In America, most walk around with a few credit or debit cards, and that’s all they need. Few carry cash. We use cards for everything from gas to shirts to dinner. We’ll even bust out the card for few-dollar transactions like parking meters and coffee. Even our sole-proprietor food carts take credit cards, and restaurants have to explicitly state if they don’t meet this widespread expectation.
Japan is very different.
Japan is a cash-based society, so it’s not uncommon for people to walk around with ¥30-50k on a daily basis (it’s easiest to just knock off two zeros to covert to dollars, though the exchange rate was a bit better than that when we were there). Train tickets, ramen, shrine admissions, book stores, kimono rentals, cat cafes – all expected cash. We even needed cash for the larger purchases (we brought back a really nice chefs knife for my brother). I don’t think we brought out our credit card once while there.
For Americans, it’s important to note only certain ATMs will work with foreign cards. 7-11 was our go-to for cash, as they consistently had the gaijin-friendly machines. And these ATMs left you feeling like you’ve won the jackpot. Instead of dispensing the bills from a slot on the front, a colorfully lit portal opens on top, revealing your winnings.
The other major difference we fumbled through initially was with the transactions themselves. In the States, cash transactions entail handing the cashier your bills (and/or coins), and she counts out your change, hands you the bills, and plops the coins on top.
The Japanese prefer to not handle the cash quite so much. At each register is a small tray. Upon the cashier resting his fingers on the till to indicate your displayed total, you place your yen into the tray. He counts it and produces your change, which he places into the same tray and slides it back to you. He then carefully hands you the receipt with both hands, bowing and thanking you for your business. It’s all quite a pleasant exchange – provided you don’t try to hand him the cash directly.
With a reputation for advanced technology, I was surprised to not find quick swiping scanners and Apple Pay at every counter. And it’s one of the few things I actually preferred about home. With cards, your money is more secure and trackable, not to mention far lighter in your pocket.
However, you gotta love the cute doughnut coins with holes punched in the middle. And let’s face it: coins look a lot better than cards in shrine pools.