A mid-term resident of Tokyo reports – Part 2: Burning through cash

This is part 2 of what is intended to be a collection of overview reports on living in Tokyo by someone who is here for longer than a short stay but shorter than a long stay. Hopefully they will be helpful to others in similar situations.

For all of it’s electronic overload, Tokyo is a city that still heavily relies on cash for day to day transactions. The majority of places do take credit cards, including places I would not typically expect to, but cash is still king even at most of those, and it is not at all unusual to walk into a place that you would expect to take credit cards and find out when you go to pay that they are cash-only. A big one of those is the train station – bank cards are only accepted for long distance tickets at certain ticket offices, local tickets are cash-only.

There is a middle ground in this, which is the use of scannable debit cards. The train systems were the leaders in this effort and developed various different systems such as SUICA and PASSIMO, which are rapidly merging together. Originally intended to speed up getting people through stations by eliminating the need for buying and handling paper based tickets, the cards started being accepted by vending machine on the platforms, then by businesses around the station, and now it seems that half of the cash registers in Tokyo have a card reader next to them. Although the cards are electronic, they are generally only chargeable with cash at specific machines in train stations and some convenience stores. There are other versions of this as well – where I work has it’s own system, and again it is cash-only to charge the card. Since to use any of these I first have to go to an ATM and get cash which I then feed into another machine, I consider this to essentially still be a cash transaction.

Compared to most other places Tokyo is an expensive city to live in, and a telling sign of the amount of cash it is easy to burn through in this city is that there are many ATMs where only 10,000 Yen bills are given out. At the current exchange rate this comes out to roughly $130. In my view that is a very large amount of money both to be carrying around in cash and to have as a minimum ATM resolution, but when it comes time to buy my monthly commuter pass (which is cash-only) I need more than that to start with.

Some colleagues who pass through here on business and require itemized receipts for their expenses hate this side of Tokyo. Their systems are typically set up based on the assumption that a credit card will be used for nearly all transactions and that everything will have an itemized receipt. That falls apart quickly here in the cash-only side of the system where local train tickets do not provide receipts and it is not uncommon to buy meals from a vending machine.

A Tokyo train station vending machine for hot and cold beverages that takes cash and SUICA

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