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It never ceases to amaze me how progressive Japan has become in the last 10 years. No more so then when tourists need to access their own money to spend on all the things. Money for ramen. Money for hotels. Money for Japan. It’s no secret that Japan isn’t the cheapest country for tourists to travel within. There are some simple ways to make accessing your money in Japan a whole lot easier. As well as a few handy tips and tricks on how you can save money on your Japan adventure. 
 
Before we deep dive into the fun finances I wanted to give you a bit of a backstory into my personal history with Japan and money adventures. 
 
Now I feel real old saying this but it was 17 years ago when I first left Australia and went to Japan. Back in ye olde days, as I call them, it was a bit of a hassle to get local yen to spend. ATMs in general were not abundant and international bank cards were also a bit on the suss side. It was pot luck whether or not your card would work. On my first trip my parents gifted me with travellers cheques in US dollars and some US cash. Cold hard cash. So either way I had to find somewhere to exchange my money into local currency. Which for a 17yo Jean, on her very first international trip was a bit daunting. I had to find exchange counters, which is really easy when you are staying in swanky hotels but this was a school trip and we were 101 basic backpacking. I’ll never forget the day that I ran out of Yen and had to ask a teacher to borrow some money so I could buy lunch as it was going to be a day until we found a hotel that accepted travellers cheques. All in all it was a workable situation but daunting none the less, and running out of cash is an experience that I never want to repeat again.
 
7 years later, old rebellious Jean went to Tokyo for a ten day bender. Drinking my way to happiness, alcohol poisoning and basic bitch touristic stuff. Hostels didn’t accept cards. Hotels only accepted a few select credit cards. Bars, restaurants and tours didn’t accept debit or credit cards. Back in 2009 you had to go inside a post office for an ATM or find a helpful 7-11. There were many, many moments when I’d had to leave the bar, grab cash and pay for my drinks. I was too much of a solo independent lady to allow the salary men to buy my drinks. During this trip cash was king. During a very brief stop over in Tokyo back in 2015 on my way to Mongolia, James and I found that most places for food, coffee only accepted cash. Frustrating but hey you gotta fit in with what a country does when you’re travelling. The only perk was being able to pay for vending machine coffee on our Pasmo cards. 
 
Now fast forward to 2019 and things have changed. Like changed a lot. Over all in Tokyo, Shizuoka and Kyoto paying by debit card is a lot more common and a lot easier then ever before. If you are planning on traveling for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics then this guide will help you be prepared for the unique money spending situations that may arise. Now I’d like to take a moment to introduce you to;

The Best Travel Debit Card for Your Japan Travels

I’ve tried a lot of different banking methods over the years of travel. I have around 4 bank accounts with different banks, on different cards as a just in case one doesn’t work when I’m travelling. I’ve tried several different travel cards from the main stream banks and found that overall they didn’t save very much at all. Some even cost me more then just using my regular debit card in a foreign country. Now Transferwise has come to the rescue, releasing a platinum debit master card. This was a total financial life saver for me when travelling around Japan. I saved over $60 in fees in my first week of travels, compared to using my regular banking cards from Australia.
 
Perks-
There are zero foreign transaction fees 
No minimum balance or monthly fees
Really low currency conversion fees
110% transparency on fees – each transaction the app shows you exactly what you are paying when you exchange currency, send money to another person etc
Auto-converts any currency – even if you run out of Yen the super app will convert the funds that you have on the card to Yen with the lowest fee possible. Meaning you aren’t getting slugged with even more foreign exchange fees from your old bank.
 
 
Now this super kawaii green card is easy to use. It has a chip, comes with a PIN code (which you could change in the app if need be) and can be signed as well. I always forget how many different identification ways there are for using a card when you’re in a different country. None of the stores, cafes or hotels had any issues with using my Transferwise card. 
 

What exactly is Transferwise?

If you’re unaware of who/what a Transfer Wise is – Transferwise is online banking, that allows you to hold up to 40 currencies in your account. It’s perfect for travellers and digital nomads. I currently hold funds in a US dollar, Euro, British Pounds and Australian Dollars. For our upcoming trip to New Zealand I’ll add in some kiwi dollars.
 
Perks of Transferwise;
 
Free accounts in multiple currency
Easy to use debit card – even if you don’t have local currency in your account the system converts it at the best day rate for you on the spot. You just need to press the pay in local currency button
The best money app I’ve ever used – available on iOs and Android
The ease of converting currencies, nearly instantly.
Origami of Mt Fuji in Shizouka Japan

Where to get Yen when you are travelling in Japan?

ATMs are going to be your best friend for getting out Yen. Most ATMS will give you a mixture of 1000 and 10,000 Yen notes. With an international card there are limited places that you can get out cash. You need to find a 7-11, which is also the best spot for cheap dinners, who will have ATMs that accept foreign cards. You can also go to a post office, where there might just happen to have an ATM which accepts foreign cards. This does mean that you will need to do a little bit more planning around your cash supplies. Each time I took out around $300 AU into Yen and that lasted me around a week. I used my Transferwise card for smaller purchases like coffee, doughnuts.
 
You wont’ see an abundance of ATMs on the streets, unlike other countries in the region. Some fancier hotels may have ATMs in the lobby but these won’t give you the best possible exchange rate and may even charge you an additional fee for using the ATM. So far I’ve found that the 7-11 ATMs don’t charge any additional fees, so you will just be charged whatever your bank or if you use the Transferwise card it’s a 2% fee once you go over the $350 monthly limit.
 
*tip – each time you spend on your TransferWise card the app will send you a kawaii alert telling you how much you’ve spent, in what currency and how much you have left. It’s a great way to help you keep track of your budget.
 
I had a SkyRoam Solis for my time in Japan, so was 100% of the time connected to great 4G service. You can buy your own SkyRoam Solis with 10% off for for my friends – use the code HONEYBIRDTRAVEL to get the discount!

Do you need to tip when travelling in Japan?

No. This is a hard no. From hotels to cafes and top restaurants there is no tipping. You’ll most likely see signs that say No Tipping. It is a little bit odd when you are in a situation where the wait staff go above and beyond to ensure that you are having a wonderful dining experience, and to not tip. I’m Australian and we don’t have a big tipping culture here but I do tip when the service is amazing. Unlike American hospitality workers the Japanese service staff are not reliant on tips to financially survive. 
 

The only times that it is acceptable to tip in Japan

As Western tourists push their ways and beliefs throughout Japan and indeed the world, the tipping culture is slowly becoming acceptable in a very few areas of Japanese service. If you do feel like tipping then usually it will be for private guides and/or interpreters.
 
How much to tip? Well that’s a whole other kettle of sake soaked fish. I’d say go by your gut feeling and your budget. 
 
There is a certain level of etiquette over tipping, as there are for most things in Japan. Opening up your purse, picking out some dirty dollar bills and handing them over is considered very crass. The correct way to tip is to put the bills into a clean envelope and hand over to the receiver, holding the envelope with two hands. Now you might be thinking that it’s a bit odd to travel with envelopes but it’s a lot easier to buy them when you are in Japan. Convenience stores, Daiso or one of the lovely stationary stores will have very beautiful affordable envelopes. Show casing that you appreciate the service received in a much nicer way then just throwing money at someone. 
 
Generally speaking, no matter where you are in Japan you will receive thoughtful and considerate service – with no tipping strings attached. If you do wish to give your guide something special then during the tour paying for a coffee/tea/ice cream is perfectly acceptable as is bringing a small local gift from home. 

If you need to buy things and don’t want the hassle of the shops did you know that Amazon Japan can deliver to your hotel or a local combini where you can pay on collection? I also had to do this when my Samsung screen protector was destroyed and there was no where else to get a new one. Check out the fun stuff you can buy on Amazon Japan

Night time down an alley way in Kyoto lamps

The mystery Table Cover Charge in Japan

So you don’t tip in Japan. Sounds great right? There is a openly known additional charge that bars and restaurants charge called the Cover Charge. This can be as low as Y400 or as high as Y2000. Depending on the venue that you are visiting. Now this is a cultural experience that you can’t avoid and can be a bit confusing at times. The cover charge is a compulsory snack fee. You’ll get a small treat at the start of your meal/before drinks.
 
You can’t opt out of the cover charge. Depending on what city you are in, there are foreigner friendly venues that don’t charge you the cover charge. There will be big signs out the front telling you this to tempt you in. And usually if a bar tells you that it is not suspicious you should go inside. I’m not sure when the word suspicious became so hilarious but each bar we found that tempted us up the stairs was a whole lot of fun.
 
Tip – Many venues that charge a cover charge don’t list tax on the menu. So don’t be surprised when the bill is a lot higher then you were thinking. The tax is charged on the cover charge as well  as all food and beverages.
Ice cream in Uji Kyoto

Pasmo, Suica or JR Pass – What is the most affordable way to get around Japan?

This is a tough question as it really does depend on where you want to go. I’ve not used a JR Pass on any of my trips. For example if you are considering doing a round trip from Tokyo-Osaka/Kyoto then for the Shinkansen tickets alone it’s cheaper to buy a JR Pass. But finding out the ins and outs of the JR Pass is an art form in itself. 

If you are ready to buy your JR Pass then I’d suggest buying from Klook or Voyagin. These two sites are very safe and reliable to use. I’ve used both around different Asian countries and never had an issue. The reason I say to check both is that Klook commonly has sales and discounts. I’ve found Voyagin to have more reasonable pricing when Klook isn’t having a sale.

JR Pass – Klook
JR Pass – Voyagin

Personally for me I’m a Pasmo fan. This is a prepaid card, that can be topped up at any train station super easily. If you want to pre-purchase a Pasmo card before you arrive in Australia you can do so over at Klook. Otherwise the easiest way is to buy one at the train station. If you arrive at Narita Airport there are staff at the ticket machines to help you out.

Tip – The machines for topping up your IC card are available in English. And you can use these cards in 7-11s and vending machines.

Pasmo charge machine in Tokyo

Final thoughts on managing your money in Japan

Japan is slowly catching up to the world when it comes to tourists being able to access and spend their money whilst travelling in Japan. For instance you can pay for  a taxi using a smart phone/watch. Over the next 6-12 months, and before Tokyo 2020 I feel that there will be a bigger push to bring in more foreigner friendly ATMs, more small businesses taking up EFTPOS machines. However it is still a cash economy, and I can’t see this cultural part of Japan changing in the near future. It will be a balance of dealing with mass tourism and keeping traditions going. Kinda like the onsen and tattoo issue that is brewing away. 
 
My final advice for you, if you are planning on travelling to Japan either for pleasure or to enjoy the Olympics with Tokyo 2020, that you should take at least 2 different debit cards and always ensure that you have Yen on you just incase cards aren’t accepted. If you are planning on exploring past the major tourist hot spots, then you will without a doubt need yen on hand, as you will struggle to find at ATM or places that will accept card at all. Yes it is frustrating for those of us who are living in nearly cash free countries but alas this is the joy of travel. Fitting in to another countries ways, even if we do find that a wee bit frustrating. 
 
If you have any questions on handling money, accessing your money or even great places to spend your money while travelling in Japan feel free to drop a comment below. Or send me a tweet. I love the twitter verse.
Jean

Jean

Founder, Principal Blogger & Coffee Drinker

Coffee Lover | Travel Blogger | Horse Rider | Adventure Racer | Donut Dame.

Generally nice lady-enjoys wine, indie movies & random dance parties in my tent.

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2 Comments

  1. This is so handy for me, I’ve never been to Japana and will get there some day, but need to skill up. I have a Transferwise borderless account and just got a debit card for it, not a platinum one… have only got UK pounds in there so far. Currently in Fiji and will be spending a fortune on bank fees, sadly.

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  2. I love these culturally insightful tips! I often travel to Bali which has eftpos machines and atm’s everywhere. Compared to Japan, Bali is still a developing country … I would have received an awful fright on my first visit to Japan if I hadn’t read this, so thanks heaps!

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