Tourist spots averse to foreign exchange

November 25th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Sign at Hakone souvenir shop

Discouraging words: Sign at Hakone souvenir shop

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.

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5 Responses

  1. I agree. Changing money here can be a pain, and the rates here aren’t that good either. I always recommend my friends to change money in their country before arriving.

    I can understand why smaller shops aren’t willing to accept credit cards because of the roughly 3% charges but in a tourist spot like Hakone, surely the benefits far outweigh the negatives

  2. I too, agree. Exchanging money in japan is a pain. It can take half a day in a rural bank, if they will do it at all. The credit card fee of 3% is reasonable and more merchants should accept the cards, especially in tourist areas.

  3. I can’t say this is a big problem for me. I always divide my saving to Japanese banks as well as European, so I haven’t had the hassle of exchanging money for a long time now. But much can be fixed with the information that all JP Bank ATM’s all over Japan accept VISA cards for cash withdrawals (including VISA Electron), as well as many kombini ATM’s. I really see this as a case of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.

    But agreeably a cash-only society does not reflect modern times that much.

  4. I’m not even going to go into how awful it was a few years ago when my then-boyfriend arrived from Switzerland with 10,000 yen in cash and a fistful of credit cards … during the o-shogatsu season. Let’s just say that we spent most of our two-week holiday either tramping about Osaka looking for ATMs that accepted MasterCard, or arguing about his lack of foresight in assuming that Japan was a modern and civilised nation when it came to dealing with foreign currencies.

    Our relationship cooled rapidly after that experience.

  5. I once had an experience in Osaka that speaks volumes about official Japan’s obsession with paperwork and bureaucracy. I wanted to place a large item in a temp storage locker in the Namba train station, but because the locker only accepted 100-yen coins and all I had was a 500-yen coin, I went into the adjacent bank and asked for change. The teller handed me a form to fill out and told me to take a number and wait. Fortunately, the guy behind the counter at the neighboring Seven Eleven was more accommodating.

    On another occasion, a friend wired me a modest sum of money from abroad. I went down to the Western Union office in Tokyo to receive it. The clerk asked me what I wanted the money for. I told her it was none of her business. She said it was a government regulation that they ask. I gave her an incredulous look and then told her I needed to pay for a sex-change operation for my dog. She wrote it down.

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