Saturday 27 October 2012

Day 575: Getting set up in Kyoto

So much for the older Japanese way of life - today I get to deal with the modern world, first and foremost some cultural differences surrounding money.

Lunch on the train: the rice parcels are sort of the Japanese equivalent of a sandwich, then there's... the other stuff... I'm not sure what it is, but it's quite nice

The internet says Japan is a cash based society which is probably at least still partly true. We, on the other hand, are plastic based societies.  We're not used to carrying loads of cash around and anyway we have withdrawal limits.  To make matters worse, it's apparently the case that most Japanese ATMs won't accept our cards and we have to go to airports, post offices or 7-11s (specifically, not any grocery store)..

I was already feeling the cash flow pinch in Narita.  It happened like this. I was at the airport waiting to withdraw money and the American woman in front of me asked me if I thought the machine was accepting her request for money in dollars or yen.  I was completely disorientated by this question, so when she eventually told me she had successfully withdrawn 3000 yen, I merely thought that didn't sound a lot and I would take 5000.  I should have completely dismissed her as the not very experienced helium-head she was. 5000 in cash is about 60 USD and only just enough to get through a couple of days in Narita including the smallest helping of barbecued eel. Next, my future landlord in Kyoto got back to me and said his credit card machine was broken and he hoped I would pay 3 weeks rent in cash on arrival. Oooops! It's one thing to do that at, say, Vietnamese prices, but here I'm paying 71,000 yen for 3 weeks (which is still good value for Kyoto). I'm pretty sure my weekly withdrawal limit is no more that 50,000 yen. 

Besides, I have to get to Kyoto first - another 10,000 yen - and the internet says that tickets can only be bought on credit cards at select ticket counters at best. Fortunately, things are less dire than they seem.  50,000 yen really is my top cash limit, but the reported problem with the ticket machines are due to Americans (mostly) not having those chips with PIN numbers on their credit cards. The only real problem is that it's completely non-intuitive to use, even in translation. I thought about Mike while I was riding the Shinkasen, that's really his thing.  I thought you couldn't really tell how fast it was unless something was really close, but maybe that's a European thing as well.  The only train I usually ride back home is the TGV.

My desk / dinner table / living room
Living space
I booked a Japanese style room because I knew I would get more floor space, but of course I have to figure out how to use it!  Actually, I am very, very happy with it. I'm pretty sure the western style rooms have that plastic parquet on the floor and I have nice warm tatamis.  I don't have to contend with a double bed takig up space, instead I have stacked mattresses that I can even move around.  The room could probably do with a few pictures, especially with the low furniture which leaves big expanses of wall, but otherwise it's pretty great.  I have a tiny kitchenette, a tiny bathroom (with tiny bathtub), and - very important - a relatively large concrete covered space in which to leave my shoes so I don't trample the tatamis with them.

My bed, but I move it away from the curtains at nighttime and arrange the coffee table as a night stand.

Food shopping
The next challenge, since I am self-catering, was to go down to the local supermarket and see what I could get to cook.  It turns out that if you want to avoid cooking in Japan, nothing could be easier.  There's a huge range of takeout meals, snacks and so on.  It's cheaper than eating out, but I thought I could do a bit better. I decided to stick to buying things that are more like condiments or pickles since I wouldn't have a clue how to start making those. Fish is cheap and plentiful, along with whole cuttlefish, large chunks of octopus and other sea foods, so I'd better make the best of those.  You can buy big packets of mixed fish chunks right off the counter, though it does seem that fish that might be eaten raw is about twice the price of fish for cooking.  In the end, the biggest challenge was cooking anything with my very limited set of utensils and space. OK, it's also true that when I had to pay for my shopping I stood helplessly holding out my pile of strange coins while the nice cashier took the ones she wanted.  That's another cultural difference - throughout SE Asia and even China we didn't have to deal with coins all that much.

I can still manage to cook dinner - well, it has been about 5 months since I had to.
PS: I'm slowly catching up on the China posts. There's one about our trip to the Great Wall further down.  For me, that was one of the highlights.