With my mind on my money and yen on my mind
March 6, 2015 7:06 PM   Subscribe

I'm taking a trip to Japan next month. Should I go cash only? If so, what are logistics of this?

In a month we'll be making our first trip to Japan. We'll be in locales mostly Tokyo and south - nothing too far off the beaten path (quirky tourist recommendations also accepted below). Back in the day we'd get ourselves some American Express travelers checks and be done with it, but the world is smaller than it was ten years ago so I thought I'd ask The Green for their wisdom on this.

This weekend I will be checking with my card companies to confirm which, if any, of my cards do not carry an international transaction fee for use. Can anyone help me understand the reach of major American card companies throughout the country? We could end up using any one of the main vendors - is Visa more prevalent than AmEx? Is Discover even taken anywhere? Will they laugh at Mastercard? Those sorts of things.

(on this point, has anyone heard of an american credit card company that make pre-paid cards in the currency of the country you're traveling to?)

Or, is it better to use ATMs to make cash withdrawals and skip using cards altogether? The same international fees would apply for ATMs, I know, but is there a convenience factor included in using cash over cards? International ATMs appear to be located in 7-11s (thank you 'merica) and post offices, so it should be easy enough to find one of those in the towns we visit.

When I worked in retail, the cashier would freak out every time a tourist came into my store and paid with a traveler's check. They were super intimidating. At the same time, they're ridiculously secure. Do we just go with those instead?
posted by ovenmitt to Travel & Transportation around Japan (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Cash is best in Japan. As you said, the 7-11 and Post Office ATMs are your best bet. Avoid travelers checks, as most merchants and even banks aren't willing to accept them.
posted by dcjd at 7:11 PM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

In 2001 when I went to Japan we hit ATMs every day or two, and loaded up on lots of cash. Our credit union caters to the military and doesn't have an international withdraw fee, yours might, but you should still get the bank exchange rate. If your credit card doesn't have an international fee you should be fine using it lots of places for big purchases. Hotels, shopping malls, etc all should take Visa, I'd imagine. Probably train tickets, but I'm not sure. Cash is always safe.
posted by jeffkramer at 7:13 PM on March 6, 2015

Some ATMs (back when I was there many years ago) aren't open on Sundays, though I think 7-Elevens are 24/7.
posted by xingcat at 7:23 PM on March 6, 2015

Best answer: I went to Japan 4 years ago and was unprepared for how little I could use my credit cards. Traveler's checks were far more trouble than they were worth. To make my cash stretch enough I had to eat several meals at--and yes, this is totally cringeworhty--Starbucks, because it was one of the few places that would take my card (the others were some very high end stores and the train). But my ryokans didn't take my credit card, nor did many other restaurants and random places we poked into.

I'd advise budgeting to spend mostly cash, and make sure your ATM card is cleared for international withdrawals (my bank doesn't go international). It's better to make a few big withdrawals than lots of little ones to spare any foreign transaction fees from adding up.

Traveler's checks are, alas, pretty much a thing of the past.
posted by TwoStride at 7:34 PM on March 6, 2015

Best answer: My husband and I spent three weeks in Japan over the New Year and worked about 60% cash, 40% credit card. We brought about $1000 worth of yen with us, and stopped by 7-11s or post offices periodically to top up. We paid with a credit card when we could--many restaurants, all department stores, and all the hotels and ryokans we stayed at took credit cards.

We used a Mastercard with PIN-and-chip--our bank wouldn't let us change our debit cards before their official changeover in 2015, but would issue new credit cards for international travelers. A couple of places had trouble swiping the cards, but we always had enough cash with us to cover the purchase, and at one place (Tokyuu Hands), the same card that didn't work one day worked the next day, so we have no idea what was up with that.
posted by telophase at 7:39 PM on March 6, 2015

Also--every place that took credit cards took our Mastercard.
posted by telophase at 7:40 PM on March 6, 2015

Best answer: I go for a couple/three months every year. It's gotten much better for U.S. credit cards (I use VISA) in recent years, but not quite to the point where you can count on it. Hotels, you'll probably be able to use the card. Restaurants, probably not. I used mine to buy kabuki tickets and it worked, but the charge took months to go through. I just now got the problem fixed last month from nearly a year ago. (My bank helped confuse everyone at every chance too.)

I carry my card and 20,000 yen. I'll use the card when I get the opportunity, and the cash when I need to. The cash lasts me a week or two before I have to make a mental note to stop by the 7-11 when I see one and get another 20,000. (That's normal living, though, not expensive tours and stuff.)
posted by ctmf at 8:02 PM on March 6, 2015

Best answer: I could easily go cash-only. Don't use my credit card much there, just for business hotel and train tickets. Used to be a bunch of AmEx traveler's checks; now I just bring a wad o'cash and convert it to yen at the Narita currency exchange counter, their rate's the same as the banks downtown. Japan's so safe, no need to worry, YMMV etc.
posted by Rash at 8:47 PM on March 6, 2015

Best answer: I go often, and I use credit cards probably 75% of the time (Visa, with no foreign transaction fee).

Visa + an ATM card (use at 7-11, which is so ubiquitous that it really doesn't matter where else it might work) and you'll be fine.

In my experience, malls / large restaurants / train tickets / hotels / etc are all fine with credit cards, although once in a while it will randomly fail. Smaller/non-chain restaurants may or may not.

On the other hand, I did have to pay for MY ENTIRE WEDDING in CASH, which was really weird and was the most cash I've ever carried at once in my life (thankfully the low crime rate in Japan made this less scary). But that was at a ryokan in the country.

Also when using a credit card they may ask you if you want one payment or more than one payment. I still do not fully understand this, nor has my wife been able to completely explain why this is different, but there is this thing in Japan where you can split your charge across multiple card payments... or maybe it just makes it act like an American card where you pay over months.... I dont know. Anyway, the answer you want is "one payment", that will work the way you expect a credit card to work.
posted by thefoxgod at 10:09 PM on March 6, 2015

Best answer: Credit in my experience is far from universally available, and will be viewed as a pain almost anywhere you buy food. Credit worked for accommodation, mostly, cash was so much easier for literally everything else. Japan is super safe, just withdraw shitloads from 7-11 or citibank (these are the ones that work most reliably with Western bank cards) every few days.
posted by smoke at 11:06 PM on March 6, 2015

I should add foreign atm fees were not too bad for us, like four bucks a pop.
posted by smoke at 11:06 PM on March 6, 2015

Best answer: When I was in Japan in 2013, foreign credit/debit cards like my Visa Plus and Maestro just stopped working all of a sudden, and I really panicked because I didn't have a very big income there and relied on money from home. So please be prepared for something like that. (It had to do with security or something and apparently no one even thought about foreign people in Japan. Google it if you don't believe me.)

As others have said above, Japan is mostly cash. I was able to pay Shinkansen tickets with my Visa card at the station, and you can book/buy stuff online and pay with your credit card, but most Japanese people I know don't pay with cards at stores, unless it's their Pasmo/Suica (train) card (like the London Oyster card), which you can load up and use at several stores like convenience stores. I'm sure smartphones also have these options now, but I don't know if it wouldn't be horrendously expensive for you with a foreign phone.

7/11 and most post ATMs take Visa Plus, so I used my savings card from home which is also Visa Plus and allows me ten free withdrawals all over the world every year. That worked best for me, until that ATM incident mentioned above happened.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 11:46 PM on March 6, 2015

Best answer: I was in Tokyo and Kyoto a few months ago. Credit cards were accepted at most hotels/train stations/fancy restaurants/big stores, but I wouldn't count on that. Many smaller restaurants and stores were cash only. Credit cards are accepted in fewer places than in the US.

My Mastercard was accepted every place that took credit cards (in general, when traveling internationally, I think Mastercard and Visa are the safest bet). If you want to use a credit card, have a backup card in case your primary card doesn't work for some reason, which happens from time to time as others mentioned above.

As far as no foreign transaction fee cards go, all Capital One cards fall into this category. You might want to consider getting one before your trip if you decide to use credit on your trip.
posted by sunflower16 at 6:03 AM on March 7, 2015

Best answer: Oh, if you're going to take the shinkansen (bullet trains) a lot, you should look into getting a shinkansen rail pass before you go, as you can't get them in Japan. They allow for unlimited travel for whatever duration you buy them for...one week, 2 weeks, whatever. You can really save money on these if you're traveling a lot.
Also, my debit card (master card) worked just about everywhere. (Just not, you know, the usual places, like the ice cream truck or wherever)
posted by sexyrobot at 11:01 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Charles Schwab also has debit cards with no foreign ATM fees.

Apparently not all ATMs will accept foreign cards, though. The ones in convenience stores like Lawson or 7-11 are pretty reliable, but anywhere else is a crapshoot. I had my card rejected a few times for no clear reason before I figured that out.
posted by teraflop at 11:51 AM on March 7, 2015

Best answer: Post offices will still cash travelers checks, and credit cards are widely accepted. Places that don't accept cards are around though, especially small, non chain restaurants. There are situations where you would need cash to pay for things, and while it might be strange to you, it's not uncommon to walk around carrying the equivalent of two or three hundred dollars. Buying a pack of gum with a ten thousand yen note (about equivalent to $100) at a convenience store is perfectly fine. Trying to use a card in that situation would be awkward and time consuming.

The main downside to needing to use travelers checks is needing to go to the post office to make exchanges. They're only open for monetary activity between 9-4. I would exchange at the airport, use the safe in your hotel room to store excess cash, and carry about ¥30,000 yen, but this is just me talking, and others might disagree.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:22 PM on March 7, 2015

Response by poster: can't thank you guys enough for the great insight. we're also considering taking cash with us to exchange at the airport... since safety doesn't seem to be an issue, would anyone frown on this idea?
posted by ovenmitt at 10:16 PM on March 13, 2015

Airport exchanges screw you seven ways from Sunday. If you want to do this, far better to go to a big branch of your regular bank in the city.If you have a mortgage with them, or lots of accounts etc, they usually exchange free of charge, and the rates are a zillion times better.
posted by smoke at 3:35 AM on March 14, 2015

Best answer: That's true in general, smoke, but Japan is an exception -- the two exchanges inside the Narita terminal (across from the info desks) give a good rate. Like I said above, I take a few week's funds (in cash) and exchange it all at once for yen there. (If stateside banks actually good customers commission-free exchanges, that's news to me, and good to know.)
posted by Rash at 4:40 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've always used the exchanges in Narita. Very few banks in Japan offer exchange services, and the post office, aside from TC, does not. As for banks back home, this is the opposite, but I once forgot to change yen to dollars, and went to my bank in Chicago to do so. Again, the standard denominations in Japan are equivalent to $10, $50, and $100, and I was bringing about $4000 home to put in my account. In addition to the very poor exchange rate, I was also charge a wide variety of fees, including a 'large bill handling' fee because, as I was told, 10,000 yen notes were large bills.

I'd avoid exchanging money until you get to Japan.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:04 PM on March 14, 2015

Best answer: Oh, hey, completely missed your request for quirky place recommendations. If you like craft beer, memail me if you get a chance. I can give you a pretty solid list of places that have a good variety of Japanese local beers.

On the sightseeing end of things, I always recommend Kappabashi-dori (restaurant supply street, cute plastic sushi, great Japanese cooking knives) and Sengaku-ji, the temple that is the resting place of the 47 Ronin, and has a great little history museum with artifacts from the event, with English translations of the information. If you have to choose day trips, I'd say Kamakura is the best one day trip out of Tokyo, followed (in some sort of order) by Nikko and Yokohama.

If you have the chance, and they're playing a game, you should try to see Japanese baseball game. Completely different from the American game, and one of the most raucously enjoyable experiences that you can have here.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:30 PM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

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