Coming back from a trip is the perfect time to reflect on what has been learned. Travel, like pretty much anything in life, is something you refine the more you do it and (hopefully) become better at it. This last adventure abroad came with one of the most important lessons to date: There are times when you don’t have to be THAT cheap.
I spent the last 2 weeks in the Kansai region of my favorite country thus far, Japan. We got around to see Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Koyasan, and Ise. Having visited this region two years ago, I kind of knew how much money would be needed. I purposefully brought less cash than required in a bid to use my travel credit card a bit more to accumulate points and limit how much cash I had left over. Nothing sucks more than knowing you are losing money by exchanging into a foreign currency, and then changing the unused cash back.
The first snag was upon realizing that many places in Japan simply don’t accept credit cards. Shocking for one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. I am not talking about ice cream stands or mom and pop shops. Many convenience stores, shops, and even the train stations (Nankai) were cash only.
No worries, I had my trusty debit card if push came to shove, or so I thought. As it turns out, Japan is notorious for not accepting most kinds of foreign cards. One traveler we met had to have someone send her money via Western Union because she was relying on being able to get cash from an ATM. Fortunately, I paid for drinks and dinner our last night as our group (including our first ever couchsurfing host, but that is a story for another day) gave me cash.
The real trouble came the day of our departure.
Normally, I like to keep 20-50 bucks equivalent in the local currency for emergencies. A missed flight, an extra meal, or maybe even a last minute souvenir is hard to predict. This time however, I decided to spend down to the last 100 yen, roughly 1 USD. I already had my airport train ticket, paid for a storage locker, and was in the Namba region where the train departs. Nothing to worry about I thought. I kept telling myself this over and over, despite having a very bad feeling about the whole situation.
When it was time to leave, we walked to the platform and noticed many people huddling and looking up at the screens, not heading towards the train. I thought maybe they just didn’t know how to get to their destination and brushed it off. Immediately, I saw that the departure time was listed as 14:10, when it was clearly past 3pm (15:00). ‘Maybe something was wrong with the display,’ I tried to assure myself. As we walked in and noticed the train unusually packed, there were many panicked faces. Something was being said on the loudspeaker, but since neither Sidney nor I understand Japanese, we didn’t know what was going on.
After about 10 minutes, an older woman sitting across passed us a note that I think her daughter next to her wrote in English. It read (and I am paraphrasing since my memory isn’t what it used to be):
[We have been waiting here for over an hour. There has been some kind of an accident on the airplane express train line and they are suggesting you find another route to the airport if you need to get there soon.]
Mind you, this level of kindness and concern by a stranger in Japan isn’t unusual as I declare again that Japan and her people are downright amazing. (Here are two other stories of Japanese kindness if you’re interested.)
But, panic mode set in! I had 100 yen, Sidney about 75, and our flight was in 3 hours! We quickly jumped out and got a refund for the train. As we exited, we started brainstorming ways to get to the airport. We asked a nearby employee and thankfully, she understood English. She told us there was an alternate route that required us to transfer to a JR line (different company) which also goes to the airport and wished us luck. Running mode began as we thanked her and dashed to catch the 3:30 train.
Upon arriving at the JR station, the nightmare unfolded. The fare is 890 a person, and we had 640 Yen each. This would be a complete non-issue if I had just kept the damn 20 bucks I always keep (roughly 2000 yen) for emergencies, but nooooo I had to be a super cheapo!
Sid and I decided to split up and, well, long story short, she’s in Korea and I’m living in the streets of Japan. I guess this is the end of my blog…
I’m kidding of course.
She went to try the ATM while I was asking if I could pay with a credit card. They directed me to a system where I had to phone in a payment by debit card with pin only. Seriously, this felt like something you would see in a 1980’s pre-computer movie and reminded me a lot of “A Night at the Roxbury.” In addition, serious communication issues were making the whole thing seem like it was happening in slow motion. Sidney returned with no luck, so this was our last hope.
On the first try, the card was rejected, but when I tried again it worked! We made it to the platform a few minutes before the train came and to the check-in counter about 5-10 minutes before its closure.
While we did manage to get through security with about 15 minutes to spare, this was a bit too close for comfort. I am usually the kind of person who doesn’t like rushing to the airport, so I arrive with plenty of time. Since I paid for that last train with my card, we did have about 5 bucks left over from the refund of the first train, so we ended up buying snacks at the gift shop. Everything worked out at the end, and I even kept my goal of averaging $60 a day in Japan! Next time though, I am keeping some emergency money, just in case.
I have tried to look up news of any kind of crash or accident on the train, but couldn’t find any information. I am hoping it was just a translation error and they meant something like “malfunction” as many train conductors were just huddling around the controls. If anyone has more info on this (which was 6/17/2014) feel free to share.