I spent my last full day in Seoul purchasing some discount hiking poles and looking around the fabric section of the Gwangjang Market. Or in other words, getting lost in the identical aisles of the Gwangjang Market. I could have passed the same teetering pile of fabric half a dozen times and not known it. This is not to say that all the fabrics were the same, indeed there was a vast variety of colour and composition, it is merely that fabric shops of any reasonable size have an innate ability to become labyrinths to the unsuspecting customer. Thus, it is hardly surprising that an entire market of fabric stores had me without orientation within seconds. Eventually I escaped the maze, sanity and wallet intact (there was a long moment where I debated getting a hambok after the fun I had wearing one). I spent the rest of the day relaxing at the hostel and checking a few last minute details for my next stage of travelling. Because my flight to Japan was an early one, I’d elected to change to a hostel closer to the airport for ease of mind. This is where everything started to go wrong. Well not everything, just one particular thing that impacted on everything else. One very annoying little thing.
Remember how on my first day in Seoul I was complaining about the difficulties of getting money at an ATM? Well it happened again as I tried to pay for my hostel and again and again at the nearby ATMs. I was forced to cancel my hostel, though at such short notice they charged via the internet anyway. Ironic that I was forced to pay for something I could not have when the reason I was unable to have it was that I could not pay.
Having seen the train times, I knew there was no way I would have been able to stay at my previous hostel, where I technically still had a reservation, and make it to the airport on time. Hence I found myself sprawled and trying desperately to sleep on an airport bench while waiting for 04:30 and check in to roll around. It eventually did, and after a pleasant chat with my mother via the beauty of free, unlimited airport WiFi (take note all English airports), I checked in without a hitch.
The queue for both entrances to security was painfully long, so long in fact that the two ends collided out by the check in desks. I was reminded of the days when all the new security measures had only just been introduced and no one knew what was going on. Nowadays it is so streamlined in some airports as to be almost painless. My flight left on time and, other than a little turbulence, I naively thought I had left my troubles behind. More fool me, for in my pocket still lurked the card of doom, biding its time until I needed to withdraw my yen.
Safely through immigration and customs, I head straight for the ATM line up and start working my way down the line. To my utter devastation, not a single one would give me any money. There I was, stuck half way around the world, without a usable penny, or rather yen, to my name. I didn’t have a working sim card and with no money, I could not use a payphone. After a small meltdown and several failed attempts to phone home via Messenger, I found myself once more in front of the dreaded ATMs. This time my goal was only to get enough money for the pay phone. At the third machine along I started low and upon a miraculous success, worked my way up until the I once again got an error message.
This method was by no means perfect and I dread to think of the various bank charges I have incurred but I now had enough money for the train and my hostel, which was a marked improvement. Armed with my newly procured funds I took the JR line to Nagano where I said goodbye to English announcements and continued on to Yudanaka. I carefully monitored snow levels throughout my journey, after all my sole reason for coming to Yudanaka is to see the snow monkeys. Things did not look promising as the train set off from Tokyo. It was not until well after Nagano that dustings of snow began to appear and only in the final stretch, when we ventured in to the shadow of mountains, that any major snowfall occured. End of the line and I walked to my hostel, miraculously not getting lost. I enjoyed an amazing plate of sushi and some tempura with a couple of other guests before retiring for the evening.
An amusing aside observation is how airports and train stations gradually seem to be giving up on forbidding luggage on escalators. In Hong Kong, signs asked that people with big bags use the lifts but when I reached Seoul it was only if one had multiple bags that the lift was required (though the number of stairs in some stations made the lift a tempting option anyway); at Incheon Airport signs showed how to take two suitcase on the escalator; finally, when I reached Narita Airport in Japan, the escalator to the train station was labelled as being suitable for taking trolleys. On this last however, one must note the look of fear on the faces of those standing in front of the trolley.