International ATMs are a recent arrival in Japan—unsurprisingly for an island nation where most inhabitants have local bank accounts. I’d decided to play it safe and rely on good old-fashioned cash instead.
So, my first port of call was the post office, where I ended up in a time-warp into the last century. As I took a number in front of the foreign exchange counter, a woman approached and pressed an actual form into my hand. Passport number and all.
I filled it in. Then I played the waiting game, trying to aim for that zen-like calm which is the only way to deal with queues in post offices. Or worse: deserted foreign exchange counters and long queues everywhere else in the post office.
My turn came at last, and I handed over my money, realising that I might be in for a longer wait still. England has recently changed the look of its 20 pound note, and the new note looks like toy money. It didn’t help that the cash machine at Heathrow spat out four old-style twenties and six new ones, so that it looked like I carried a stash of mixed currencies. I expected to receive the same treatment as I get in London when showing up with Scottish sterling: “we don’t take Monopoly money here, mate!”
However, this wasn’t London. The service at the post office—here and everywhere— may be glacially slow (I think the trainee who served me had a minimum of three supervisors looking over her shoulders at all times) but it is unthinkable that an honourable customer whould attempt to defraud the honourable postal service.
So my money was accepted with a smile and the lady retreated behind some desks where I could see her and her three supervisors pore over a booklet with various denominations depicted in it. Chances are that the brand-new twenties aren’t in it. After mere twenty minutes or so of whispered debate, she turned back to the counter where she smiled and bowed and presented me with the exact change on a little wooden tray.
I bit down my irritation, smiled in turn and bowed. Chores completed, I was finally free. And it was still one hour until my train would arrive (yes, I had made a reservation. I didn’t know better—it was only my second time on the Shinkansen).