Japanese use the yen, ¥JPY for currency and is currently valued at approximately $1USD to every ¥109JPY. We used the Currency Converter 4.0 on Google Play during our trip. There is a free version, and a full paid version. We did just fine with the free version, and it also offers 15 other currency conversions, plus a built in calculator.
The most important thing you need to know about currency in Japan is that cash is king. You will rarely be able to use a credit or debit card, even at places like McDonald’s. We can name the full list of places we were able to use our credit card on one hand: Ninja Akasaka, grocery shopping, very infrequent restaurants, and Tokyo Disneyland. In fact, many places will tout on their websites that they accept credit cards, but will deny you once you actually go there. They might even have the universal Visa symbol on their door, but in actuality that means nothing. You can book your airbnb, hotels and Disney tickets in advance using credit to rack up reward points, but you’ll need cash for everything else.
Not only will you not have the peace of mind of fraud protection, but this also puts you at a disadvantage for theft as you will constantly need to be carrying around large wads of cash. Though theft is said to be rare in Japan, don’t rest on your laurels. We were pick pocketed in Japan at Don Quijote.
The smallest denomination in coin is ¥1JPY coin, while the largest is the ¥500JPY coin. Paper money starts at ¥1,000JPY and goes up to ¥10,000JPY. You will constantly need coins. You’ll need coins to ride the JR trains, to use at vending machines, and at vending ordering machines at restaurants. Coins are differentiated by size, color and shape (the ¥5JPY and the ¥50JPY will have a hole in the center).
The Japanese inflation rate hasn’t changed in over 10 years, and cash is said to have been the driving force behind this. We discussed this phenomenon with a Japanese local now living in New York City, on a gondola ride, and according to Wikipedia it’s true.
Japan really isn’t as expensive as initially thought. Most items are similar in price to the United States, with the exception of fruit, and certain novelties. You can save on hotels, which charge by the person, by staying in an airbnb that often sleep up to 10 for under $80USD a night. Local restaurants are often so cheap you can splurge buying all the appetizers your heart desires. And transportation is less than a dollar for most trips, while kids are free.