(SPOT.ph) I regret exchanging as much pesos for lapad before I left Manila for Tokyo in early December. Had I known GCash works near flawlessly in Japan, I would have gone mostly cashless in this much-needed life reboot of a trip. With just a couple of extra taps, the most widely used digital wallet in the Philippines can help travelers pay with digital money when they're out of the country.
GCash uses the Alipay backbone for overseas payments. Remember that its parent company, Mynt, is a partnership between Globe and Chinese billionaire Jack Ma's Ant Financial so in theory, GCash should be accepted anywhere there's Alipay. However, the initial rollout includes Filipino traveler favorites like Japan and Singapore.
GCash in Japan: How to use
It's pretty straightforward. On the GCash homescreen, tap the round "QR" button at the bottom of the screen. On the next screen, tap "Pay abroad with Alipay+". The next screen should display a barcode and a QR code which the cashier will scan with a barcode reader.
Payment counters in Japan accept a flurry of cashless options so make sure to check if Alipay is accepted where you're at.
Pro tip: Many times, the barcode + QR code screen takes a while to appear. Hit the refresh button on the top right and the codes will appear in a second or two. I'm not sure if it's a connectivity issue (I was on a Sakura SIM for tourists instead of roaming, which has restrictions) or if it's an app issue. Needless to say there was one shrimp + broccoli + egg salad sandwich run that I had to pay for in cash before I discovered the refresh hack.
Another pro tip: Cashiers will typically ask in Japanese if you will pay cash, cashless or card and if you're buying a plastic bag. Gesture with two hands as if you're holding a plastic bag and say "barcode" with a smile for faster checkouts. Don't forget to say arigato gozaimasu.
Stores that accept GCash + Alipay in Japan
I never found a Starbucks in Okinawa that accepts Alipay so you'll need cash for your Starbucks fix (that's around 1,000 yen for a drink with a slice of cake or an arabiki sausage roll). That Starbucks reserve in Tokyo that will soon be ensconed in cherry blossoms during Sakura season, I paid in cash so I will never know if they have Alipay.
All convenience stores I've been to -- Lawson, 7-Eleven and FamilyMart -- all have Alipay so I never had to bring cash with me to buy a bottle of hot yuzu lemonade after my winter morning runs.
Most groceries accept Alipay. My go-to was AAA (read as san-A, because that's three A's and san means "three"). The Daiso 100-yen shops inside the groceries accept Alipay.
Fastfood restaurants are hit-and-miss. The McDonald's branch I tried in Tokyo and Okinawa don't accept Alipay. On A&W too, which I missed (there was one branch in the old SM North Annex building), I had to pay cash.
I never tried GCash for Didi (their version of Grab Car) or Uber Eats since they accept cash or credit card.
So, GCash or hard cash for Filipinos in Japan?
When you pay GCash in Japan, it computes based on the spot rate or the exchange rate of the moment. For weeks, it has hovered around P0.42 for 1 yen. This is where you can save when paying via GCash, at least during my trip which was in December 2022. Before I left, I bought yen at P0.47 and if I were to convert the money back to pesos at the money changer's buying rate, I would lose P10,000 upfront.
I would say, look at your itinerary. if you're eating at specialty places like the Toyosu fish market in Tokyo for sushi (that's where the Michelin starred place at Tsukiji relocated to), you'll need cash. Same for hole-in-the wall ramen and udon shops as well as temple entrance tickets.
If you're budgeting some meals for the konbini or convenience store or are staying long enough to require groceries, load up your GCash wallet based on the number of days you'll be in Japan. You will need cash as well to load up your Suica (Tokyo) or KICA (Okinawa) cards for bus and train fare. Better yet, book and pay for transportation passes and venue tickets online before you leave the Philippines.
A final peso-yen tip
On December 20, Japan's central bank widened the target band for interest rates, signalling that it was moving away from the negative interest rate regime that has kept the yen weak against most currencies, including the Philippine peso and the U.S. dollar, for so long. Then yen rallied.
Simply put, the Bank of Japan's move will make the yen stronger as 2023 gets going. When central banks raise rates, the currency appreciates. That's the same reason behind the strength of the U.S. dollar.
So if you're planning a trip to Japan in January 2023 or anytime during Sakura, check the exchange rate.
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