Tokyo guide: money, budgets, winging it (part 1)

If you are going to Japan, congrats! I wrote a guide for friends visiting Tokyo and Kyoto on their first trip. A few pages turned into a few more. And now you’re reading part 1 of 10 for a first time visitor’s guide to Tokyo and (briefly) Kyoto.

For spoilers, see the full guide here:

Part 1: money, budgets, and how to wing it with less planning

Cash, credit cards, and atms

  1. Getting Cash — Using an ATM in Japan gives you the best exchange rate. Some bank cards, such as Citigold, do not charge an international ATM fee. We used a Bank of America card at a 7–11 ATM at the airport. We received a better exchange rate than we would by exchanging money in the US or with the money exchange kiosks in Japan. Banks charge $5 plus a percentage (~3%) of the amount exchanged.
  2. Finding an ATM — 7–11 stores take international ATM cards without an additional fee. There are 7–11 ATMs at most major airports, including Narita and Haneda airport. The convenience stores are located everywhere.
  3. Exchange rate — Check the exchange rate before you go. The dollar has been strong to the Yen, and is currently at 112 Yen to $1 (May 2017).
  4. Carry cash — Japan is a cash heavy society. Have cash on hand if you are venturing beyond Tokyo or Kyoto. Within Tokyo and Kyoto, most places accept Visa, American Express, and MasterCard. Smaller restaurants may only accept cash.

Budgets & money saving hacks

Tokyo is known for being expensive. However, for the service quality, Tokyo is a great value. There is no tipping in Japan. This gives you a 10-20% discount everywhere you go.

  1. Flight deals — You can find inexpensive flights to Tokyo by following The Flight Deal and Secret Flying. I see flight for <$500 about once a month. Our flight on ANA from San Francisco was $600, and our flight from Seattle was $470.
  2. Grocery stores discount their prepared foods by 50% at the end of the day. I would stay away from sushi and raw fish because they may not be fresh. Prepared hot foods taste great.
  3. 7–11 meals — You can get onigiri from 7–11 for $1. Rumor has it that the rice balls are made fresh by grandmothers everyday.

How to wing it in Japan

  1. You don’t need to spend hours planning to have a great trip. The density in Tokyo makes it easy to walk around and discover something new. Look for pockets of density on Google Maps. Neighborhoods with more density like Asakusa below are in a light tan color. Chart a path between neighborhoods and start walking — you’re bound to run into something interesting.

Part 2: Transportation (JR pass, suica pass, navigating the subways)

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