Cash or Cash-free when traveling in Tokyo? Making sense of money and payment options in Japan.
BY Karolina Höglind
While exploring an exciting city such as Tokyo, spending money is often a big part of your everyday. Coming to Japan as a tourist it can be quite tricky to make sense of how you can, or should, pay. In Japan, generally cash is a safe bet. However, for those who prefer to skip the hassle of bills and coins, there are often cashless options available around Tokyo. So, let’s take a look at the different cashless ways you can pay during your trip, as well as how to withdraw the, cash.
Japan has long been known to be a ‘Cash is king’ country, so always having cash on hand is a good idea. With that said, the cashless trend sweeping the country brings a rapid increase of payment options. Japan’s government is pushing for an increase in cashless payments, with the goal of 40% of consumer payments being cashless by 2025. The current rate of cashless payments is at 20%, which is far lower than many other western, as well as Asian countries.
When the consumption tax increased from eight to ten percent in October 2019, the government introduced a new, short-term points-back system, incentivizing the use of cashless payment options. The campaign will go on until the end of June 2020, in hope to give an extra push for the market to expand and become more competitive leading up to the Olympics. Even though Japan is moving to a more cashless based society, familiar payment options might still not be available for travelers in Japan. So, knowing what options you have can make a difference in convenience throughout your trip!
For the Olympic and Paralympic games, the only digital payment system which is an official sponsor is VISA. During the Games you will be able to pay using your VISA card around the arena, in the official shop and at food stalls. Alternative payment options will also be available. However, no other credit cards can be used in the Tokyo 2020 official shop and game venue. So, if you do not have access to a VISA card, make sure and bring cash.
Even though the overall percentage of cashless transactions made is rather low, the country offers its fair share of options to the traditional bills and coins. Tokyo is mostly cash-free except for privately owned shops. Let’s take a deeper look into some options available, and things to keep in mind about them.
Credit cards are now widely accepted in more established shops and restaurants. VISA and other international cards are common types and should not pose an issue. One easy way to make sure you can use your credit card is to find a seal located by the entrance that has pictures of the cards the shop accepts. If you can’t find the seal, ask the staff directly.
Debit cards have a very short history in Japan and are still somewhat rare. They only make up 2% of the payments made by cards. Because of this, using a credit card over a debit card is the safer choice. If you plan on using your card during your trip, make sure to check with your bank so that you can use it internationally beforehand!
A big trend in Japan is to pay using your IC Cards, the most widely used being Suica and Pasmo. Mainly used for paying for public transport, the Integrated Circuit Card (IC Card) is a prepaid smart card. It is a convenient way to pay for things where they accept electronic money (電子マネー, Denshi Manee), such as getting a drink from a vending machine or buying a snack from the convenience store by the station. You can also use it for bigger purchases when out shopping at a department store or eating at a restaurant. Every train station and convenience store has a machine where you can top up your card. However, be prepared that most machines only take cash in country side.
When travelling in Japan for a shorter period of time, check out the more traveller-friendly IC Cards which also comes with special benefits! The 28-day limited Welcome Suica works the same way as the regular Suica, but there is no need for the 500 yen deposit a regular Suica has, and it comes with a special design! Just be careful not to charge too much, as the money left on it as it expires will not be reimbursable. Read more about the Welcome Suica at the JR EAST website. You can easily get your hands on the Welcome Suica as you arrive at the airport, or at major train stations around Tokyo.
Pasmo also offers their traveller IC Card, the PASMO PASSPORT, with a design featuring some of Japan’s most well-known characters. It does have a 500yen issuing fee, but you can use it to get discount at shops, restaurants, and for various experiences around Japan.
The market that has seen the biggest, fastest change in Japan is mobile payment. Domestic frontrunners are Line Pay, by the messaging service LINE, and Pay Pay, a service launched in 2018 backed parent organizations Yahoo! Japan and Softbank. These, amongst others, have become increasingly available at stores and restaurants in Tokyo. For foreign tourists, however, the options available are a little bit slimmer. Chinese and South Korean payment services such as Alipay and KaKaoPay are the most commonly acceptable. At some major retailers and convenience stores you can use international services, such as Apple Pay and Google Pay, but it is good to not rely on them too much when out and experiencing Japan. Due to differences in the technology, if you are using a non-Japanese phone you might not be able to pay through mobile payment. NFC is not common in Japan, as instead the FeliCa system is often used.
Even with the various cashless payments options available, you should still expect to come across cash-only restaurants and shops. If you are planning an excursion outside of greater Tokyo area or paying at smaller shops, restaurants or Izakayas (Japanese-style bar), cash is still king. Even some selected restaurants of the big international restaurant chains such as McDonalds don’t accept credit cards either. Always having some Yen in your wallet is highly recommended.
Exchanging your currency to Japanese Yen is something you can do both in your home country, or upon landing in Japan. But as the rates are often very high when using a foreign currency exchange, it might be good to only exchange a limited amount. There are many ATMs located at the airport where you can withdraw Yen with an international card at a much lower rate.
Because of the high cash demand, you can find ATMs almost everywhere around Tokyo. A high number of ATMs also accept international cards. If you can see a sign that mentions international cards, you should be good to go. Many convenience stores ATMs, such as at at 7-Eleven, accept foreign cards. And with most convenience stores in Tokyo being open 24/7 makes it very convenient. You can find Seven Bank ATMs in other places as well, check out the Seven Bank for more information about accepted cards and locations.
Another place you can rely on being able to withdraw money using your international card is Japan Post. Their opening hours are limited and vary depending on location. Look out for the Japan post symbol, or use their Japan Post ATM Finder app to find their nearest ATM. Read more about the app and their ATM services at the Japan Post website.
Cashless payment options are more available in Tokyo, even for tourists, compared to a few years ago. Credit cards are still the most reliable, but the IC Card is very convenient, especially for smaller transactions. Using mobile payment as a tourist can still be a bit tricky, and you might not want to rely on it too much. At the end of the day, cash is still an important part of the Japanese society. Make sure that you always have some cash on you are out exploring Japan. Something which is not too difficult as you can easily find ATMs which accepts international cards all around Tokyo!
Sweden born and bred Tokyoite. She started her journey to Japan as many others, through watching Sailor Moon on TV from a young age. Now her interest stretches out to culture, food and social issues. While studying at a Japanese university, she worked as an editor for a Tokyo-based culture magazine and as a radio host. She now spends her time as an office worker by day and Tokyo explorer by night.