Why I LOVE the Japanese people: How to lose $7,000 of gear and get every bit back

by Dave Etchells

posted Friday, February 28, 2014 at 9:49 PM EDT


My most recent trip to the annual CP+ show in Yokohama was my seventh to Japan to date, and the more I visit, the more I come to love the country. The Japanese people themselves are a very big part of that. They're endlessly helpful, exhibit a genuine compassion and caring for foreigners as well as each other, and are just enormously pleasant to interact with.

I'd known these things for years, but recently had an experience that really drove home just how different Japanese culture is from most other parts of the world.

It's a long story to tell in full, but there are some useful travel tips along the way, so bear with me.

First, the setup for the mishap: It began as I was heading up to the Yamagata area to visit Panasonic's lens factory there, and meet with their senior lens designer. I was traveling on the Tohuku Shinkansen (the main bullet train from Tokyo to points north), and it was a double-header: There were two sections to the train, which would split at Fukushima: one part going to Sendai, the other part to Yamagata and Tendo, where I'd be staying that night. Approaching Fukushima, and obviously concerned that I was on the correct section, I asked a fellow (Japanese) traveler if this was, indeed, the part that was going to Yamagata or not. He replied that no, this was the Sendai section, and I needed to go back to the other section to get to Yamagata.

Japan's Shinkansen -- colloquially, the bullet train -- is a high-speed railway network spanning most of the country. This is the E3-2000 series that was my second ride from Fukushima north.

So, in a great hurry at the Fukushima station, I dashed back to the Yamagata part of the train. It was a very long train; I was near the front of the first section, and the cars with unreserved seats were at the back of the second section, quite a distance, so I was in a bit of a hurry. (A side note when traveling in Japan: If you're at all uncertain about your itinerary, or there's a possibility of not making a particular connection, it's by far best to buy unreserved Shinkansen tickets, as opposed to tickets for reserved seats. If you miss your original train, you can travel on any of the following ones.)

The lost bag and its US$7,000+ contents: A Fujifilm X100S, Olympus E-P5, Panasonic GM1, Sony RX100 II, Ricoh GR, Canon G16, Sony RX10, Nikon AW1, five interchangeable lenses, three audio recorders, and a whole raft of batteries, filters, cables, and accessories.
(Yes, all that actually fit into that little bag, one reason it's my favorite!)

Here was my first travel lesson for the day: The Japanese are endlessly accommodating, but that doesn't necessarily mean they know the right answer. (!) In any question regarding train travel, certainly ask your fellow passengers, but be sure to double-check with JR (Japan Rail) personnel before making any consequential changes!

It turned out that the fellow traveler was completely wrong, and I'd just dashed to switch to the *wrong part of the train*. After just a few minutes aboard, the PA system started talking about Sendai, which clearly was not where I was supposed to be going. Checking with another fellow passenger revealed that this was, in fact, the wrong Shinkansen! Argh... So I immediately hopped off at the next station (Shiroishizao), to take the next Shinkansen in the other direction back to Fukushima again, where I could then board a train going to Yamagata. It turned out that Shiroishizao was a bit of a backwater station, so I had to wait 50 minutes for the next southbound train - I probably would have been better off continuing to Sendai, a major terminal that trains leave from much more frequently; I almost certainly would have gotten back to Fukushima faster; maybe another travel lesson learned.

Here's the fun part, though: In the confusion and semi-panic of changing train sections, trains, hopping off and getting back on, I managed to leave my camera bag somewhere along the way! Maybe on the original Shinkansen (I didn't think so, but wasn't positive), on the second one to Sendai, or in the terminal in Shiroishizao. Of course, I discovered this just as the doors of the train back to Fukushima were closing, so didn't have a chance to go search the Shiroishizao station.

An E5-series Hayabusa Shinkansen, capable of speeds up to 200mph (320kph).
This was the type train I was on initially, on the Tokyo-Yamagata route.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The tiny bit of good news was that I'd at least put the camera and lens I'd need for the next day in my computer bag, which I had with me. Meanwhile, though, easily US$7,000 worth of camera and audio gear was floating around somewhere within the JR East rail system.

If this were the US, I would have immediately written off any chance of seeing the gear again. Finders keepers, as they say. In Japan, though, I was at least hopeful that I might eventually be reunited with it; the big question was when.

Since I didn't know where I'd actually left the bag, there didn't seem any point in returning to Shiroishizao, so I approached a Fukushima station agent to see how I'd go about registering a lost & found item. He had very little English, but put me in touch by phone with a very nice English-speaking lady at JR East Information. She took all my info, description of the bag, theories of where I might have left it, and started trying to track it down. JR East Info closes at 6pm daily, and I didn't finish speaking with her until 5:30pm or so, yet she still called back just before six to report that she hadn't had any luck yet, but would resume in the AM.

Arriving to a warm welcome at Panasonic's Yamagata factory,
albeit with most of my cameras missing.

I had my phone off in the AM, but checked in with JR East Info just before my afternoon visit to the Panasonic factory -- and lo & behold, they'd found my bag! It turned out I'd left it in the Shiroishizao station, where it likely sat overnight. JR East sent it on to Sendai for me to pick up, as I'd be able to retrieve it and get on my way much faster from there than at Shiroishizao.

I was still more than a little nervous, since the JR person I spoke with described the bag as containing three cameras, whereas it had held eight initially. I crossed my fingers that maybe they just hadn't seen the others, as I had most of them wrapped in microfiber cloths for padding and protection.

So it was with not a little trepidation that I made the journey from Tendo to Sendai first thing the next morning. (Extra-special thanks to Koji Fujita from Panasonic, who accompanied me to Sendai to help in case Japanese translation was needed!) Almost worth it (well, not really, but I was trying to making the best of it), the train ride through the mountains from Tendo to Sendai was really beautiful, on an often winding track threading between snow-draped mountains. Really gorgeous, but hard to capture in pictures, as most of the time there were bare trees between the train & the view.

Pictures shot thru the trees from the Shinkansen train don't really do the view justice, but I tried nonetheless.

When I got to Sendai, the bag and every single thing in it was there, waiting for me!

Try to imagine this scenario occurring in the US, or perhaps most any country other than Japan: You leave a camera bag with US$7,000+ of gear in it sitting in a train station. (Let's leave aside for the moment what an absolute idiot you are for doing this.) Station personnel may find it that night, or it more likely sits there till morning. The rail line people go looking for it, find it, & forward it to a more convenient location for you to pick it up the next day. When you retrieve & open it, everything is exactly as you left it, all US$7,000+ of gear undisturbed & still inside.

Sadly, it's almost inconceivable to me to think of any of this happening in the US. Not even it just not being stolen, but for the public transit people to be organized enough & care enough to effect its return.

Simply amazing; the more time I spend in Japan, the more I love & appreciate it!

(^-^) - (A Japanese kaomoji, their version of emoticons)

A bit of unplanned rail travel later, I was reunited with all of my camera gear. Thanks, Japan!
(That's a rail joint on a high-speed Shinkansen track above; the ride is incredibly smooth.)
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

So, lessons learned:

  • Fer cryin' out loud, Dave, always check to make sure you have all your bags with you any time you move (!)
  • Double-check travel info with official representatives whenever possible, especially if the consequences would be you going in the wrong direction.
  • Non-reserved Shinkansen seats are a must, if you're the least bit uncertain about your schedule (or are a hapless idiot like yours truly). You might end up standing during peak times, but in my book, that's a whole lot better than having to buy a whole new ticket. (Update: Per readers Jeffrey Friedl's and fh's comments below, this isn't the case: A reserved-seat ticket just gives you the right to a reserved seat on the train in question, but you can still travel on a non-reserved basis on any other train on that route. - Thanks for that important note, guys; the incremental cost of reserving a seat is pretty trivial, well worth it on longer trips.)
  • If you need to change directions quickly, it's best to wait for a major station.
  • Google Maps is your friend, for figuring out connections. Its big limitation is that it only shows routes for trains leaving right around the departure time you specify. Sometimes, an earlier or later train would get you there faster, if it's a Super Rapid vs a Local, for instance. There's a more robust, English-language site out there that I've used before, but I don't recall the URL and didn't want to take the time to search more for it. (For some reason, I think it was a third-party site, not an official one from JR.) So I just made do with Google. A bonus with Google Maps is that it tells you the number of stops between transfers, and also shows you the Japanese names of the stations. Outside major metro areas, station signs are often in Japanese only.
    (Update: Per readers Javbw and Shadow's comments below, the site I couldn't remember was http://www.hyperdia.com/en/. An anonymous reader also mentioned http://www.jorudan.co.jp/english/norikae/e-norikeyin.html which lets you select what fare class you want up-front. Hyperdia shows you all available fare classes in its results, though, and also provides links for both train and station timetables along the way (something I hadn't noticed previously, thanks, Javbw!), making it easier to figure out other options if you end up running late. Very handy!)
  • Extra bonus tip: If you're going to do much traveling around the JR or Tokyo subway system at all, it's well worth it to get a PASMO card. These prepaid e-cards let you breeze through the turnstiles, versus having to visit a ticket machine every time you exit and re-enter the system. The balance never expires, so I just loaded ¥2,000 on one and will just save the card itself for my next visit.

Surprisingly, despite my mishaps, I absolutely love the JR train system, feel pretty comfortable with it, and wouldn't hesitate to set out to any part of Japan using it. It's an amazing system that runs pretty much anywhere you'd want to go, is always precisely on time (barring extreme weather), clean, pleasant and efficient. Inside Tokyo, everything is marked in English as well as Japanese, so that's a breeze; just get a subway map and you're golden. For longer distances, Google or the routing site I mentioned above but couldn't recall is the way to go, and really makes it pretty easy.

I'm already looking forward to my next visit (^-^)/