Sunday, November 25, 2007

Hating Hakone

The map inside the Hakone Tozan Railway car could not be more explicit.

As the line on the map slithers from Odawara to Hakone Yūmoto it changes color at Hakone Yūmoto, then changes color again at Gora; then changes color yet again at Sōunzan; then changes at Tōgendai. Then it changes color again.

Train to mountain train to funicula to cable ropeway to...ship or bus or ship and bus.

Serial larceny. Slow moving, serial larceny...and on a major holiday, an hour's plus wait at every step.

Hakone is a famous trysting spot. The reason seems to be that just getting to Hakone requires everything in you. Either you and your automobile crawl up scenic mountain valleys on a narrow road for hours on end...or you partake of every sort of non-animal transportation know to humankind save aircraft to get to your destination. By the time you arrive at your accommodations, night has fallen, your wallet is empty and you have not done a damn thing.

And there are only just so many times you can go to the ofuro.

Oh there are some deceptive "places to visit" like the Hakone Open Air Museum.

But Amaterasu help you if you try to get to them.

It was not always thus.

It cannot have always been thus.

It should not be this way now.

Hakone is touted as a vacation spot. It is not. It is a monumental organizational failure.

If the governments national and local want to attract more visitors to Japan, fixing Hakone would be a great place to start. The Cantonese, Mandarin and Korean speakers in the lines with me on Saturday did not sound thrilled at the Hakone experience.

The problem: getting human bodies up into the caldera and out again.

Taken as given: it is not feasible to increase the volume of passenger traffic carried by the Tozan Railway. The grade necessitates the short trains (oh, the numerous switchbacks) and the hard curves necessitate short train cars.

The grade on Route 732, the old Tokaidō, does not permit a rail line.

In 1962 the powers-that-be figured out that the best way to get more people into Hakone was to build a major toll road to Ashikō, paralleling Route 732. When that jammed up, the powers that be saw to it that a second toll road was built on the ridge above the other two roads--the former Hakone Turnpike, which is, as of this March, under corporate sponsorship, so it is now called the Toyo Tires Turnpike.

At no point did anyone say, "You know, making it easier for cars to enter the caldera seems to be ruining everyone's peace of mind. Not to mention the air quality and the auditory experience...and why do we have only a pathetic remnant of the actual Hakone Tōkaidō Route? What happened to the cedars and stones?"

Solutions? Replacing the private cars with buses, restricting automobile use to residents only, and permitting taxi services within the caldera but not outside it. Radical, anti-democratic moves...but it is either the people or the wheeled steel boxes who will be served.

Some thought might also be given to a footpath paralleling Route 1. Yes, I know about the Yusakaji and the Myōjōgadake ridge paths. I have walked them both. That is precisely why I am saying a new foot route is needed.

I hate going to Hakone. Always have.

But what I hate most about that some parts are still heartstoppingly lovely.

Hakone Tozan train crossing Deyamatekkyō
Hakone Township, Kanagawa Prefecture
November 24, 2007

Climbers at the summit of Myōjingadake
Hakone Township, Kanagawa Prefecture
November 24, 2007

Ōkamakiri Tenodera aridifolia (female)
Hakone Township, Kanagawa Prefecture
November 24, 2007

Iroha momiji Acer palmatum thunbergii
Hakone Township, Kanagawa Prefecture
November 24, 2007

Smart people with smart solutions should contact House Speaker Kōno Yōhei. Hakone is in his district.


Jan Moren said...

Of course, if you're a completely hopeless nerd like me, the very idea of train, _and_ funicular train, _and_ ropeway, _and_ boat, all experienced on the same day, pretty much sold me on the trip. Scenic spots are a dime a dozen all over the world, but exciting transport is sadly becoming rare. Throw in a monorail section and perhaps a winch-up mining car ascent and I'd be packing our bags already.

Could be a great long-weekend trip actually, with this approach, then a slow return on foot down the mountains.

MTC said...

janne morén -

And what a tasteful, understated and authentic ship it is too...


Jan Moren said...

Cool! Does it have fake guns that go boom and belch smoke?

OK, so the ship is a bit over the top, I agree (Kobe harbour has a couple of those as well). But then, that particular vessel is not necessary to use just to get there? I mean, there's a measure of voluntariness involved in boarding that design horror, I guess.

I don't know; schlock doesn't actually bother me that much as long as it's honest and open. It's when you try to pass it off as authentic that it gets offensive.

For instance, a small gold-leaf sitting altarpiece Buddha that is actually made from plastic with gold-paint is tacky and cheap. On the other hand, a gold-colored plastic Buddha with a clock in the belly button that sings a random koan every hour and can transform to SutraTron2000 with a rolling wheel base, Fist of Enlightenment arm action and glowing eyes (batteries sold separately) is mostly just fun.

Anonymous said...

The worst trip I've ever taken in Japan was to Hakone.

I felt I'd been pick-pocketed, given a wedgie, had my pants pulled down and been bukkaked on for good measure by a motley line-up of Odakyu rolling stock with their serial numbers mosaiced out. Got home early though.

'scuse the bad taste.

Jan Moren said...

Calligraphykid, I'm pretty sure there's clubs in Osaka that will charge you an arm and a leg for precisely that experience...