(Published July 13, 2017)
TOKYO — There must be something in the air telling people to visit Japan this summer. I know so many people who’ve already gone there, or will before this rapidly flying-by summer of 2017 wraps up.
We are fortunate in many ways to be able to visit Japan in this era of digital ubiquity, meaning that while abroad one can work remotely (like now, for me), check emails, stay connected via social media or even check on home security with a smartphone, tablet or laptop.
I know this totally qualifies as a “First-World problem,” but when traveling overseas, how can one keep up with a favorite TV show, either one that gets recorded on your DVR or streams on a service like Hulu, Amazon Prime Video or the king of that genre, Netflix?
Traveling or vacationing is great and all, but what about the down time, like while on a train or waiting in line? (Sensible people, of course, might actually opt to leave the gadgets and services behind while overseas — but I digress.)
I’m going to be writing more about this in the future, but one could watch live American TV or shows recorded on a DVR from anywhere in the world with something called a Slingbox. (By the same token, you could watch Japanese TV in the U.S. with a Slingbox setup in Japan; but like I said, more on that at a future date.)
But how about keeping up with new movie releases or TV shows via Netflix or HBO Now while in Japan, presuming that’s something you wanted to do? Turns out that you cannot, under normal circumstances, stream content for U.S. audiences while overseas because when you try to do that, the local IP address tips off the services that you’re not in Kansas anymore, and you’ll be blocked.
While Netflix, for example, is international, it’s tailored for local markets, and licensing deals dictate that what might be available for U.S.-based subscribers can’t necessarily be shown overseas. That’s why they block it.
There is, however, a solution to that problem: It’s called a VPN or virtual private network. (Turns out there are many reasons to use a VPN even when not traveling overseas, but that’s a whole other topic.)
VPNs have been used for years by corporations, and companies set them up for employees who telecommute and access their company’s computer networks. Basically, a VPN is a legal way to create an “encrypted tunnel” between a user and a company or service. Not even your Internet service provider can see what is in the encrypted digital data stream.
An Internet search can yield many results for VPN services, but I bought a month’s subscription for about $12 for a service called ExpressVPN. With it running, the IP address can be set for different areas of the U.S., although the software will guide you to a suggested area. All I can say is that ExpressVPN works.
There is, however, another consideration, and that is access to high-speed Internet or broadband. In my experience, while traveling in Japan, renting a wi-fi hotspot, also called a router, is a necessity. That is because as high-tech Japan might seem from the outside, easily accessible (and free!) broadband is not always readily available.
Fortunately, there are many services that will rent you such a device for varying durations. Just search something like “mobile hotspot Japan,” and you’ll have many from which to choose. I used the following link: http://en.wifi-rental-store.jp. You need to order in advance and have it delivered to an address where you can pick it up after you’ve arrived. Part of the deal is that you also get a large preaddressed, prepaid return envelope. Once you’re done, you put the device and everything that came with it into the mail before you leave Japan.
You can also rent a SIM card for your smartphone, but that is a bit more technical and complicated. You also need to use a smartphone that uses the GSM standard, which is what AT&T uses. If you’re using Verizon, which uses the CDMA standard, a SIM card does not, from what I can tell, work.
One advantage/option a SIM card offers is cellphone service with an actual phone number, as well as the broadband. SoftBank offers SIM card rentals that include phone service.
But, if you’re using the hotspot, you also can use “free” services like Line or FaceTime, which allow voice calls; Line also lets you text message your contacts. Like I said, the hotspot is probably the best and easiest option.
I hope to have more on my Slingbox experiment next time.
Stonebridge Rhythm and Blues Fest Dept.: Back in my June 22 column, I noted that concert promoter Gerald Ishibashi is launching the Stonebridge Rhythm and Blues Fest on Sunday, July 23, at the Redondo Performing Art Center. The lineup has changed a bit since then, however. To see the current lineup, order tickets or get more info, visit http://tinyurl.com/ktdoebg. Remember that if you do purchase tickets via that link, use the promo code “rafu” for a 10 percent discount.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.