Updated May 2014
Growing up in cities meant subways were normal. Other than rides on restored steam locomotives in historical parks and one run on a now defunct line on Vancouver Island, train love was missing. Living in Finland introduced encompassed travel by train and 3rd class cars in Thailand felt romantic. Moving to Japan and meeting a man in Tokyo meant that I could travel on trains every day!
Trains and subways in Tokyo are best for:
- watching people,
- seeing what’s similar or different between trains, like the skinny Ginza line or the newer Fukutoshin line,
- puzzling about the meaning of advertising,
- catching up on blood type horoscopes and cartoons,
- practicing reading Japanese on signs,
- pondering the choice of words in English used for bulletins when trains stop running,
- copying the conductor’s voice in my head, and, most importantly
- reflecting on the health of the Yamanote Line English recorded announcer. I’m sure she has a cold.
Features to Appreciate
The massive air conditioners in subway stations are my magnets. In the hotter months, I seek out these rumbling fans and stand directly in front of them. They blow my hair around and I feel cooler.
On the other hand, avoid cars with low power air-con. Full blast is best.
Subway stations have water fountains and/or sinks on the platforms while train stations usually don’t. It is such a relief to rinse my hands or have a drink, especially in the summer. I rarely have seen fountains clogged with gum.
Women Only Cars
On some lines during rush hour, certain cars are only for women. Women hopefully feel safer travelling and can avoid gropers and grabbers.
My only experience with these cars has been riding them outside of rush hour when anyone can use them.
Hitoshi rode a women only car during rush hour by accident. He was late for an appointment and rushed to catch the train. He didn’t pay attention to what car he got on but immediately felt that something was wrong. Cold stares returned his sheepish glance. He wanted to evaporate but had to wait for the next station to escape!
Rush, Rush, Rush
Ikebukuro Station was our home station and it’s also fun for how busy it is. If you hate crowds, stay away! If you want a spectacle, go into the station during morning rush hour any weekday. Get up early, grab a coffee and get out of the way. A great place to stand is against the wall in front of the Marunouchi Line gates near the subway ticket machines.
Going through Ikebukuro Station during rush hour was terrifying for the first 50 times or so. I would grab Hitoshi’s hand tightly and try to stay glued to him. Navigating the station alone for the first time left me standing a little taller.
Soon after I moved to Tokyo, I started to rush through stations. Even though trains run frequently, dashing down stairs, screaming around corners and flying through gates became normal. It was hard to resist the restless energy of the crowd!
Features that underwhelm
Look under seats on trains and subways. On some trains, there will be a metal plate with holes in it. In the fall and winter, this will be shockingly hot.
To contend with a festering heater cooking the backs of your legs, try the following:
Step 1: remove coat, scarf, gloves, suit jacket, and neck scarf.
Step 2: slide forward as far as possible while trying to stay upright and balance clothing on knees.
Step 3: slip work bag behind legs and count seconds to leaping from involuntary sauna.
Amazingly, Hitoshi and I had the same subway stop after I got my new job in Tokyo. Hitoshi travelled at the beginning of rush hour on purpose and I caught the tail end.
I didn’t like packed trains in the morning and Hitoshi and I discussed how to find the emptiest of the full cars. Hitoshi’s strategy was to get on the last car and squish against the back wall to create a sliver of personal space. My theory was that the middle cars were emptier. I ended up following Hitoshi’s method. I could see who was around me to avoid gropers and have a little breathing room. Despite all this, I still had my share of rides with my face stuck in a stranger’s armpit.
Have you discovered something interesting or not about taking the train or subway in Tokyo?