It is imperative when traveling to any country to understand its monetary system. This includes knowing exchange rates, currency, customs, and more. Japan’s currency, the yen, is a large part of its already rich and long-standing culture. When traveling throughout Japan, it will be essential to understand the yen and its denominations to do the simplest things — such as eating, using vending machines, paying for hotels, and paying bus and/or buying Japan Rail passes to get around.
Experiencing new countries, such as Japan, often comes with fears and difficulties. Language barriers, respecting the local culture, transportation methods, and other nuances can get in the way of an enjoyable trip. Understanding the yen can help ease these anxieties, while allowing you to know exactly what you are paying for, and how much you need for services.
The Japanese yen comes in two forms — bills and coins. Similar to American currency, various banknotes and coins designate a certain amount of yen. Those traveling to Japan should know each bill, how much they are worth, and what services they can pay for with them.
The yen comes in several intricately decorated bills. Many yen banknotes have prominent figures, national trees, and other beautiful symbols of Japanese culture on them. Knowing the value of each will let a tourist of any capacity understand how much money they have. Additionally, you’ll know which bill to put into a vending machine and which one to use to pay for a night of dinner and drinks. When traveling in Japan, a person will likely come across many of the following banknotes:
- 1,000 yen – This roughly equates to an American $10 bill and is the lowest value of any Japanese banknote in circulation. This bill is typically used by office workers to pay for lunch.
- 2,000 yen – This bill was only printed from 2000-2003, may be rarer than an American $2 bill, and is approximately $20.
- 5,000 yen – Comparable to an American $50 bill, this may be the one you use to pay for dinner and drinks at a well-known restaurant or izakaya.
- 10,000 yen – Essentially a $100 bill. Present this bill when paying for the whole family to eat.
Japanese coins may be just as visually interesting as bills, as flowers are often etched into them. Generally, Japanese yen coins are used for making exact change and paying vending machines, taxis, buses, and getting a rail pass for easy travel throughout Japan. These coins vary in the metal used and shape and size — some even have a small hole in the middle of them. Coins a traveler will come across in Japan include:
- 1 yen – There is a saying in Japan — “he who laughs at one yen will weep at one yen.” Although this coin is of minimal value, it still has its worth. 1 yen is less than one American cent, so make sure not to use this for vending machines or ticket booths, as they will not accept it. However, you can use a 1 yen coin to make exact change, saving you from having to break a bill. This coin is made out of aluminum and can even float on water.
- 5 yen – A 5 yen coin can be seen as an American nickel and is valued at about 5 cents. A 5 yen coin is considered lucky, as it is pronounced “go-en,” which roughly translates to relationship or tie. As such, this coin is often offered at shrines in anticipation of a good relationship with the gods. A 5 yen coin has a hole through the middle of it and has a yellow tint.
- 10 yen – This copper coin holds a value of about 10 cents (USD). These coins can be useful if you need to use a public payphone.
- 50 yen – The 50 yen coin is another one that has a hole through its center. This silver coin is equal to about 50 cents.
- 100 yen – Equal to about $1, this coin made of nickel and copper has many uses. 100 yen coins are aptly used at 100-yen stores, and laundry and vending machines.
- 500 yen – Basically a $5 bill, this is the largest and most valuable of the yen coins. A 500 yen coin can be used to buy a simple lunch such as a bento box.
It should also be noted that yen can be further broken down into sen. One yen is about 100 sen, however, sen is rarely used in modern society. As America has its dollar sign ($), the yen or yuan sign is ¥. In contrast to the American way, the yuan sign comes after the amount — for instance, you would be presented with a bill of 1,500¥. Additionally, when speaking Japanese, the Y is not pronounced in yen, rather “en” (as in the 5 yen pronunciation “go-en.”
Japanese Currency Exchange
Generally, foreign currency is only accepted at major international airports, so knowing where and how to get yen will be crucial for providing acceptable payment for food, lodging, transportation, and more.
Even if you know the value of yen bills and coins, it will still help to understand how much you will be getting for your US dollar (or any other currency). Paying close attention to the foreign exchange rate can help you understand how your currency will convert to yen.
Yen to Dollar
As it currently stands, 1 USD equals just about 109 JPY (Japanese Yen). These figures can change, so it is a good idea to frequently visit a currency exchange website to know how far your dollar will go in Japan. Mobile apps for traveling to Japan can also be invaluable in making your trip an enjoyable experience. With several apps, you can map out your destinations, get directions on how to get to them, and calculate and transfer money internationally. There are several apps that can cut the confusion out of converting and transferring currency, providing the exact value of your dollar and whether you need cash or money on a credit/debit card.
Payment Methods in Japan
Japan has historically been a cash-heavy society. However, with new and more convenient forms of payment, other payment methods have been adopted. As in the case with any country you travel to, it is imperative you know what kinds of payments are accepted so you aren’t left stranded — trying to pay with a credit card when a place only accepts cash. Payments accepted in Japan go as follows:
- Cash: Cash is the most popular way to make transactions in Japan. It is entirely possible to pay for things big and small with big bills and yen coins. As you venture out into small cities and rural areas, make sure you have cash on you as these areas may not accept other forms of payment.
- Credit/ Debit Cards: Becoming increasingly popular, credit and debit cards are accepted especially in bigger cities. Hotel rooms, restaurants, retail stores, and more generally accept this form of payment.
- IC Cards: An IC card is a rechargeable card that stores value. You can use IC cards at many of the places you would use a credit or debit card, however, IC cards are largely used for train, bus, and rail fair.
How to Get Yen
You will almost undoubtedly need cash during your travels throughout Japan. Knowing how to get this cash will be critical if you want to pay for anything. Cash can be obtained by several means in Japan. If you need cash in Japan — which you most likely will — consider the following methods:
- Currency Exchange: Post offices, banks, international airports, and even some hotels will oversee currency exchange for travelers. Most of these places such as a hotel and an airport will be destinations in your travels, and this may be an easy way to get yen. Keep an eye on this method of getting yen, as some entities may give you a lower rate than others, and you may be able to get more yen for less money elsewhere. It may be better to convert your dollar before entering Japan.
- ATM WIthdrawal: Many convenience stores and post offices in Japan contain ATMs. This is another quick and easy way to get yen, however, some ATMs in Japan only accept cards issued in the country. Be wary of exchange rates when withdrawing from ATMs and also of the fact that many ATMs in Japan close during the night and may be unavailable on weekends — so make sure you time this method right.
- Traveler’s Check: If you can get these in your home country before traveling, you may be able to get a better exchange rate through traveler’s checks. You’ll have to find places in Japan that are willing to accept this currency — typically only international airports and banks.
Japanese Money Etiquette
To make sure you are respecting the culture, there are several things a tourist can do with their money that will not offend the Japanese people. Japanese people take the handling and care of money seriously and keep their bills wrinkle and tear-free. It is easy to fold, crumple, and otherwise damage paper money into your pocket or wallet. However when in Japan, you’ll want to mind this concept as it is generally frowned upon.
When giving or accepting money, it is a tradition to do this with both hands, and/or upon a tray. Especially when receiving bills, gently place them in your wallet as not to blemish them. Additionally, yen bills are larger than USD bills, so it may be a good idea to get a larger wallet to protect the integrity of the yen you receive.
The Japanese yen is a fascinating and beautiful form of currency that is rooted in tradition and culture. Understanding how this money looks, the value of it, and where to get yen will be essential to your Japan experience.