“Let’s just go and get some money out before we go to the Peace Park”, suggested Irish Friend Two as we headed out on Monday morning to explore Hiroshima.
This simple, 5 minute detour ended up taking us most of the day.
It wasn’t our fault, obviously. We are responsible, organised, together adults, as I have explained. We knew that we couldn’t use our Korean bank cards in Japan, didn’t we? And we knew that my back-up UK card was being helpfully blocked by my bank because they thought it was strange that someone was trying to use it in another country, didn’t we? And we changed more than a couple of hundred thousand won (about a hundred pounds) into yen before we left Korea, didn’t we?
Forlorn and confused and with panic beginning to set in at the thought of a week without money in what seems to be the most expensive country in the entire world, we stood beside the apparently useless international ATM in the post office contemplating starvation. It was not a happy moment.
We were approached by a women and her two young sons. The older boy, only about 9 or 10 years old, asked politely if he could help us. Apparently our clueless appearance now prompts small children to offer us their assistance. We explained our predicament to the woman via her incredibly fluent-in-English son, and she spent the next hour and a half taking us from bank to bank, communicating with the staff for us and trying to find some way of getting us our money.
Eventually she had to go, leaving us at a point where it looked like things were going to be OK (optimism that turned out to be premature, as it happened), but just as an aside, I have never, throughout all my travels, encountered a nation of people as friendly and helpful as the Japanese. This woman looked after us as if we were her own daughters, giving no thought to sacrificing her morning, without us even asking for help – and she’s just one of many. I don’t know if Irish Friend Two and I just happen to look so ridiculously incapable at times that people feel morally obliged to come to our rescue, but we have never experienced anything like this before. All we have to do is pause to check our map, and someone will stop and ask if they can help us. If they can, they’ll then go out of their way to personally walk us in the right direction. If they can’t, they will stay with us until they find someone who can, almost as if we became their responsibility as soon as they spoke to us. It’s heart-warming. Tonight, I was returning to the hostel alone by subway and the man I’d asked which was the correct line for my stop then accompanied me, with his friends, to the station where I had to change trains. They weren’t even going that way! I told them I was fine, and I knew how to use the subway, but they insisted. One of them even presented me with his fan, because my tatty old one (a bit worse for wear since I rather stupidly tried to use it as shelter from a monsoon the other week) had seen better days. “A Japanese gift”, he said with a lovely smile. They saw me on to my train, and waved me off like old friends. The selflessly helpful attitude of the people here is making me resolve to always approach a lost or worried-looking stranger and offer my assistance without being asked – this beautifully warm thoughtfulness actually makes me feel guilty for never having behaved in such a way myself!
But to return to my original story, Irish Friend Two and I decided not to waste any more of our only day in Hiroshima, and put off worrying about money until we’d seen the site of the H-bomb. More about that another time. For now, I will wind up my tale by saying that I’ve been extremely surprised to discover the lack of free wifi in public places in Japan. In Korea, you can get online practically anywhere in town, and I confess that I’ve always had this image in my head of Japan as a sort of futuristic land that is practically run by space-age robots. I was half expecting to be able to connect to the Internet here without even having any kind of electronic device on which to do so, the wifi being so advanced that you can check your email using the power of your mind. As turns out, Korea is actually ahead… well, in terms of Internet connectivity, anyway. ;)
Which is how I came to be sitting in a rare but welcome wifi zone in the Hiroshima Memorial Museum, arguing in hushed tones with Mark from Alliance and Leicester via Skype on my iPad, surrounded by images of mushroom clouds and charred remains of clothing. It felt very inappropriate, and very surreal… but the joy when the lovely, lovely Mark fixed everything for his damsel in distress certainly lightened the mood after an afternoon spent in what must be one of the world’s saddest places.
“We’ll laugh about this, one day”, I’d said to Irish Friend two at one stage when we were panicking and trudging despairingly through the streets of Hiroshima, sweltering in the heat and clinging to the walls for shade, counting what little money we had and cursing ourselves for not having more common sense. “One day” turned out to be later that same day. At least we’ll always have our sense of humor, even if we end up sleeping on a park bench before the week’s through! :)