Monday, June 15, 2009


Japan is a great place! It's world-leading in some ways. Could it be better?... certainly!

I've lived in Japan for 13+ years, and now visit regularly. There's much I like. (Perhaps I'll add more kudos later, but -- quickly -- some areas I admire are the hot springs, the people, culture, food, holidays, predictability, reliability, etc.).

This post, however, will list major weaknesses. Over time I'll add & revise the items. These are personal observations; suggestions welcome!

Prepare plenty of yen (cash) for Japan. Only a small percentage of ATM machines handle cashcards / creditcards issued outside Japan (this means 1% or less!) In early 2009 I was in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. There was no place in that city to withdraw cash using a foreign Visa or Master card... I asked at two Tourist Offices, the major local bank, at a high-end hotel, and at a foreign tourist assistance desk. It was recommended to go to the neighboring city of Oita. Terrible for a city that attracts international tourists and has an globally-oriented university.

Most hotels & many restaurants accept credit cards (foreign or domestic) but a great many places in Japan require cash. Foreign exchange at banks in many cities is a tedious & costly procedure. In this earlier cited trip, I visited Oita Bank and exchanged Korean won at 15% over the interbank rate, and Australian dollars at 21% above that day's interbank rate; it took about 25 minutes for the paperwork. (I'm interested in this as a structural weakness. I wasn't out of cash, and had more than 50,000 yen and also plenty of U.S. dollars). The lesson is that well-off foreign visitors to Japan can expect to be seriously inconvenienced. They'll also feel Japan as rigidly domestic and financially archaic. It's sad that Japanese financial institutions haven't fixed this...