If you’ve been in Tokyo for awhile, it’s easy to forget the daily challenges of transitioning into such a different culture—like making a purchase, for instance. But this post isn’t for those up to speed on Japanese customs and courtesies, this is for visitors fresh off the tarmac.
After getting off the plane some of the first things you are going to want to do are hit the bathroom, find your train, and maybe hit up a convenience store to find supplies or food. When friends or family who are new to Tokyo visit me, I remember again how important learning the small nuances of daily shopping can be. For anyone new to Japan (or who is having family visit), here are a few ways to prepare yourself for the potential culture shock you might experience, along with a few tips to follow, while shopping in Japan.
Japan, while being at the front of the technology game in so many ways, has not accepted several things that are the norm in Western society (including a lack of clothes dryers). A major example of this—that you will experience almost immediately—is that Japan continues to be a cash-based society. Living in America you might think that routinely using pennies can be annoying, but wait until you are withdrawing 120,000 yen (or $1,200 USD) to pay for an airplane ticket. They are very adamant about not using credit cards. Though, this is slowly starting to change in larger stores such as Bic Camera or international stores like Uniqlo.
(And for those who live or plan on living in Japan, acquiring a credit card can be seemingly hard to get if you are not a permanent resident; however, that is not necessarily the case—stay tuned for an upcoming article on the matter.)
This being a cash-based society, you need to be careful to always have sufficient funds in your wallet when going out. The ATMs in Japan shut down around 10 pm (to go back home to their ATM families, presumably), so make sure you go there to get your money first and are prepared for your night out. If you find yourself at a Seven Bank ATM late at night you might have a couple more options, as some stay “open” a bit later, or even 24 hours in some of the busier areas like Shibuya. Check the Seven Bank site for full details on locations, accepted cards and hours. Alternatively, you can visit a Japan Post ATM—check out JP’s English-friendly ATM guide outlining which cards are accepted and their hours.
Oh, and one other big difference that must be mentioned: the money trays and receipt containers. When paying for something you will see a bill-sized tray on the counter. This is not a “take a yen, leave a yen” dish or a place for you to dispose of your receipt! You are to place your payment there and the cashier will then give you your change in the same tray. If you are given a receipt that you don’t wish to keep you can place it in the usually clear container or bucket with all the other discarded ones on or hanging off the counter.
Like I said earlier, you are definitely going to want to visit a convenience store or conbini at some point during your stay in Japan. Here are a couple questions that you are definitely going to get and how to respond to them.
1. Would you like this heated up?
O-atatame wa doushimasu ka?
Response: If the answer is yes then reply with onegaishimasu (“Please do”). If you do not want whatever you are buying heated up, then respond with daijoubu desu (“No, I’m ok”).
2. Is it ok to finish this transaction without a point card?
Pointo kaado wa yoroshii desu ka?
Response: If you don’t have a point card for this location that you would like to use then respond with hai (yes). If you do want to use one then respond with daijoubu desu, and present your point card.
3. Please touch the screen. (This is commonly used when buying alcohol, cigarettes, or paying bills.)
Gamen ni tacchi wo onegaishimasu.
Response: For this it is ok to say nothing and just push the onscreen button. Otherwise you can say hai (yes).
I hope that these tips will help you during your time in Japan. If you have family or friends visiting definitely give them a heads up about these small things which you may have forgotten and seem routine. This basic knowledge can really help you or your friends bypass some avoidable embarrassment.
And with all that in mind, you’re ready to get out there and start buying. Check out our cheapo ‘Shopping‘ section and our guide to Tokyo’s outlet malls.