Cash flow

There is a certain problem appearing on the horizon, and its name is cash flow. No, I’m not out of money and I won’t be for quite a while – benefits of having lived frugally all these years – it’s just that there may be difficulties in accessing any of it. Japan, although so modern and industrialized, is still a cash society. I have written about this before, and also about the problems you may have finding an ATM accepting foreign issued cards.

Adding insult to injury, on April 19th, 2013, the Japanese banks have maestro logodecided to upgrade the security system of ATM’s, thus affecting all non-Asia issued cards with the Maestro logo insofar as it will not be possible to withdraw money. Here is the announcement from Master card’s homepage:

To: Cardholders of Maestro-branded EMV Cards issued outside of the Asia/Pacific Region
Re: Temporary Suspension of Maestro ATM Acceptance in Japan

Thank you very much for patronage with MasterCard. All Maestro-branded EMV cards issued outside of the Asia/Pacific region are temporarily unable to withdraw currency at domestic ATMs, while the regional ATM network is upgraded.

However, Maestro-branded EMV cards issued in the following countries are able to withdraw currency at domestic ATMs.

  • Netherlands
  • Canada

Maestro-branded EMV cards issued within the Asia/Pacific Region, Maestro-branded cards without EMV chip, MasterCard-branded cards, and Cirrus-branded cards are not affected by this temporary suspension of service. Cardholders can continue to be able to use these other MasterCard products at ATMs and merchants across Japan.

MasterCard is working with these customer financial institutions to enable full acceptance of all cards as soon as possible.

Please accept our deep apology for the inconvenience caused.

This means that not a single one of my Europe-issued bank cards will work here on any ATM for an unknown (undisclosed?) period of time. Rejoice, oh gaijin! Slightly panicking, I have contacted my bank. They confirmed the above statement but claimed that highly frequented ATM’s were unaffected, like those in shopping centres.

As I am not out of cash just yet – and it’s always better to withdraw a larger amount of money when abroad – I have not tried one of those yet, but will have to soon, I’m sure. We’ll see how it goes. In the worst case I can always get cash using my credit card – to steeper fees, of course.



Money Matters

Japanese currencyThe Japanese legal tender is the Japanese Yen, written as ¥ or, in Japan, with the Kanji 円, which also means “round”. The Japanese pronunciation is “en”.

There are coins for 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 yen, and banknotes for 1000, 5000, and 10.000 yen (thanks to Tokyoship for the image). Technically, there are banknotes for 2000 yen as well, but during all my stays in Japan, I have never come across any of those.

Although Japan is a thoroughly modern industrialized country, it is still pretty much a cash society. Credit cards are not readily accepted, but you can pay your Shinkansen tickets with one, online bookings in general of course, and large chain stores or hotels usually accept them also. I did have a problem in one of the smaller hotels I stayed in though, where my card didn’t work for some reason or other – so it’s a good idea to bring enough cash for these types of emergencies. In general I’d say as long as you are out and about in the bigger cities, credit cards in major venues should work fine, but for smaller towns or places you should bring enough cash – which is usually more than you thought you’d need.

Naturally, running around with huge wads of cash is not everybody’s cup of tea, so there must be a way of getting some in Japan, right? Well, there is… but it’s unusually bothersome – for a modern country at least. Thanks goodness ATM’s are common, but then again, you will need the special animal called “international ATM”, and those are a comparatively rare species. Usually they can be hunted down in larger post offices (which is good because post offices are more numerous than banks), but caveat emptor! I recall that in the main post office in Fukuoka, there were about 10 ATM’s, but only a single one accepted my bank card… Also, there is one chain of convenience stores (I think it’s 7-11, but I’m not sure anymore) that have international ATM’s as well. They are easy to spot though – either it says somewhere “International” or the Maestro sign is prominently displayed. If you’re card is rejected, it was the wrong machine…

On my first trip to Japan in 2007, I had the luck of losing my bank card… I still had my credit card, so I thought it should be easy to get a cash advance on it. Well yes, but I had to try out three banks until I found one that would do something like that. Thinking back, I am wondering what the problem was – that nobody would speak English well enough? That they were not ready to deal with that so early on a Monday morning? In any case, getting a cash advance on your credit card is another way of getting cash in Japan. And I hope that in all those years the banks are more ready to hand you your own money.

Japan is a wonderful place to spend lots of money – be it on travelling, food, gifts… The only thing you don’t have to worry about is tipping. As with most Asian countries, tipping is unheard of, in fact, some people may even find it offensive if you tried. Well, at least one thing to be cheap.

Japan Rail Pass

If you’re going to Japan and are planning to see more than just Tokyo or Kyoto, you should definitely get a Japan Rail Pass. It allows you to take any JR train – which includes the Shinkansen and even some overland buses – with a minimum amount of hassle within a specified time period for a lump sum payment upfront.

Note that a Japan Rail Pass is available only for people who enter Japan on a tourist visa and can only be bought abroad. It is not available for sale in Japan.

The procedure to get one is as follows: Go to the Japan Rail Pass site and find a local travel agency that sells exchange orders. You pay upfront for your exchange order – depending on whether you need one for adults/children, for ordinary travel or green cars (those are first class) and on the amount of days you want to travel (7, 14, or 21) – and after your payment has been received, you will get the exchange order for your rail pass.

Once you have landed in Japan, you can go to a JR ticket counter (the one at the airport is best, imo) and get the real pass for your exchange order. You need to show your tourist visa and can indicate the starting day of your Rail Pass.

Rail Pass
Exchange Order and Japan Rail Pass

From there, it’s travelling bliss… All you need to do is to go to a manned ticket gate (the pass won’t fit through the normal slots of the machines), show the pass and go through. Sometimes there are different gates for going in and out the paid zone, but unless you come at a very busy time, the staff will be friendly about it. If you travel by high speed Shinkansen, it’s better to reserve a seat – just go to a ticket counter, show the pass and get a reservation, they are always free!

When I go to Japan this time, I will not get a Rail Pass, as I am not planning to travel, but I did buy one for 21 days last year. It was rather expensive (the exchange rates were bad), but as I was travelling up and down Honshu, it was worth it nonetheless. Enjoy!

Here is the Japan Rail Pass homepage with all info you may need.

Trembling Earth

Japan lies in a volatile part of the planet, where three tectonic plates meet: the Pacific, the Philippine and the Eurasian plate.

This is the reason for all the volcanoes in Japan (Mt. Fuji is the largest), the abundance of hot springs – onsen – and the almost regularly occuring earthquakes. There are about 1500 earthquakes on the Japanese isles per year (that’s about 4 per day!), but the majority of them are harmless, and people don’t even notice them. If you do perceive one, however, and you are on a higher floor, trust me, the experience is not pleasant, especially if it’s your first earthquake.

The Japanese have a very easy way to determine what to do in case of an earthquake: If the shaking is horizontal, left-right, it is quite harmless, and there is no need to do anything, except waiting for it to pass. If the shaking is vertical, up-down, however, you should try to cover at least your head (a pillow will do), or, better still, get underneath a table. Stay away from windows (as they may break) and heavy furniture like bookcases (as they may move or even topple). Wait until the shaking stops, then leave the building (using the stairs), preferrably without rummaging for any stuff to take with you. Once outside, follow the locals – in every city in Japan there are special evacuation zones where people should gather in such circumstances.

In any case, whatever type of earthquake you encounter, there will be some report about it very quickly, either on the designated internet site of the Japan Meteorological Agency (which would issue a tsunami warning within 3 minutes) and on TV, and most likely also on local radio (I don’t know that for sure though).

My first earthquake?
One evening in August 2011, when I was in the 7th floor of the Toyoko Inn in Kabuki-cho, Tokyo.
At first I thought the person in the neighbouring room had dropped his heavy suitcase. Then I realized that suitcase-dropping usually does not last for several seconds. And then I held on to my desk with a slightly panicky feeling of “And what do I do now?” and a slightly worrying prospective of having to run downstairs in a too small hotel yukata.
When the trembling stopped there was – nothing. I mean, no sirens, no official announcements, no running people on the corridor, just silence. When I took a peek onto the streets, the people appeared to be uninterested about the incident and carried on with their business. So, I decided to do the same, although I have to admit I did feel a bit queasy…

However, don’t worry too much about earthquakes. It is very unlikely you will encounter one when you are visiting Japan. My first earthquake described above only happened on my eighth trip to Japan.

Writing Japanese – Kanji

"Japanese" in kanjiKanji are the Chinese characters that are used in writing Japanese besides Hiragana and Katakana. As they were the first system introduced to write Japanese (and both Kana systems derived from them), Kanji are used for native Japanese words and have thus a pronunciation that is different from the Chinese original. The characters themselves were subject to change over time: The Japanese simplified them early on and even added a few more characters of there own invention; and with the simplification of the characters in mainland China starting in 1956, it is now not possible – except for the simplest characters – for Japanese to read Chinese and vice versa.

Do I really need to spell it out? Kanji are the bane of every student of Japanese…

First of all, there are lots of them. Elementary school children need to learn about 1000 kanji in their first six years of school, up to the end of high school, around 2100 must be mastered. Those are called the joyo or regular use kanji – they make up about 95 % of what is used in an average newspaper. But, there is more… Another 1000 or so kanji are used only in Japanese names, and in a high level profession, fluency starts at 4000 and more. Finally, there is the Japanese Kanji Proficiency Society, which offers a test that – at its highest level – requires the taker to know around 6000 kanji…

Second, a single character can have more than one meaning. For example, the three kanji in the image together mean Japanese language, but the first character can mean day or sun, and the second one book or basis/root. Finding out the meaning of a kanji is essentially done by context.

Third, knowing the meaning of a kanji does not help with pronunciation at all. Virtually every character has at least two readings, an on-yomi – based on the sound from the Chinese – and a kun-yomi – from the word in Japanese. Some can have up to ten different readings. In the image, the whole word is read as Ni-Hon-Go, but the first character can also be read as nichi, hi, or bi, and the kun-yomi reading for the second character is moto. Once again, you’ll have to discern from the context which reading is the correct one. There are some rules of course, but this language is riddled with exceptions, unfortunately…

Finally, you’ll need to know how to write the kanji in question. The stroke order was allegedly derived to ensure the most pleasing aesthetic look… However, this is of minor concern for the Japanese learner. With the advent of computers and mobile phones, even many Japanese have difficulties writing their kanji – although they can still recognize them, of course.

Sounds impossible? Don’t get disheartened – even Japanese don’t know all possible kanji. Some people carry little dictionaries around in case they encounter a character they don’t know. Finding this out made me feel a lot better about my feeble attempts!

In any case, I think the largest part of learning the kanji is pattern matching. Not that this is easy – I have found a kanji with 29 strokes, and many look deceivingly similar – but being a visual type myself here, I think this is the way to go. Writing them surely helps, but for the most part it’s learning by rote and repetition. A never ending story, really…

There are a number of kanji trainers online, this is my favourite: Enjoy!

Writing Japanese – Katakana

Katakana is the other kana script used in Japanese besides Hiragana. Here is a full list of all the basic characters used in Katakana:

List of Katakana
Table with Basic Katakana

There are some special combinations of Katakana to aid reading foreign words, but as there is no standardized way of transcription, I’ll omit them here.

They use the same diacritic marks as Hiragana to produce the consonants g-, z-, d-, b-, and p-, and also the way of writing syllables like kyo, myo, etc. is the same as in Hiragana.

Katakana are primarily used for

  • words taken from foreign languages, for example television or computer
  • names of foreign countries or places
  • names of foreigners
  • technical and scientific terms
  • words that have kanji that are difficult to read
  • to indicate the on-yomi pronunciation of a Kanji in a dictionary

Katakana were developed around the same time as Hiragana, some even from the same kanji. While Hiragana were used for women’s writing, Katakana were developed as a shorthand and pronunciation aid by monks who were copying Chinese Buddhist texts.

Although the Katakana are essentially all straight lines, I find them surprisingly difficult to memorize. I have the feeling that they all look the same somehow. However, studying Katakana is probably the best way of being able to read anything in Japan as they (together with the Kanji) make up the majority of the writing that can be seen on the streets and in supermarkets.

Writing Japanese – Hiragana

Japanese is rather difficult to learn for people who speak a Western language. Part of the difficulty lies in its three distinct scripts for writing (actually it’s four if you include romaji, the Latin alphabet, which is also used):


All of these three, which I will talk about the next few weekends, are freely mixed together in sentences, and although there are some rules when to use which scipt, those can be bent to express slight nuances. While you shouldn’t expect to be able to read everything you may encounter without extensive study, knowing how to decipher some word here and there may come handy. Let’s start with the the script that is – at least in my opinion – easiest to learn:


Hiragana is one of the two Kana scripts used in Japan. It consists of 46 basic characters, 40 of them are syllables (always consonant + vowel), 5 of them are the single vowels A, E, I, O, U (pronounced like in Latin or Spanish, btw), and there is a single symbol for the consonant N. Here is a list of them (empty squares mean they are no longer in use):

Table with Basic Hiragana
Table with Basic Hiragana

Additionally, some diacritic marks are used to add some more consonants:

Table with Hiragana 2
More Hiragana made from the basic ones

and then there are syllables for kya, dyo, … etc. (note that the second part is written slightly smaller)

Basic Hiragana combinations
Combinations of Hiragana

and doubling of consonants are indicated by adding a slightly smaller tsu before the consonant (exception: N, where you simply add the symbol for N).

That does not appear that difficult after all, does it? So, when is Hiragana used?
Hiragana characters are mainly used for:

  • any Japanese words for which there are no Kanji or where the Kanji are obscure (Japanese could be completely written in Hiragana, and in fact, all children’s books are)
  • grammatical elements like verb and adjective inflections (called okurigana), particles, and suffixes.
  • so called furigana, indicating the pronunciation of Kanji, mostly seen in books for children as sub- or superscripts to the Kanji they describe (or in parentheses behind them)

Hiragana have developed from Kanji, and were long considered “women’s writing” when women were not allowed to study the Chinese Kanji. Many works of early Japanese literature have been written in Hiragana, for example the famous “Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu, or “The Tosa Diary” by Ki No Tsurayuki (a man who pretends to a woman writing the diary). Even today, Hiragana are used instead of Kanji when a non-formal way of writing is desired, or when trying to convey a more warm feeling.

Chopstick basics

One of the most useful things to know before going to Japan is how to eat with chopsticks. Unlike in China or Korea, where you at least get a spoon for sour or rice, it’s chopsticks only in Japan. (Unless you wish to exclusively eat at the Mos Burger, of course.) Hence, to assure survival, you’ll need at least to know the basics of handling chopsticks, which are:using chopsticks

  1. Take the first chopstick in your hand. It should lie on top of the fingernail of your ring finger. Resist the urge of pressing the tip of the middle finger against the wood!
  2. Take the second chopstick like a pen in your first three fingers. You should be able to move it relatively freely.
  3. Although you have a pair of chopsticks, only the upper one moves, essentially up-and-down towards the lower one.

Tips for beginners:
Relaxing your hand and fingers makes using chopsticks more easy. Or so I’ve heard…
Don’t use your chopsticks as pointing devices or skewers.
Never stick them into the rice in an upright position – this is how offering to the dead are made.

There are plenty of other rules on using chopsticks – as for everything else in Japan – I may write about those later. You’ll need a lot of practice until you can eat with them, don’t get disheartened. Even Asians can have a hard time eating slippery or soft food like tofu drowned in sauce!

Good luck!

Japanese Numbers

Before moving to another country, a bit of fact finding is in order. As I like numbers, here are some statistics:

satellite photo of Japan
Japan from Space (courtesy of NASA)

Japan (日本) –  Nihon or Nippon in Japanese – is an archipelago consisting of 6852 islands located between 20° – 43° N and 122° – 153 ° E, comprising a total area of 377.915 sqare km. The four main islands are (from North to South) Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. The climate is mostly temperate, but obviously there is large variation between the humid continental of the North and the subtropical of the southern islands. The temperatures average between 5.1 °C (winter) and 25.2 °C (summer), the highest ever recorded lay at 40.7 °C. Japan has a rainy season from May (South) to July (North), and there are numerous typhoons in the autumn.

Japan has more than 127.000.000 inhabitants, which makes it the 10th most populated country in the world. About 13.000.000 Japanese live in the capital city Tokyo (東京),  and counting the larger Tokyo Metropolitan Area, it’s more than 35.000.000, giving the area a densitiy of about 2600 people per square km. However, this is going to change, as the population growth is negative at -0.077%, with a birth rate of only 8.39 per 1000 population (217th in the world), and a death rate of 9.15 per 1000.

The country has been inhabited since the paleolithic, about 30.000 BCE. The feudal era is problably the best known outside of Japan, starting with the emergence of the samurai class about 1200 CE, and ending with the Meiji restoration in 1868. Today, Japan is technically a constitutional monarchy, but the emperor (currently: Akihito) has very little actual power.

Both China and Korea have had a great influence on Japan’s culture, but many of those cultural imports have received a quite specific Japanese twist – just think of Zen Buddhism. Once again, the feudal era gave rise to many of the pastimes and arts so admired abroad, like the tea ceremony, ikebana, and martial arts; but also wooden dolls, painted kimonos, and the whole entertainment culture of the Geisha.

Japan is the third largest economy in the world, and hence, one of the G8 states; and that despite the fact that it has very little natural resources and is the 4th largest importer of crude oil. Most of its electricity (63%) is generated using fossil fuels, and also nuclear power goes strong here (17%). The gross domestic product per capita is 34,700 US$, currently shrinking at -0.8%.

Its work force comprises about 66.000.000 people, the majority of 70% working in the services sector, and only 3.8% in agriculture – that’s even less than the unemployment rate of 4.6%. Anyway, industries abound in Japan, especially for highly advanced products like cars and electronics, but also chemical substances and processed foods. Clearly this goes along with (fundamental) scientific research – there are about 700.000 researchers with a total budget of 130 billion US$, the third largest in the world.

There are 1.200.000 km of paved road in Japan, but still, driving makes up for only about 50% of the distance traveled. Another major means of transport is the railway, with 27.182 kilometers of rail in total, and 250 shinkansen bullet trains connecting the major cities. There are several regional companies all over Japan and dozens of small railway companies around the major cities. Only 9 cities have a metro system, but there are buses available everywhere. There are 173 airports in Japan, with the second busiest in all Asia being Tokyo-Haneda, and the largest Tokyo-Narita. Finally, lots of ferries connect the islands – especially the smaller ones – on 1770 kilometers of waterways, with the largest port in Nagoya.