Saturday, November 05, 2011

Things Could Always Be Worse

When I went to Japan early last year, I found myself in a bit of a situation.

I'd gone over by ferry from Shanghai, rather than by plane, which meant that rather than arriving at an airport, I arrived at the Osaka ferry terminal. Through a series of mishaps, I had not brought any Yen with me from China, so when I arrived at the ferry terminal, I had with me not a single coin of the local currency. There was also no ATM or money changing facilities at the ferry terminal.

"Oh, that's ok," I thought naively. "Japan's a developed country. I'll be able to get some money out at any ATM just like I can in China. There's a subway station about 10 minutes walk away. I can get some cash out there."

Those who are familiar with the Japanese ATM withdrawal "facilities" can already see that I clearly hadn't researched my destination country carefully enough. I had fallen into the classic rookie error of assuming that a country with a GDP of $33,000 per capita and was world renowned for its creation of high-tech technology goods would have at least the same kind of banking convenience that could be found in a country with less than a quarter of that per capita GDP, and which had only been opened to the west for about 30 years. Silly me. Japan sure showed me what I deserved for making assumptions, when I tried using the ATM by the subway station, only to discover that it didn't accept my card.

This left me in a bit of a conundrum: the international ferry terminal in Osaka is on a man-made island in the middle of the harbour, with the only ways off of the island being either the subway or a taxi - both of which required money. This meant that I had to find some way to get money on the island. Getting something near the subway station was obviously a no-go, so I picked up my luggage and started to wander around the island looking for other ATMs. Every so often, I'd stop and ask someone on the street if they knew where the nearest ATM was, in Japanese. I felt pretty good about this, actually. Already my Japanese was working to make a difficult situation slightly less difficult.

After a while, a nice lady at the help desk of a shopping mall that I found directed me to another set of ATMs that didn't work. Next to them I noticed a noticed a phone, with a nice note in Japanese saying that it was to be used in the case of technical difficulties. Having nothing to lose, I picked it up and was pleased to discover that three years of Japanese study was enough to not only good enough for me to ask and receive directions - I could also talk to a guy on the phone about ATM difficulties! I was very excited about this. I was not so excited, however, to learn from him that none of that banks ATMs accepted foreign cards, and no, he didn't know which bank did accept foreign cards either.

So back to wandering around around the island it was. Eventually I found a map and noticed that there was a Hilton on the island.

"Ah ha!" I thought. "Surely the desk staff at an international hotel chain would know where I'd be able to find an ATM that accepted foreign cards!"

Well, naturally they didn't know, of course, and I suspected that they didn't really know how to speak English either, however my Japanese was good enough to convey my situation to them, and they were nice enough to give me a free ride on their shuttle bus to Osaka train station. Once at the train station, I was able to find someone who could tell me which ATM to use and where to find it, and once I did, I immediately withdrew as much money as possible so I wouldn't have to deal with the situation again.

Nopw, being stuck on an island with no money to get off of said island is not a particularly fun experience, especially when you have to drag your luggage around with you everywhere, however things could have been worse: I could have had to go through the same thing, except without being able to speak any Japanese. It could also have been raining.

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