get the best throughput. Based on limited testing in Tokyo, I’m happy to say that the Apple transit team appears to have succeeded in breaking the Japan data jinx.

Apple’s transit data supplier for Japan is Jorudan Co.,Ltd., the same company that supplies Google’s Japanese transit information. This is both good and bad. The good is Apple uses the same quality Japanese transit data that Google uses. The bad is that any incomplete or incompetent data hits Apple and Google equally. Apple’s options to improve Japanese transit data quality above Google, are limited.

Japanese users have complained about Google’s bus transit data occasionally. In the short span of Apple’s transit service beta, Japanese users noted and complained about missing train information in rural areas. In my own Tokyo area testing I have hit some rough spots as well: transfer information is not always reliable.

In the left hand example above the transit route lists the train transfer at Yoyogi station when Shinjuku would be a much better choice. The right hand example has instructions to walk out the east exit of Gotanda station to transfer to the Tokyu Ikegami line which is incorrect, the transfer point is inside the station.

The first example is poor information from Jorudan (data supply) as you find the same exact issue in Google Maps. I suspect the second example is a problem with Apple’s indoor mapping of Gotanda station: the location mistakenly groups Asakusa subway and Tokyu Ikegami train lines together as a separate Gotanda subway station.

Weak Route Searches
After extensive use and transit route comparisons with Yahoo Japan Maps and Google Maps, I find that Apple’s Japan transit consistently misses finding or offering cheapest routes or routes with the fewest transfers. Even though Apple is using the same transit data as Google, their search algorithms  are not up to speed. Yahoo Japan has the best transit data and search results.

Transit Alerts
One last item to mention is transit alerts. In Tokyo or any metropolitan area transit alerts are a vital travel companion, if the JR Yamanote line stops 30 minutes due to “passenger injury” (code word for suicide) you want to know immediately so you can change your route. Nothing is worse than being stuck in a stopped commuter train between stations. Apple has included alerts in their transit service.

Transit information alert details for the Saitama line.

So far I find that Apple transit alerts are slower to arrive than Yahoo Japan Maps which are the fastest of the competition. Apple Maps also seems to filter out the lowest level alerts: if the JR Yamanote line is running 5 minutes late, Yahoo Japan Maps will tell you, Apple Maps will not.

The newly updated Google Maps widget neatly groups transit times of trains and buses based on your GPS location. The widget is simple, convenient and far more useful than any Apple Maps widget. Apple Maps should be following Google’s lead here.

Agency Data: O
Transit Alerts: ∆
Widgets: ∆

Agency Data Summary
Japanese agency data quality is the biggest win for Apple’s Japan transit service and puts them in the same league as Google. Apple still has to improve data integration, they may have the same agency data as Google but they are not yet using it as well as Google does.

Final Summary
The Apple Maps transit team has put a lot of effort into Japanese transit, despite the rough edges it shows promise and potential.

The rough spots will have to fixed quickly if Apple wants Japanese customers to use the new service. The new signage problem, for example, could be solved with simple kanji character additions and tweaks. Local bus transit data is currently limited to Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya and needs to be expanded as local bus transport is very important for rural areas.

Like the famous Steve Jobs quote from WWDC 1997 : “we’ll find the mistakes and we’ll fix ’em,” rough spots and problems are not a problem if Apple finds and fixes them.

The real test for the maps team is this: Apple has finally broken the Japanese data quality jinx, can Apple break the organizational jinx to rapidly identify and fix  problems while delivering improvements?

If the Apple Maps team can do that, the Japanese transit service will be a success.