The bullet train from Shinjuku to Odawa and Hakane

This has to be one of the most poorly fact-checked articles on Japan ever.

I am with a group of friends on a short trip to Tokyo. Keen to see some Japanese countryside, and to experience a part of everyday Japanese life, we’ve asked the concierge at the city’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, where we are staying in some style, how we might visit an onsen.

Easily, is the answer. Hakane is one of the country’s most famous onsen resorts (Japan has 2,000 such places, and 20,000 hot springs), and lies just two hours from Tokyo. Better still, it’s reached on a bullet train, meaning we will also get to enjoy another of Japan’s iconic experiences. The concierge will organise tickets and transfers.

But not our short trip to the train, sadly. If you were to have a nightmare involving public transport, forget buses, Tube delays or people barking into mobiles. Think, instead, of Shinjuku, Tokyo’s main railway station […] a vast and bewildering maze, made all the more bewildering by the fact that there isn’t a word of English anywhere, or at least none that we can find, as we scour signs and dash from one bemused, monolingual Japanese commuter to another asking for help. […]

All too soon we are disembarking at Odawa to pick up the local service to Hakone-Yumoto. We sit and ride through increasingly pretty countryside while gaggles of Japanese schoolchildren beam at the Western strangers in their midst. We revel – as we have done so often in Tokyo – in the otherness of the whole experience.

Where to begin?

1) The Mandarin Oriental is near Tokyo Station, on the other side of town from Shinjuku. If this guy was taking a “short trip” to the station, he was probably getting the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station.

2) But let’s assume, arguendo, that he really did go to Shinjuku. He wasn’t really riding a “bullet train,” then, since the real bullet trains don’t go to Shinjuku. It was probably an Odakyu Romance Car. Unlike the Shinkansen pictured in the article.

3) Where did he get those numbers? Two thousand is close to the official count of the 全国温泉旅館同盟, but here’s a site that counts fifty thousand onsen in total.

4) Anyone who can’t read the English signage in a Tokyo train station needs new glasses.

5) Anyone who can’t find a single English speaker in a Tokyo train station either isn’t trying hard enough or doesn’t speak comprehensible English. (Perhaps this chap has an unintelligible accent.)

6) Obviously, there is no such place as “Odawa” or “Hakane.”

7) The word “otherness.” What the hell does that mean?

32 thoughts on “The bullet train from Shinjuku to Odawa and Hakane”

  1. Re: points 4 and 5. In my experience, it usually only takes about 30 seconds of scanning the big board in a major Tokyo train station for a random Japanese passerby to stop and offer help in English. And of course, the English signs are pretty sufficient. My mom was able to get around.

    As for point 1, is that more than 20 minutes on the Yamanote? Depending on where the writer is from that could be a short trip.

    7) “Otherness” isn’t an amazingly rare word, although here it mainly serves to illustrate how little the writer knows about the place he is visiting-a point the rest of his words do well enough.

  2. “…to experience a part of everyday Japanese life, we’ve asked the concierge at the city’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, where we are staying in some style, how we might visit an onsen.”

    apparently onsen resorts in “Hakane” are part of everyday life for common-folk in Japan. How anthropological of this fine reporter to see what real life is like for the average Japanese.

  3. Nice pull Joe. This is shockingly bad.

    “Otherness” is a common term in philosophy. The idea is that concepts exist in pairs (big, small; us, them) and that a self needs an other to be understood. I know, I know….

    If you read Neojaponisme, you may have noticed that people get called “Orientalists” from time to time (Adamu in December, then I called the guy who called Adamu an Orientalist an Orientalist). In this case, people are referring to discussing “The East’s” otherness – West = rational, individual, scientific, East = irrational/passionate, groupthink, quaint traditions.

    So to make a long story short, if I were to say that the above article is playing up Japan’s otherness, that would be like the academic equivalent of calling the author a racist c#nt. The fact that the author does it HIMSELF just goes to show that he has no idea what he is talking about and thought that he was throwing in a good ten cent word. This fits with the general stupidity of the whole article. Really belongs in some kind of hall of shame of crap Japan writing.

  4. Well, I’m sure the Mandarin Oriental is completely average for Japan as well…. I actually found one correct sentence in that article, which isn’t bad going.

    “Otherness” is fine, if a little wanky.

    From another Telegraph article about the bullet train: “Not long after, he [the conductor] was followed by two genteel hostesses, with eyes lowered and gloved hands delicately proffering refreshments – the Geisha of the railways.”
    You know, in all my years of riding long-distance trains in Japan, I have *never* associated the wagon salesladies with geisha. Guess I must be too unattuned to the exqusite otherness of it all….

    You know, I can’t help feeling this statement from another Telegraph article on Japan is very telling: “London to Paris by Eurostar in two hours 15 minutes is one thing, but the views along the way are pedestrian to say the least. For high-speed train travel that retains a semblance of modern romance and provides unparalleled vistas, it’s hard to beat Japan’s legendary Shinkansen bullet trains.” I would imagine 95% of the people in Japan would consider he had it arse-backwards entirely. In other words, it’s all about the Otherness, not the beauty or the history or the culture.

  5. (Note that when I said “Otherness” is fine, I meant as a word, as M-Bone has enlarged upon. As my other comments above show, it’s used here as shorthand for “dickhead”.)

  6. Negative competition, negative competition…

    The Ministry of the Environment has an onsen usage report each year. The one from 2007 shows a 源泉総数 (total number of springs) at roughly 28,000. His number may have subtracted out the ones that are really just pumping in boiling tap water. Or it was from an outdated Lonely Planet guidebook.

    He’s either mixed up the bullet train and the romance car, OR (with very low probability) he’s mixed up Shinjuku and Shinagawa (in which case, he could have gotten lost trying to get from Nihombashi to Shinagawa on the Asakusa Line. Asakusa Line can be a bit of a shitstorm at times.) Then again, he did get it right that Shinjuku is Tokyo’s main [most traficked] railway station.

    In either case, there is no excuse for not being able to find English in a metropolitan train station. I’ve seen much worse, from non-English speaking countries, navigate through stations with very little problem.

  7. “there is no excuse for not being able to find English in a metropolitan train station.”

    I will go out on a wee limb and say that this is an outright lie designed to further reinforce the otherness of Japan.

    What’s funny about reading these sorts of articles is the discrepancy between the parts where the author is clearly plagiarising (or summing up) other brochures or facts, and where they have to rely on their own limited knowledge. Excess detail about who built the Ginkakuji that even historians might not know offhand, and then complete confusion over how to use a drink machine.

  8. Joe, you should have started this was point 8.

    Uh, HAKANE?? ODAWA?? Wow, that brings shockingly bad to new heights. You couldn’t write a more shameful article unless you were really trying. Something like:

    “So I’m in the United States in this state called Mary’s Two Sets, in the great port city called Boast-one, and I take a train down to the nation’s capital of the D Seat of Colombine!”

  9. We can do better than that….

    ——————————

    It’s a while since I was surrounded by black men. The blackness may be unnerving – I’m Japanese, after all – but the tranquillity of an American outlet mall, or “walmart”, is a far cry from the tiny shops and daily inanities of rice-splattered adolescent boys.

    I am with a group of friends on a short trip to New York. Keen to see some American countryside, and to experience a part of everyday American life, we’ve asked the concierge at the city’s Mandarin Occidental hotel, where we are staying in some style, how we might visit an outlet mall.

    Easily, is the answer. Cisco is one of the country’s most famous shopping centers (the US has 2,000 such places, and 20,000 Walmarts), and lies just two hours from New York. Better still, it’s reached by a yellow cab, meaning we will also get to enjoy another of America’s iconic experiences. The concierge will organise bodyguards and transfers.

    But not our short trip to the taxi stand, sadly. If you were to have a nightmare involving public transport, forget buses, subway delays or people barking into mobiles. Think, instead, of Manhattan, New York’s main island.

    Many of the things you might have heard about New York are true. Many are not. Public transport is one of the things that meets expectations. Commuters are not being mugged in carriages. Instead, public transport is egregious: spotty, “not our fault,” jerky, noisy, inefficient.

    Manhattan is the same: the problem is its size – innumerable streets, roads, pavements, concourses, plazas; a vast and bewildering maze, made all the more bewildering by the fact that there isn’t a word of Japanese anywhere, or at least none that we can find, as we scour signs and dash from one bemused, monolingual American commuter to another asking for help. My tip: ask a member of the Mandarin’s obliging staff if they’ll accompany you and deliver you to the right taxi. Don’t forget to give them several hundred “dollars” (about 4,000 yen) as a “tip”.

    Once aboard, with less than an hour to spare – taxis, of course, often leave late – the ride is hellish, pulling roughly through New York’s suburbs towards the majestic outline of Mount Rushmore.

    All too soon we are disembarking at New Jumper to pick up the local service to Woodbridge Township. We sit and ride through increasingly industrialized countryside while gaggles of American schoolchildren glare at the Eastern strangers in their midst. We revel – as we have done so often in New York – in the otherness of the whole experience. A short taxi ride from the station drops us at the entrance to the Gap.

  10. Curzon: We used to call it Massive Two Shits.

    Jade Oc: Although I have no idea what the “otherness of Japan” is, I don’t think it’s a lie (certainly not an ‘outright lie’). I think the Tokyo train lines have done an excellent job of making their trains and stations accessible to foreigners. To me, the problem with the stations is that the signs and maps are never in sensible locations.

    It’s a bit incongruent that someone with a room at the Mandarin paid for couldn’t just hop in a cab and bark “Tokyo station” to the driver. The article should have been about his ass getting lost on the trains, and not about being naked in Hakane. Wacky train experiences are worth writing about (Cf. David Sedaris’ “Picka Pocketoni”)

    I met a fellow foreigner eight years ago who told me he tried to get directions to Nakano, and ended up being guided to a Shinkansen headed for Nagano. Then again, he was a bit of a junkie, and didn’t realize that (a) he was slurring his speech, and (b) he was paying out the ass for a train he thought was going across the city.

  11. No, I don’t mean that the “otherness” is a lie, I mean not being able to see any English in Shinjuku Station is. I mean right on the platforms of any remotely major station in Japan are electronic signboards saying which train is next and where it is going. They alternate between English and Japanese. As do the massive boards above the ticket wickets at the entrances, and along the concourse. Just doing the obvious and looking at those boards would show him English. You have to be deliberately avoiding it, in my experience….

    Then again it may not be a lie if this guy can’t tell the difference between the bullet train and the Odakyu Romance car….

  12. Many travel pieces on Japan in the English language papers have pretty much the same tone, even if they aren’t as bad as this one.

    And then there are those gonzos who turn up expecting to find the Japan of their imaginations and are disappointed when they find out that Tokyo as Starbucks too:

    “I am sure I would love Japanese culture if I had managed to come across any. And I was looking out for sushi, Issey Miyake, the whole minimalistic aesthetic that has led to us all getting Christmas presents of desk-top tranquillity gardens full of tiny stones with their own miniature rakes… But tranquility was not much in evidence on our two day visit – instead I saw sickly yellow custard pies, Starbucks, glitter balls and acres of shopping mall culture. Sorry Thomas Friedman, maybe I’m not so keen on globalisation after all”

    http://publicaddress.net/default,946.sm#post

    Anyway, the article Joe posted is really something special. In fact, if I were guessing, I would say the author has never been to Tokyo, or even Hakane at all. We should all write to his editor and have a moan. He is, after all, making it harder for his readers to find out about the places he has mentioned.

  13. It’s only 15 minutes on the Chuo line from Tokyo to Shinjuku so it’s not that far. However, I don’t think he took the Romance Car because that train goes directly to Hakone-Yumoto so he wouldn’t have changed at Odawara.

    My guess is that he did take the shinkansen from Tokyo. For one, it’s the fastest way to get his destination and the best advice the concierge could have given him. He also mentioned that he would have liked the staff to have been with him to point the way. Tokyo Station is only a few minutes walk from the hotel so it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for someone to do that. What’s more, he seemed under the impression he was going to take the shinkansen before he set off so it doesn’t appear that he just made a snap judgement based on what the train looked like as he boarded it.

    Then, when he came to write up the piece, he probably had a crisis of confidence over the station name. He didn’t think it could be called “Tokyo Station”, because there is no “London Station, “New York Station” or “Paris Station”, so he googled to find the name of the busiest station in Tokyo and came up with Shinjuku. A slightly kinder reading might be that he did in fact use Shinjuku station on another occasion and has confused the two experiences. Either way, it’s very sloppy. What’s worse is that Jepson is a well-published travel writer with a number of books about Italy and Canada.

    What makes it even more likely that he took the shinkansen is his confusion at the station. I agree that Japanese trains are fairly easy to figure out but the shinkansen at many stations has a quirk which throws a lot of first time visitors. In Tokyo, you usually first go through a ticket gate which gives you access to the Chuo Line, Keihin Tohoku, Yamanote etc but, to get to the shinkansen, you then need to go through another gate. Most visitors aren’t expecting that and assume that going through a gate will take them out of the station since they just came in through one.

    I agree that if you look lost in front of a noticeboard for long enough then someone will usually come up to you but that works best if you are on your own. Jepson says he was in a group, which sounds like it must have been at least four people, and that often discourages would-be samaritans.

  14. I’m thinking now that the guy may have concluded that nobody speaks English because he wandered around the Yaesu exit shouting “ハカーニ?ハカーニ?” to everyone in sight.

  15. “Jepson says he was in a group, which sounds like it must have been at least four people, and that often discourages would-be samaritans.”

    Good point.

    For an interesting tangent off of this post, find “Big Bird in Japan”, a Children’s Television Workshop production from 1982. Big Bird and Barkley have their asses ditched by a tour bus in Hibiya, and then try and find their way around, but get no help from the “bemused, monolingual” Japanese and the beaming schoolchildren. Luckily he ends up in Shinjuku talking to some bubble-era OL who speaks passable English and takes him to Shizuoka, near Fuji.

    Big Bird may have said ‘Hakane’ at some point in the movie. I don’t remember.

  16. I don’t remember Big Bird in Japan, but I do have a pretty clear memory of seeing Big Bird in China, which in the 1980s before China opened up was a pretty big deal.

  17. They just revised the article, fixing the “Hakane” misspelling and clarifying that it was Tokyo Station, not Shinjuku.

    “Odawa” is still in there at the moment.

  18. I loved the one where the Sesame Street muppets get locked in the Metropolitan Museum of Art overnight and end up chilling with the ghost of an ancient Egyptian prince who got transported along with his tomb. The Egyptian wing of that museum was one of my favorite places as a kid, and it’s actually still pretty awesome when I go back, but I was never lucky enough to see the ghost. Although, I did once get to wander around the museum when it was closed because I had a friend whose mom is a tour guide there, and she let us in on cleaning day.

  19. Apart from the amazing level of note-taking mishaps and spelling belly-ups, the 1957 300SE Odakyu Line Romance car was actually an inspiration for the 1964 Shinkansen. You could find out more about that in about 3 seconds using google. Not that it really matters.

  20. Hi: I am Roy’s mom. After reading the post, I wonder if the writer was actually there or as someone suggested was plagarizng other articles. Even I was able to get around both times I visited Japan, and of course I don’t see how anyone could miss all the English language signs in the rail stations in Tokyo. People will always stop to assist in Japan even if you look lost and confused for only a moment. As I have no shame I have no difficulty with getting help from others while traveling. I utilize a number of techniques such as standing and looking confused, asking for help and using my own brand of sign language. I have been to many places in the world and to Japan twice and I am here to tell the story.

  21. It’s true that a lot of Japanese people actually do speak enough English to help out. Even when you don’t want them to, as many budding students of Japanese quickly learn.

    Although one problem is that if you ask someone for help who doesn’t speak English, they will futilely try to help anyway, and usually waste lots of time in the process. Dave Barry Does Japan has an excellent anecdote to this effect, where Dave’s family tries asking a random salaryman at Tokyo Station to help them find their train, and he walks around in a circle looking at their tickets and saying “Ticket…. ticket… ticket…” for several minutes.

  22. “I loved the one where the Sesame Street muppets get locked in the Metropolitan Museum of Art overnight and end up chilling with the ghost of an ancient Egyptian prince who got transported along with his tomb.”

    Big Bird at the Met, right? Wow, that video used to scare the crap out of me when I was little. I never let my parents take me there and didn’t go until I was in high school.

  23. I usually recommend Dave Barry Does Japan to anyone who is coming to Japan. Better than any of the pretentious travel books (and Dave doesn’t pretend to be an expert, but at least he can spell).

    Is it just me, or are there a lot of New Yorkers on this blog?

  24. Well, I’m from New Jersey about 40 minutes from Manhattan, parents and grandparents are all from Brooklyn so I spent a lot of time there as a kid, and then a lot of time in the city with friends in general starting in middle school. Adam is from Connecticut, a bit farther from NYC, but still relatively close. Joe isn’t from the area, but went to law school in Philadelphia, which is only a couple of hours away and has similarities with some parts of NYC. And Benjamin is from pretty close too (mentioned it before, but we met like 12-13 years ago at a summer camp populated almost totally by NYC/region residents) I’m not really sure who else here might be from the area, but definitely a lot of people who have spent time there.

  25. Yeah, that’s a fair bit. NYC is one of those places that I can’t actually imagine real people really live in….
    (Not in a “I would never live there if you paid me!” way, just as it is a city that is more of an icon than a place.)

  26. No one has ever called me “buddy” in the comments here, so it doesn’t feel like it’s populated heavily by New Yorkers.

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