No ticket. No cash. Big problems.

A shorter, cheaper trip was key to making it out of the Nakasendo Valley when we ran out of cash

I know that Japan is still mostly a cash-based society with credit card acceptance still a rare option. And yet when I showed up at the JR Rail counter to buy our tickets from Nagiso to Kyoto my heart skipped a beat. A small, hand-written note sat next to the cashier’s window, “Cash Only.”

All Aboard! Time to head back into the city and replenish cash supplies.
All Aboard! Time to head back into the city and replenish cash supplies.

This was the first time I’d seen that at a JR counter (admittedly of a limited sample size) and with only about 3500 yen in my pocket I was well short of the ~14,000 yen (~$140) fare to buy our two seats. We had less than 20 minutes until the train was scheduled to leave. Ruh roh.

Not only is Japan still mostly cash-based but it is also limited in terms of ATMs which can access foreign banks which meant the facility down the street was of no use (though I did try). No 7-11s to be found nor was there a post office nearby (both commonly have ATMs which work with foreign banks). And, much as I loved hiking along the Nakasendo trail for a few hours, I had neither the time nor the inclination to finish the trail all the way to Kyoto. This was a problem.

A flurry of options raced through my mind, including leveraging the JR Rail Passes my in-laws had purchased and having them ride a bit extra to fetch more cash. Or maybe I had enough cash that either my wife or I would go on, find an ATM and return for the other. Except this was a local line and relatively remote. Any such exercise would have taken a few hours to figure out and pretty much ruined the day for everyone.

Fortunately we came up with an option which worked for everyone: We shortened the trip.

A shorter, cheaper trip was key to making it out of the Nakasendo Valley when we ran out of cash
A shorter, cheaper trip was key to making it out of the Nakasendo Valley when we ran out of cash

Yes, we were still going to Kyoto eventually, but we only had enough cash to get us to Nagoya. Since that portion of the trip was all on local trains it was relatively cheap (1,660 yen each) and I had just enough cash to get that far. We took our seats in the non-reserved section of the train and rolled through the Kiso Valley into Nagoya, retracing the trip we’d made in the other direction the day before. Once we got to Nagoya it was relatively easy to exchange the existing tickets and extend them to Kyoto. I’m pretty sure we didn’t even pay extra to assemble the trip “end-on-end” rather than just buying it all at once. And, even if we did, that was much more preferred to being stuck in Nagiso.

The up-fare, finishing off the trip; I'm pretty sure we saved money in the end.
The up-fare, finishing off the trip; we may have saved money in the end.

It was also a very, very, very good reminder to make sure you’ve got extra cash in your pocket when traveling in Japan. We almost lost big on that one.

More posts from the Japan 2015 Vacation

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. No Post office at that train station? Their post office bank always has ATMs that accept US debit cards. Also CITI and 7-11 ATMs often take off shore cards too.

    1. Yes, the post offices and 7-11s are great options. No, neither was available there. This was a very, very small town and it had almost nothing available for us to work with.

  2. I was able to use a credit card by purchasing Japanese Rail Passes in the Washington, DC office before I left. There are not many, but if you are near one of their US offices, they are incredibly helpful not just for tickets, but also for planning and information. I don’t think that they have many walk-ins for the passes, so they seemed to get excited and extremely helpful in the DC office when I was there.

    1. Yeah, there is an outlet to pick those up in NYC, too. I picked them up for my in-laws but for us to use them would have been much, much more expensive. Then again, paying the “idiot tax” of just buying the pass would have made this experience much less stressful, even if more cash was involved.

      Also, all the other JR Rail offices did take CCs. I knew none of the “normal” merchants would accept cards but I assumed the train station would, what with them all being connected and such. I was wrong.

  3. After nearly running out if cash in Japan one day, I developed a new strategy: Always check on what cash I had and usually go ahead and get some cash when I went by a 7-11 or Post Office.

  4. Yup – we ended up taking a taxi to KIX from Kyoto because trains were canceled due to the typhoon last week (and it was too late to catch an airport bus with the long line of people waiting to buy tickets). Although we made sure the taxi accepted a credit card (and without a PIN number), we didn’t have enough to pay cash for the 4400 yen in tolls. After about 10 minutes talking with the dispatcher the driver figured it out so that it would work (we wanted to exchange $ to yen at the terminal but we couldn’t break the language barrier in communicating that to him – and the doors are auto operated by him!).
    Also, the automated ticket machines at JR stations accept credit cards but it must be one that has a PIN. Otherwise, at least in the larger cities, we are always able to purchase tickets in a JR office, although that sometimes entails standing in line. When travelling in Japan it’s not a major concern carrying more cash than one is normally comfortable with, as it’s a very safe country. I couldn’t agree more with your suggestion to have extra cash on hand just in case.

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