Money & costs
Although it looked as if Japan was going to take over the world economically through the 1980s, by the 1990s Japan’s economy was in a certifiable recession and remained so until very recently. Unemployment hovered around 5% (high by national standards), homelessness rose (visible in major encampments in districts such as Ueno and Shinjuku), corporations approached bankruptcy and bank loans turned into bad debts. The result: deflation, increased public debt and growing concern over how to support a greying populace (Japan has one of the world’s oldest populations, with life expectancies over 77 years for men and 85 for women). However, 2005 marked the beginning of a turnaround, which appears, finally, to have traction – land values in the city rose for the first time since 1991, and the Nikkei index is once again climbing high.
Some smart Tokyoites used the bubble to regenerate. People under 40 began to reject the stability of lifetime employment in favour of more compelling, often more flexible, independent jobs. The emblem of this movement was Horie Takafumi, who in 1995 dropped out of Tokyo University (Japan’s most prestigious) at the age of 23 to found a consulting company that eventually morphed into Livedoor, one of Japan’s leading internet services and DVD-rental empires. Horie’s showy personal trappings – fast cars, T-shirts instead of suits, brash corporate takeover bids and being a general media hound – infuriated the old-line corporate world. They also landed him in a book-cooking scandal that has periodically splashed across the headlines in recent times.
Despite its status as a top-tier, modern city, Tokyo still largely runs on a cash economy. Hotels and high-end restaurants will accept credit cards, but many less exclusive shops and services do not. Since it’s generally safe to carry around large amounts of cash in Tokyo, line your pockets with some money just for walking around. You’ll burn through yen quickly in Tokyo; if you’re not on a tight budget, plan on spending a daily average of around ¥5000 to ¥8000 for meals, train fares and admission costs.
The currency in Japan is the yen (¥), and banknotes and coins are easily distinguishable. There are ¥1, ¥5, ¥10, ¥50, ¥100 and ¥500 coins; and ¥1000, ¥2000, ¥5000 and ¥10, 000 banknotes (the ¥2000 note is very rarely seen). The ¥1 coin is an aluminium lightweight coin; the bronze-coloured ¥5 and silver-coloured ¥50 coins both have a hole punched in the middle. Note that some vending machines do not accept older ¥500 coins. Prices may be listed using the kanji for yen ().
ATMs are almost as common as vending machines in Tokyo. Unfortunately, most of these do not accept foreign-issued cards. Even if they display Visa and MasterCard logos, most accept only Japan-issued versions of these cards. Also, 24-hour ATMs are exceedingly rare.
Fortunately, Tokyo post offices have ATMs that accept foreign-issued cards, 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday. If you’re caught without cash after-hours, most 7-11 convenience stores have international ATMs. Citibank is your best bet for 24-hour ATMs that accept international cards; some Citibank ATM locations include Shinjuku, Ginza and Roppongi.
In theory, banks and post offices will change all major currencies. In practice, some banks refuse to exchange anything but US-dollar cash and travellers cheques. Note also that the currencies of neighbouring Taiwan (New Taiwan dollar) and Korea (won) are not easy to change, so you should change these into yen or US dollars before arriving in Japan.
With a passport, you can change cash or travellers cheques at any Authorised Foreign Exchange Bank (signs are displayed in English), major post offices, some large hotels and most big department stores. Note that you receive a better exchange rate when withdrawing cash from ATMs than when exchanging cash or travellers cheques in Tokyo. Be aware that many banks place a limit on the amount of cash you can withdraw in one day (often around US$400).
As Japan is very much a cash-based economy, never assume you can pay using a credit card. For businesses which do take credit card, Visa is most widely accepted, followed by MasterCard, American Express and Diners Club. Getting a cash advance using your foreign-issued credit card is nearly impossible, but Sumitomo Mitsui banks (SMBC) give cash advances if you bring your passport with you. The main credit-card companies all have offices in Tokyo.
American Express (0120-02-0120; 24hr)
Visa (00531-44-0022; 24hr)