In a letter to the editor published in the June 23 Tokyo Shimbun, the writer relates an anecdote about two American women who while waiting at Narita Airport for a connecting flight to the states after arriving in transit from a vacation in Southeast Asia, decided to kill time by taking in a local onsen (hot spring bath). After checking the Internet with whatever mobile devices they had with them, they found that the nearest one was at Shimosa Manzaki station, one stop away from the Narita city terminal on the JR Narita Line. Since they weren’t going to be in Japan long they didn’t bother getting yen, and were able to buy JR train tickets with their credit cards. They could also use their cards at the onsen itself.
However, when they went back to Shimosa Manzaki station to make the return trip to the airport after their bath they discovered that their credit cards were no good. Neither the ticket vending machine in the station nor the employee selling tickets at the window would accept them. The letter writer happened to be at the station at the time and understood English. She was kind enough to buy them tickets so that they could get back in time to catch their flight.
This incident highlights a major gap in the government’s plan to increase foreign tourism in Japan. Last year, for the first time ever, the number of foreign visitors exceeded 10 million, thus encouraging the Japan National Tourism Organization to aim for 20 million by 2020, the year Tokyo will host the summer Olympic Games. Significantly, 80 percent of the tourists who came to Japan last year were individual travelers, meaning they didn’t come as members of organized tours. Individual travelers book their own accommodations and arrange their own transportation with the idea of playing things by ear and enjoying their travels at their own pace.
Credit and debit cards make it easier since they allow for more flexibility than cash or travelers checks, which have to be purchased through foreign exchange outlets. As we’ve mentioned before, most Japanese bank ATMs don’t accept foreign credit cards, but even more vexing for individual tourists is that many Japanese businesses, including some who cater to tourists and especially those outside the large metropolitan areas don’t accept credit cards.
Hotels tend to be OK, but as the two American women who visited Shimosa Manzaki found out, a lot of transportation outlets aren’t. As far as JR goes, larger stations in the cities accept credit cards, but most others don’t. If you’re buying a shinkansen ticket, it’s usually OK to use a credit card, even with the special vending machines, but the Midori Kenbaiki, the special vending machines for long-distance travel, are complicated to use even for Japanese and don’t have English instructions.
Foreign tourists can buy Pasmo and Suica prepaid IC cards just like Japanese residents do, and they certainly make life easier, but both cards require a ¥500 deposit that may put some tourists off. Both cards can also be tied in with credit cards so that they recharge automatically when their value drops to almost nothing, but that option is not available to tourists. Mitsubishi Research has found that almost 90 percent of the travelers it surveyed from Taiwan, South Korea and the U.S. buy some sort of transportation pass, be it the JR rail pass or one-day Metro tickets, so obviously it is the sort of service that’s appreciated. But while these same people express a high level of satisfaction for the transportation service that’s offered, they also find it difficult to make sense of the network.
Specifically, they have difficulty figuring out how to get to specific destinations and how to buy tickets, especially from vending machines, even when English explanations are available. Moreover, while they appreciate the various passes on offer, they don’t often know which one is best for their needs. In Tokyo, should they buy one-day passes for both subway lines or just one?
The research arm of Mitsubishi UFJ found that 88 percent of foreign tourists use guidebooks, maps, smart phone apps or some combination of the three, but they would like to be able to do everything using their mobile devices. Some businesses have already said they plan to increase the number of free wi-fi hot spots by 2020, which is a good start. But making it easier to use credit cards more flexibly would also be a big incentive for visitors since it would save them time, trouble and maybe even money.