Japan can be expensive, but there are ways to cut costs. This requires, to some extent, an adventurous spirit and the courage to stray from the standard tourist paths. One good way to hold down expenses is to avoid taxis (they tend to get stuck in traffic anyway) and try the inexpensive, efficient subway and bus systems; instead of going to a restaurant with menus in English and Western-style food, go to places where you can rely on your good old index finger to point to the dish you want, and try food that the Japanese eat.
Banks never have every foreign currency on hand, and it may take as long as a week to order. If you're planning to exchange funds before leaving home, don't wait until the last minute.
ATMs and Banks
Your own bank probably charges a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than at a currency-exchange office or even in a bank. Plus, extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
PINs with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in many countries. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
The easiest way to withdraw money is at convenience-store ATMs. 7-Eleven stores and Seven Bank ATMs accept most internationally branded cards. ATMs at many regular Japanese banks do not accept foreign-issue cash or credit cards. UFJ and Shinsei banks are members of the Plus network. Post offices have ATMs that accept Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, and Cirrus cards. In more rural areas, it can be difficult to find suitable ATMs, so it is best to get cash before venturing into the countryside. PIN numbers in Japan are made up of four digits. In Japanese an ATM is commonly referred to by its English initialism, while a PIN is ansho bango. Most machines also have English on-screen instructions.
It's a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you're going abroad and don't travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you're prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you're abroad) if your card is lost, but you're better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank's number is usually printed on your card.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you'll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it's usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there's a problem), note that some credit-card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they're in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won't be any surprises when you get the bill.
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether or not he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you'll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Dynamic currency conversion programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don't always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn't an option.
MasterCard and Visa are the most widely accepted credit cards in Japan. When you use a credit card, you'll be asked if you intend to be charged in one installment as most locals do. Say hai-ikkai (Yes, one time) since being charged in installments won't work for most U.S.-issued cards. Cash is still king, especially at Tokyo's smaller businesses.
Reporting Lost Cards
American Express. 03/3220–6100; www.americanexpress.com.
Diners Club. 0120/074–024; www.dinersclub.com.
MasterCard. 00531/113–886; www.mastercard.us.
Visa. 00531/111–555; www.visa.com.
Currency and Exchange
The unit of currency in Japan is the yen (¥). There are bills of ¥10,000, ¥5,000, ¥2,000, and ¥1,000. Coins are ¥500, ¥100, ¥50, ¥10, ¥5, and ¥1. Japanese currency floats on the international monetary exchange, so changes can be dramatic.
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there's some kind of huge, hidden fee. And as for rates, you're almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank.