Travelling in Japan has many challenges: finding an ATM that will give you money, getting beyond ‘kanichiwa’ with the language, being taller than everyone else, figuring out just what is going on. Japan is the only place I’ve travelled where I found myself actually sobbing on a concierge’s desk. I tried to explain my incompetence and frustration with the Tokyo ATM machines, and how I couldn’t eat anywhere unless it had a picture menu or plastic food models in the front window. I was hungry and penniless, reaching desperately across the deep cultural divide.
The young lady at the concierge desk was nice to me, though she seemed equally puzzled by the weird foreigner. There is a certain reserve around foreigners in Japan, and my example probably confirmed those lingering suspicions that westerners are, well, different. But amongst all the countries where I have travelled for business or leisure, Japan takes the prize for kindness and trust.
I was travelling there with three others, and we were on the train to Takayama in the Japanese Alps, with snow beginning to fall gently. We had a reservation to stay at a traditional Japanese ryokan. I was having a desultory browse through the guide book when I came across the information that “in most rural areas in Japan credit cards are not accepted”. Er…guys, how much yen do we have? As the train wound its way through the mountain scenery, We pooled our resources of cash, and found it to be quite a bit short of the price of a night in the ryokan. So first thing off the train we headed to the Tourist Information Booth to ask for the location of the closest ATM (which, in Japan at that time, had to be an “international” ATM or our cards would be useless). The Tourist Information Booth did not speak English. Hmmm…
Off we trudged through the ever-deepening snow to our ryokan, where the small elderly Japanese proprietress greeted us in kimono and apron, and we all knelt on her tatami mat to bow and welcome. After the greetings, I opened the painful subject. “Er…you take credit card?” Horrified: “Ah, no! No credit card!” Painfully ashamed: “I’m sorry but we don’t have enough cash.” Dismayed: “No cash?” Sadly, hanging head: “No cash.” Brightly: “No ploblem! You…send!” What the little lady meant – bless her – was that she was perfectly willing to trust this bedraggled family to mail her the money later!
To cut a long story short, we did manage to find an “international” ATM the next day and were flush with cash at check out time. Out came the little lady with her address all written out, ready for us to mail her the money. It was in Japanese characters, which might have confused the Australian post office. But in any case I was never so relieved as when I was able to triumphantly wave a fistful of yen and proclaim “we have cash!” And very excited our hostess was to see it, too.
We set out into the now deep snow drifts, warmed by the trust and kindness of our hostess.