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.”
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.
Cash only at the Tsumago JR ticket office. And I'm short on cash. Also, the local bank doesn't accept foreign ATM cards. Oops.
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) April 27, 2015
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.
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.
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.
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