A friend in the tourist industry recently brought a group of middle aged and elderly Americans to Hakone National Park in Shizuoka Prefecture and the area around Mount Fuji. In Hakone, one of Japan’s most famous sightseeing spots, the Americans were discouraged from buying souvenirs when they got off the sightseeing boat at Lake Ashi because the large store at the dock does not take credit cards. This is not unusual for merchants outside of the major cities in Japan, but Hakone supposedly is enthusiastic about attracting foreign tourism. In fact, the policy seems downright stupid since the one souvenir shop in Hakone that does take credit cards is always packed.
My friend said that he always has the same problem in Hakone. Most of the restaurants there don’t take credit cards either. In addition, there are no foreign exchange services in Hakone except at some large hotels, which only guests can use. And the hotel in Fuji City where the American group stayed because it has a good view of Mount Fuji also does not exchange money. In fact, when our friend asked the front desk where people could exchange money in Fuji City the employee said he didn’t know.
We called the Hakone tourist association directly and asked about foreign exchange. The person who answered had to inquire of someone else and then told us that “some banks” in Hakone offer foreign exchange services but he didn’t know which ones. Also, banks in the area close at 3 p.m. on weekdays and are not open at all on weekends. We know that ATMs in post offices and 7-11 convenience stores will dispense yen for most foreign credit cards, but that means foreign tourists have to know this beforehand and then locate those businesses.
The truth is, Japan has never been very accommodating to tourists when it comes to foreign exchange, despite occasional campaigns like “Yokoso Japan” to boost foreign tourism. Of course, most tourists prefer to use credit cards these days, and you can use them easily enough in large Japanese cities, but once you leave metropolitan areas it gets a bit dodgy. Stand-alone foreign exchange services (ryogaejo) can be found at international airports and places like Tokyo Disneyland, but elsewhere they’re usually integrated into banks, which often make the exchange process a chore, requiring the copying of passports and other time-consuming procedures.
Let’s face it. Most Japanese businesses don’t trust anything but yen, in cash.