Arm of a straphanger on a Japanese train

Photo:Bit Boy

Smiling (and Surviving) on the Subway and Trains in Japan

One of the biggest exemplifications of Japanese life can found in and on its train system. The trains here in Japan can be seen as a metaphor of Japanese life, its humanity, pop culture, and the technology all rolled into one; with the bullet trains moving over 130 mph, or for my metric friends, 210 km/h. Being an outsider within its midst can be challenging and fascinating while at the same time simply getting to where you want to go. One of the first nuances in this place is space, or that of personal space. In Japan personal space may not be as "personal" as it is back home, and honestly there may not be any “space” at all. You may be surprised just how much someone standing just a few inches/centimeters closer can make you feel uncomfortable. This can be magnified by 1000 whenever traveling during rush hour time periods from 7am–9am, and 5pm–7pm; there’s also the “last train” time frames of 10:30pm to about 12am — literally when the trains will stop service for about 5 hours daily.

Crowds waiting on the train platforms
Photo by Liam via Flickr

During rush hour people will be literally touching each other shoulder to shoulder (if you’re lucky it’s only shoulder to shoulder), while cramming into each train car. Those times are not for the claustrophobic, and can be very extreme. For those who've seen the videos of station staff pushing people in train cars; those days are long gone. But if you find yourself in Shinjuku at 11:30 at night, prepare yourself for some pushing and cramming from the Edokos/Tokoites.

Crowd of people at Shibuya Station
Photo by Mitch Altman via Flickr

Even in those mass stampede moments you can find some truly amazing Japan Only experiences. While playing tour guide for a visiting friend we found ourselves in Shibuya on the Saikyo Line in the throes of the “last train” service. The scram onto the train was so intense that we were both questioning whether or not the night’s sightseeing was really worth our current sardine state of mind; when I noticed an obaachan, an older woman at least in her 70s. When getting on the train she moved with the focus and determination of a true train warrior!! She made it on board without being bumped into or pushed, and she found her space and settled in well before the doors closed — while myself and my friend moved on in a wave of stumbling feet, half body surfing/flailing motions.

Commuters waiting in lines on the platform as the doors to a packed train close
Photo by Vicuna R via Flickr

I motioned my head towards her direction (one of the few parts of my body I could move) and my friend had noticed her as well. Luckily she was getting off at our connecting station Akabane. When she moved for the train doors she had the two of us in her wake, like racers trying not to brake her slip stream. We made it off the train and down the escalator without any collisions, or bumps. Once we had breathing room we broke out in amazed laughter. Even today I thank our train elder, and wonder if she even noticed the two travelers she lead out the crowded masses; and that they were having such an amazing experience thanks to her.

One can find a culture of kindness within the Japanese train system. Giving up your seat for the elderly, for women, and for couples is very common. You can often see “battles of politeness” two people offering each other a seat within a packed car. But it’s not always a smooth ride. Japan is not free from “manspreading” and not all riders are gracious in giving up their seat to the elderly. Some of the advertisements at times seem better placed in a men's locker room then on the train, but those can be seen as a slight reflection of the pop culture here, so even those few bumps along the line seem few and far between.

A station attendant blows his whistle as a train gets ready to leave
Photo by Graham Stanley via Flickr

With preparations for the 2020 Olympics, more and more train lines are offering bilingual, and in some cases multilingual announcements and signage. Japan’s tech culture is vast and infinite; it’s no surprise that here travel and tech go hand in hand. Video monitors running everything from commercials, to PSA announcements, news and delay information can be found on the trains in and around Tokyo. Automotive guardrails, and LED directional lights exemplify hi tech safety along with a bit of future shock. Some of the Tokyo subway lines offer free wifi access while on board and within it’s stations. With the improvements to the Suica payment card program, and additions of Apple Pay, even how you pay for travel has been revolutionized.

For the travelers and backpackers, it’s good to know that space can at time can be very valuable. The cars near the front and at the very end of the platform are usually the most avoided. Some commuters don’t like the extra walking distance. If you travel with larger roller bags the same hint might help. Across from certain handicap access areas there is also extra space, but please note I say “across from”; please do not use areas reserved for the handicapped/handicapable if there are people there who need the space. Any visit to Japan without riding the rails would be a missed chance to experience something truly one-of-a-kind.

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