Glenn had offered us the following advice about “Traveler’s Checks and Money in General”:
Street crime in Japan is sufficiently rare that many Japanese think nothing of walking around with the equivalent of $500 in cash in their wallets, especially on vacation. Personal checks do not exist, and bank transfers are the most common way of getting larger amounts of money from one place to another. Credit cards are widespread, and all hotels and most big restaurants will take at least one of the major cards such as American Express, Visa, or MasterCard. (Check the logo on the restaurant window or at the cash register beforehand.) But at most smaller restaurants, most stores, and of course taxis and buses, you can only use cash. You can use credit cards at train stations only for major ticket purchases, not for a short-distance trip. You are better off changing lots of cash when you arrive (at Kansai airport or at the hotel, as banks will be closed until Monday morning) or before you leave. Banks, including airport branches, give you a much better rate than hotels. Traveler’s checks are safe but can only be changed at banks, which are open from 9:00 to 3:00, Monday through Friday. The most important thing to remember is that your credit card, cash card, or bank card CANNOT access cash (in any currency) in any bank in Japan, including American banks such as Citibank. No matter what your bank tells you about worldwide availability, Japan (like many other Asian countries) is not linked to the same financial network as the U.S. I stress this because I know of many newly-arrived teachers at Saint Maur who could not access cash despite having been assured by their U.S. or European bank that their card would work.
For the most part, we found that all of this was true. But we also learned that (a) all our hotels would accept traveler’s checks (we hadn’t brought any), and (b) they actually gave a better exchange rate for traveler’s checks than for cash (we never did figure out the logic of that). Moreover, while it may well be true that cash withdrawals cannot be made at bank ATMs, we found that there were ATMs at the post offices where U.S. credit, debit, and ATM cards were valid.
As most readers will know, the monetary unit in Japan is the yen. While we were there, the rate of exchange ranged between ¥106 and ¥110 to the dollar. Barney bought yen at the San Francisco airport at a less-than-optimum exchange rate and later got a better rate at the Novotel in Yokohama. I used a branch of the UFJ bank at Kansai International and got the best exchange of our stay (approximately $0.91 per yen, or ¥119.79 per dollar). Later, at a Sumitomo bank in Yokohama, I bought more yen at about $0.925 apiece. Despite the disparity, we found it convenient to think of a dollar as being worth ¥100; prices were thus easy to convert mentally, and the error was in our favor, since everything actually cost a little less than we calculated. As mentioned elsewhere, we came to view any meal that cost less than ¥2,000 as being “reasonable,” and anything under ¥1,000 as “cheap.” Since we were thinking of this as $20 and $10, it can be seen that meals were expensive.
So was almost everything else. Although we were advised to find “100-yen shops,” where souvenirs were very reasonable (like Dollar Tree and “Everything’s $1” stores in the United States), we never found any store that appeared to fit that description. We weren’t really looking for cheap souvenirs, anyway, and for the most part were not in the position of having to pay for much of anything except food and some public transportation.
Dealing with the money we found quite easy. By virtue of thinking of ¥100 as equivalent to a dollar, we could think of one yen as a penny. So five-yen pieces (go-yen) became nickels, ten-yen coins dimes, and so on. The only point at which this analogy broke down was that there are no “quarters.” As can be seen from the pictures below, there is no coin between 10 yen and 50 yen. Surprisingly, it was easy to get used to the idea that there were no ¥100 (“dollar”) or ¥500 (“five-dollar”) notes—only coins.
Although there is a “$20 bill” (¥2,000 note), it is shunned in Japan much as the $2 bill is in the United States. “Introduced amid much fanfare in 2000,” writes Yuji Utsunomiya in The Japan Times, “the ¥2,000 bill still seems like a novelty to many consumers….Most of the ¥2,000 bills in circulation are probably traveling back and forth between banks and retailers as consumers don’t want to hang onto them due to their inconvenience….According to convenience store operator Lawson Inc., many customers use ¥2,000 bank notes soon after withdrawing them from in-store ATMs. Some customers even refuse to receive ¥2,000 bills as change, it said.”
We had been advised to charge things as much as possible, since we would get a more favorable exchange rate that way (in fact, the rate we got that way ranged from ¥111.07 to ¥108.82). In one instance we paid cash when we would otherwise have charged: because Jeff was running low on cash, we let him charge our dinners at the restaurant in Kyoto Station, and we reimbursed him in cash.
Toward the end of our stay, we did our best to use up our remaining yen, paying cash for everything possible. Even so, we brought some home. Underestimating the time available in the Tokyo airport, I passed up an opportunity to sell my yen there. At each subsequent airport (San Francisco, Houston), the exchange rate was worse. After I got home, I cashed in my yen at my bank, getting a miserable $0.8096 for each and wishing I’d taken advantage of the airport rates. As Barney and I passed through several more international airports on trips to Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon, later that month, I was chagrined and annoyed to realize that I would have had several more opportunities to get a better rate than the bank offered.