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March 8, 2004 -- Japan can be a very confusing place. For English speakers, the language is nigh incomprehensible and difficult to learn. Most streets lack names. And although the Japanese are tremendously polite and friendly, cultural differences between Japan and the US are huge.

Leave it to the Japanese, though, to come up with a savvy technological solution. For the next few weeks, Narita Airport is testing "e-Navi" units -- handheld computers containing language translation applications, a mobile phone, Internet access and travel guide software. They're handing out these gadgets free to travelers who sign up by March 18 and travel by March 25. This trial has been going on for a few months now, but we just heard about it. The reason we're telling you is that there's a good chance the trial will be extended.

The e-Navi units let you make a few hours' worth of outgoing calls within Japan for free. They're also loaded with voice translation software that purports to translate spoken English and Japanese phrases, though results reported by various Web sites have been spotty. (Hey, it's worth a try.) What's best is that the units give you unlimited, free, portable Internet access with a handheld version of Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Passengers on ANA and JAL airlines get first crack at the units, but anyone flying on any airline from Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, LA, Las Vegas, Vancouver, Honolulu or London direct to Tokyo is eligible.

All you have to do is sign up on the e-Navi Web site by March 18 and be flying from North America or the UK to Tokyo's Narita airport before March 25. You'll have to fill out questionnaires when you pick up and drop off the unit.

Interested? Check out the e-Navi Web site at www.narita-airport.or.jp/e-navi/howto.html.

Too Late For E-Navi? How About Free Celly?

If you're flying on Japanese airline ANA and want to stay in touch with home, they're offering two weeks of "free" cell phone rental through March 31. Similar promotions have been going on since last year, though, so we're predicting this will be extended as well.

Having a cell phone in Japan can be a major boon. Incoming calls are free, so you can arrange for folks at home to call you and stay in touch. Outgoing calls are costly -- $1.49 a minute within Japan, $2.49 to the US -- but still, when you're lost in Tokyo and need to call your hotel for directions, $3 will seem like a pittance for easing your path through Asia.

The phone rental comes from Worldcell (www.worldcell.com), a respected phone rental firm. We're putting "free" in quotes because you have to pay $35 for shipping and handling. They'll send you the phone in the US, and you send it back to them in a prepaid mailer within two days of arriving back home from Japan. You must order your phone at least 5 days before leaving for Japan.

If you're interested, sign up at www.fly-ana.com/travel/special_offers/details.php?file=all_0023.inc or call 800/554-2351.

Pretty Cheap Fares to Japan From JAL

There are no overwhelming sales to Japan right now, but the best fares are coming from Japanese airline JAL (www.japanair.com/e/promotions/superf.php). For flights on Mondays-Thursdays to Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya, they're offering the following fares:

  • From LA or San Francisco: $538
  • From Las Vegas: $580
  • From New York: $648
  • From Chicago: $660

To get these fares, you must book by March 24 and fly by May 17, except between April 23 and May 9 (a major Japanese holiday period.) You must book at least 7 days before flying, and stay in Japan between 6 and 30 days. Book online at www.japanair.com or call 800/JAL-FONE.