My most popular post on this blog so far has been "Softbank Mobile: Really a Good Deal" in which I analyzed the superhyped Softbank Gold Plan and compared it to Softbank's other price plans as well as to those of Docomo and Au. (To sum up, unless you fit a very specific user profile, the Gold Plan stinks.) I finally got around to getting a new Softbank phone, changing plans, and getting a phone for Tomomi too. I'll share the process because someone else may benefit from what I learned. (The last paragraph of this post is about a referral campaign that Softbank is running. Either read to the end or scroll down if you're interested.)
I went into the shop in the early evening on a Saturday when it wasn't crowded. If you go during peak hours prepare to wait for a long time. Also be prepared to meet staff who are either weasely or undertrained. If your Japanese isn't good, take a friend who speaks the language. You will need a photo ID card and some way to pay, like an ATM card. If you aren't Japanese, you need a residence visa; temporary visitors can't apply.
The first time I went into the shop a couple months ago, I met the weasely staff. He tried to talk me into an expensive plan and unnecessary add-ons. Softbank undercuts Docomo and Au by 200 yen per month on basic call service. Au has both a 2nd generation and a 3rd generation network that they are promoting. Softbank doesn't have a 2nd generation network so they undercut by 200 yen Au's 2nd and 3rd generation plans with their 3rd generation service. Softbank's Orange W plan is priced just below Au's WIN service and the Orange X plan is priced Au's 2nd gen service. The Orange W and Orange X plans are on facing pages of the Sofbank catalog so the weasel did his best to cover the cheaper X plan with his hand while trying to sell me the more expensive W plan.
When I finally went in to get our phones the other day, I met an undertrained staff but she was sincere and helpful. Several times she had to go back and ask questions to the manager. Once I pointed out a service that she didn't know about. (If you use Yahoo's BB phone service, run by Softbank, you can register your BB phone number, then calls from your mobile to your home phone will be half price.)
I had been hearing about handset shortages and was pleasantly surprised to find that most phones were available in the shop. That changed to disappointment when the staff told me that most phones were designated for new Softbank customers and that customers who just wanted an upgrade were limited to only a few models and colors. I guess they don't follow the business principle of treating existing customers well. After a little grumbling, I found an inexpensive phone that would serve my purposes and then went on with getting a nice one for my wife, a new Softbank customer. After choosing Tomomi's phone, the staff went back to her manager, whispered a little, then came to me again and said I could have my choice of any phone in the shop even though I was just getting an upgrade. I don't know why she did that, but I changed to a similarly inexpensive phone with a thinner profile.
I had some mileage points saved up from four years of service, actually more than I needed to pay for the phones so I ended up getting a 2 GB ipod nano for 5000 yen spread out over two years. (the regular price is about 18,000 yen). Softbank and Apple have a promotional deal going and rumors are flying that the two companies are developing an ipod phone. Since I just got a new phone and an ipod, Murphy's Law dictates that Steve Jobs will introduce the ipod phone at Macworld this week and my new toys will be instantly obsolete.
If you've read this far, maybe you're really thinking about going with Softbank. They are running an "introduce a friend" campaign through January 15 where the introducer and introducee each get 5250 yen worth of mileage points. If you sign up before the 15th and have a friend who is a Softbank user, make sure that you get the bonus together. All they need is your new phone number and your last name. If you want to sign up and get the mileage, but don't have a friend who uses Softbank then hey, I'll be your friend. Email me your last name (in kanji, hiragana, katakana, or romaji--however you signed up) and your new Softbank phone number. My email address is in the "Hello" blurb at the upper right of this page. I promise not to use your private information for anything but this referral campaign.