Train lines are the veins of Japan, a vital form of transport pumping people across the land, all the way from the most frigid tip of Hokkaido down to the sun-kissed coasts of Kyushu. Train stations are literally at the heart of every major city and town in Japan (with the exception of Okinawa), and whenever you’re travelling around it can be a useful barometer to gauge the size and significance of a place: the bigger and more elaborate the train station, the greater and more vital that area is.
So as you can imagine, the train stations around Tokyo are massive: huge, sprawling labyrinths that are more akin to an ant’s nest. But it’s not all train lines and platforms in there: some of the biggest train stations are mini-towns unto themselves. So if you find yourself in a big Tokyo station (or any big station in Japan) and the weather is bad or you don’t have time to explore before catching a transfer, fear not: you can get a great experience of Japan without even stepping outside! Here’s some of the best examples:
A little ways out from downtown Tokyo, Omiya Station in Saitama City is nonetheless worth a visit to see the first station that turned into a shopper’s paradise. Yes, Omiya was the first station to introduce the concept of ‘Ekinaka’ (Inside the station), where stations were no longer a place you just passed through but a place where you could eat, drink, shop, get a haircut...and even get a pet dog! And all in the time between train transfers.
To this day, Omiya maintains a wealth of shopping experiences, with ‘Ecute Omiya’ leading the charge with cake shops, souvenirs and bookstores.
Ah, Ikebukuro. This station holds a special place in this author’s heart for being the first Japanese train station I got lost in (and by no means the last!). It was a place I got happily lost in though, because there’s a wealth of shopping and eating to be had here. The station is tucked snugly between two retail giants: Seibu (the slightly fancier of the two) and Tobu (the slightly more modest of the two). Those who can read a little bit of Japanese beware: ‘Tobu’ literally means ‘Eastplace’ but is on the West Exit of Ikebukuro, whereas Seibu is literally ‘Westplace’ but is - yep! - on the East Exit of Ikebukuro.
The pedestrian subways also stretch quite far in either direction, meaning you can reach many other parts of Ikebukuro directly from the station, including the excellent Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre.
This wonderfully varied station caters to commuters and tourists alike, resulting in a heady mix of retail experiences stretched out over this long station. Heading out of the Central ticket gate, you find yourself in a lobby akin to a mediterranean market. This is ‘Atré Ueno’, and is packed with fashionable clothing stores.
Head through the low arches and up to the northern end of the station, and you find the more workaday area of the station around the Park and Iriya Exits. You’ll find plenty of cheap and simple places to eat here. It’s a great place to grab a bite to eat safe in the knowledge that your platform is less than 30 seconds downstairs.
Tokyo Station is the hub of the Shinkansen in the capital city. While it is a dauntingly huge place, it is a little easier to navigate than most other main stations, having been recently renovated with a handsome European-style exterior. As Tokyo Station sees visitors from all over Japan and abroad, it has a great balance of things to do and see. You can spend a whole day here and feel like it was a day well spent!
On the station’s east flank is Yaesu Chikagai, an underground shopping mini-town of over 160 shops and restaurants. There’s lots of exclusive shopping to be done here, including a Pokémon Store and a Hello Kitty shop. There’s even sightseeing to be done around the historic Tokyo Station: take the time to head into one of two domed foyers on the west side and check out the details in the pillars and ceiling. And, somewhere, there’s a postbox shaped like the Station itself. Can you find it?
Before you hop on your next train out of Tokyo, be sure to pick up a box-packed lunch from one of the many bento shops in the station: almost every region of Japan is represented with their local tasty speciality.
This is it. The big one. Nearly every fact about Shinjuku station boggles the mind: 2 million passengers a day, 51 platforms, over 200 exits...so of course the shopping and activity stats are similarly off the charts.
From Shinjuku station you can access over a dozen different shopping areas: Lumine, Odakyu, Isetan, Marui, Takashimaya, Yodobashi Camera and Bic Camera...and all without stepping under the sky. It’s the ultimate shopping experience, covering everything from electronics to 100 yen stores to luxury brand goods. There’s even a farm on the roof of one of them! You can also access Kinokuniya Books from here, with the largest collection of English-word books in Japan.
Be warned, though: Shinjuku is the station that is probably easiest to get lost in. Not just because of the sheer size and complexity of it but also because the station seems to be in a constant state of renewal. Like Hogwarts Castle, staircases and walkways that were there one day will move or disappear the next day (or so it seems). Even seasoned commuters find themselves befuddled by the place sometimes, so be sure to leave plenty of time to get to where you need to go!
The “Ekinaka” experience is unavoidable if you’re visiting Japan and travelling around, but if you have spare time in the station, you will easily fill it! In fact, you may be having so much fun in the station that might miss your train!