Sunday, September 6, 2009

Don't leave home without it.... cash, that is.

Japan is a fascinating amalgam of 21st century technology, efficiency, and architecture and what we would consider 1950's social norms and traditions of daily living. That juxtaposition is what can thrill and delight as well as sometimes frustrate the foreign visitor, like me.

Jase and I have had more than our usual 'Lost in Translation' moments during these last few days, perhaps because we decided to start venturing further and further away from our Tokyo comfort zone, where you can always find someone close by who can speak basic English or who is used to helping foreign visitors navigate through town. Farther afield, it becomes more challenging, for which one has to approach matters with more smiles, patience, a sense of humor, and a welcoming attitude towards the unknown and, occasionally, the absurd.

At our resort in Manza, we were the only two non-Japanese we saw among hundreds of guests during a 3 day period. And although essential signs like bathrooms were marked in English or appropriate international symbols for men vs women, luckily I recalled that, for the onsen baths, blue flags meant men only and burgundy for women, which prevented the most onerous blunders. For everything else, it was point and smile, or, sometimes, rescue from the hotel staff when I was standing around looking particularly dumbfounded.

The breakfast coffee cups challenge, on day one, was where to find the cups once I figured out which of several machines at the buffet was dispensing coffee vs tea vs hot water (I was a keen observer!). The other guests kept queing up and filling up, with their cups in hand, but despite surveying the table up and down and sideways several times, I'll be damned if I could see where to find a coffee cup. I briefly eyed a double-handled soup bowl as an alternative, but no no no I was not going to shame myself. A helpful hotel employee appeared, and hand gestures led him to lead me to a rectangular white box immediately to the right of the coffee dispenser. He pointed to the Japanese inscription on the box, opened the lid, and voila! hundreds of lovely white porecelain single handled cups inside. We both had a good chuckle out of it.

The bigger challenge--and not quite so funny--was money. In Japan, cash is still king, and though major hotels outside Tokyo accept plastic (a practice yet to be tested at remote ryokans), everything else is pay as you go. I have now blundered on this challenge twice before-- most recently in Kobe and Hiroshima and, on a prior trip, in Yokomaha--where I leave Tokyo or Osaka for a 2-3 day excursion without a visit to the cash machine. Cash machines are not easy to find, and, outside major cities, machines which accept US cards, nearly impossible. At Manza I struck out a third time, arriving at the local station for the bus ride to the resort with about 500 yen (roughly $6) in my pocket. Luckily, Jase had enough cash to pay for the bus, and we arrived happy, but essentially broke.

I did have some US currency, so changed $100 at the penurious hotel exchange rates. But I had miscalculated again, since we arrived back at the train station for the return to Tokyo short of what we needed for the tickets. And only 5 minutes to spare until departure. What to do? The ticket machine had a sign with all the standard credit card logos emblazoned on it, so I felt sure we would be OK if only the three 70-something ladies in front of us could conclude their business with it in time. Once at the front of the line, facing the machine, I learned that it was not a 'conventional' machine of the sort that I had managed to learn to navigate fairly well here; it was a talking ticket machine, connected to a disembodied voice somewhere in Japan. MachineMan did not speak English, so we were momentarily helpless, but a nice guy quickly came to our rescue and we managed to communicate what we needed. Cost: 9800 yen. The moment of truth--none of my credit cards worked here. Cash on hand: 8300. Nearest ATM: ?? Prognosis: gruesome.

Jase almost always has an emergency stash buried somewhere, and he began to rummage through his bag hoping to find something. We heard the train rolling onto the tracks above, and with seconds to spare he produced a 10,000 yen note. Saved ! But perhaps not in finally in hand, we raced up the station stairs at full speed and lunged through the car doors, as the final bell rung, the doors closed, and we were miraculously and thankfully on board. I was giddy. My pal not very pleased. Hope I have enough pocket change for a box of candy for him when we arrive at Ueno station.....(Probably not though...)

As God is my witness, Scarlet, I'll never go cashless again!!!

(Curtain falls)

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