|Konichiwa! Last week (link to archive) we left off jet-lagged at the Osaka Airport Hotel. This week we travel to my new favorite place in Japan: Kinosaki.
Because of my own stupidity, I was broke most of the trip. The Osaka airport is where I first tried to withdraw 100,000 yen, instead of 10,000 (I wanted roughly $100 USD). The exchange rate is about $1 USD = 118.620 Japanese Yen. But I foolishly had the exchange rate wrong. I kept adding an extra zero, which not only denied me the cash I so desperately needed but even worse put up red flags at my bank (they put a hold on my account). I then learned the hard way that exchanging US dollars at banks in small Japanese towns is no easy task. Even though I was with government workers who vouched for my identity, it still took 30 minutes to change a mere $60 USD (the total amount I scrounged up in my bag). To make matters worse, the stores in these towns did not accept credit cards either, so I couldn't buy anything. Fortunately, I was on a fam trip. Our group included five travel agents, a representative from JAL and one bilingual tour guide. I could have asked my travel colleagues for a loan, but because my father instilled in me long ago not to borrow or loan money I had to find other ways to get some yen. Finally, I resorted to selling cell phone minutes to my colleagues so they could call home (I was the only one with a Japanese cell phone).
4 TIPS FOR GETTING YEN IN JAPAN
1. Before going to Japan (or any foreign country), inform your bank and credit card companies so they don't put holds on your account.
2. Find out the current exchange rate before you leave. A good website is www.xe.com.
3. Many ATM machines in remote Japanese towns do not accept international cards, because the magnetic strips are different sizes. However, bilingual ATMs can be found in Japanese post offices. These usually accept foreign bank cards.
4. Bring extra cash or travelers checks, in case your ATM cards don't work.
The worst part about not having any money came the first night, when I was dying of thirst in my hotel. My in-room mini-bar was a miniature vending machine - bottled refreshment required Japanese coins, which of course I didn't have. It's a good thing Japanese tap water is safe to drink. Of course, trying to find that out from the front desk was no easy chore. Most Japanese don't speak much English (or else they're too shy to try).
A couple of weeks ago I described how tough it was to communicate in Paris. Now I'm thinking, "Ha! If you thought that was difficult, wait till you get to Japan." At least in France, Americans can make educated guesses when it comes to words (well sort of). In Japan, you're pretty much screwed. Fortunately, many restaurants have pictures of their food like the restaurant in the hotel where we had breakfast. If they didn't, I would have starved. Luckily, I just pointed and prayed it would be something I liked. For a basic Japanese quiz and helpful Japanese phrases check out the BBC Language webpage.
OSAKA ITAMI AIRPORT
My first journey in Japan was a short flight to Tajima. Traveling by plane in Japan is a great experience -- similar to pre- 9/11 days in the U.S., but even better. First of all, we didn't arrive at the airport until 45 minutes before our flight (though I don't recommend cutting it so close unless you know what you're doing, or are with someone who does). Second, the lines are orderly -- and they move fast. The first line was for the automated ticket machine to print the boarding pass (this takes some time figuring it out where the English button is located but once you find it -- it's easy). The next line was for dropping off checked bags. They were screened by machines run by the Japanese equivalent of our Transportation Security Administration. These security guys are friendlier than ours, and they like having their picture taken. The security checkpoint is similar to in the U.S., except with cooler technology. For example, a machine can quickly evaluate an open container of liquid, to see whether it contains a harmful chemical or not.
OSAKA TO TAJIMA
The best part about flying in Japan is the airline workers. They really care about and respect travelers (at least, the JAL employees I came across did). Because it was raining and we were flying on a Saab 340 -- a small plane that required boarding and deplaning outside the gate -- agents wrapped my carry-on in plastic. They then held umbrellas so passengers wouldn't get wet. How nice is that? To top it off, the flight attendant was very nice and our flight to Tajima was quick - about 40 minutes.
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA
We were picked up in a van. The driver wore white gloves. I thought that was pretty impressive, until I realized that all professional drivers in Japan wear them. NOTE: To avoid getting picked off crossing the street, be sure to look right, left, then right again. In Japan they drive on the "wrong" side of the road, just like in England.
Midway through our hour drive we pulled over to the side of the road, where a group of well-dressed Japanese men waited for us. I thought the Japanese mob was going to shake us down for yen, but of course I didn't have any so I wasn't worried. Just kidding -- they turned out to be a welcoming committee that included the current and ex-mayor of the Hyogo Prefecture, and their staffs. They showed us they were fans of Memoirs of a Geisha (a best-selling book, now a movie) because they know it will bring Japan plenty of attention and visitors. These Japanese guys know how to make money. Interestingly, in Japan the Memoirs of a Geisha comes in two small palm-sized books. That's because space is very limited in Japan, especially on subways.
YOROI FISHING VILLAGE
We were headed to what is believed to be the first town mentioned in the book Memoirs of a Geisha: Yoroido. The book is fiction, and there is no Yoroido town. Instead we were in Yoroi, a remote fishing village just like one where Chiyo (the book's main character) grew up. I now had a great image in my mind, as I finished the book.
We were in Yoroi for only a short stop. We then drove to Toyoka City, and an awesome Japanese-style restaurant called Zuiem. Outside was a beautifully manicured rock garden. Inside was everything I always imagined a Japanese restaurant to look like, including transparent rice paper walls and tables built into the ground. We had Tajima beef. It's regarded as the most expensive beef in the world, because the cattle are on strict diets and massaged daily. Most people call it "Kobe beef," because that's where it is shipped from, but it actually comes from this ancient province of Tajima -- now named Hyogo Prefecture -- of which Kobe is the capital.
At the restaurant we cooked the unbelievably tender beef ourselves, at the same time we enjoyed other courses: soup , salad, rice, tea and dessert. These types of restaurants are normally open only for dinner, because people in rural Japan don't spend 3,000 yen ($30) for lunch.