Visitors to Japan can swap unused yen for iTunes credit, Amazon points

It’s something we have all experienced: You come back from an overseas trip, look in your wallet and find leftover foreign currency. Since you cannot be bothered to take it to an exchange, it ends up stashed in a drawer, possibly never to be used again.

The problem is particularly acute for the record numbers of tourists visiting Japan — a country that still relies heavily on cash. Some enterprising businesses, however, are offering workarounds that turn departing travelers’ notes and coins into electronic money.

“We launched this service on the theory that tourists to Japan were bringing in more cash than they needed, and leaving without spending it all,” said Daisuke Natori, director of the business development division at Travelers Box Japan. The company, which has a global presence and entered the Japanese market in 2015, operates kiosks at airports that convert cash into various forms of e-money, including Skype and iTunes credit.

“In Japan, small shops often do not accept credit cards,” Natori said. “The demand [for exchanging leftover cash] is not insignificant.”

Bank of International Settlements data shows the value of bank notes and coins in circulation in Japan stood at 19.44% of gross domestic product in 2015 — by far the highest amount among surveyed countries. Cash is still king: It was used for 94.5% of transactions by visitors in the April-June period, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.

Travelers Box’s two kiosks in Japan can be found at Tokyo’s gateways: Narita and Haneda airports. The terminals currently accept yen, yuan, U.S. dollars and euros.

Travelers Box is not the only company providing an answer for unspent cash. In late June, Tokyo-based Pocket Change set up a similar terminal in the hopping nightlife district of Kabuki-cho, in the capital’s Shinjuku area. The idea is the same — pop in cash and turn it into e-money.

Pocket Change’s service accepts dollars, euros, yuan, yen and won. Conversion options include gift cards and WeChat credit. Users can also donate to charities like Unicef.

Such services are proving to be popular with returning Japanese travelers as well.

“I was having difficulty exchanging foreign coins, but now that I have turned it into electronic money, I can use it freely,” said Keiko Yamaguchi, who swapped euros from a trip to Europe last year for Amazon points.

Pocket Change, also set up in 2015, has terminals at Haneda and Fukuoka airports as well. It plans to install two more at hotels in Osaka in early September. And with tourist traffic expected to keep surging ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Pocket Change chief executive Shin Aoyama sees bigger business opportunities ahead.

“We think we need at least 100 terminals [nationwide],” he said. “We want to expand our services for inbound tourists as much as possible before the Olympics.”

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