January 30, 2016 | Lena Yokoyama
If you’ve never experienced trains in Tokyo, that surely is something to put on your bucket list. It is something to remember in many ways with no doubt, and if you’re interested, this post will get you started with some of my personal observations.
The whole experience starts with having to chose the best line to wait in at the platform. As the Japanese are being very exemplary by perfectly lining up in front of the entrance mark, it is smart to do the same, unless you want to end up being the last one to enter the train. Usually you wanna choose the one with the shortest line to wait in. In your head you’re thinking, which entrance could lead to the least crowded wagon. But trust me when I say, they're all the same. Only during specific times a the day, you will be able to find a seat. Those are usually between 9-11am and 2-4pm when everyone is at work or school.
But let’s talk about the times where empty trains are nowhere to be seen. These are called rush hour or in Japanese manin densha. As you can probably figure, rush hours take place in the mornings when people go to work and in the evenings after closing time. It’s the Japanese horror story nobody can get around, since everybody has about the same time schedule. I was too „fortunate“ to have my language school schedule falling right into that time, which means, you guessed it, rush hour - every morning - for me.
The train arrives and the first thing you notice, are Japanese faces squished against windows and doors. That’s obviously much fun to look at until you become one of them. The door slowly opens as a few people are coming out. To me it always looks like the train is breathing again after being suffocated for so long. That’s your call and you have to step in and somehow find a spot in the massive crowd of people. At some stations, there are even helpers on the platforms, who push and squish people into the trains until the door closes. This always reminds me of when I put food back in the cupboard and try to close the door before anything falls out and I have to pick it up.
Japanese people in general try to avoid getting too close to other people in the trains, just as much as they don’t like other people interfering in their personal
space. During normal hours that’s pretty doable and they even take it so far to scoot a couple seats away from you, or change sides to the opposite seat bank if they happen to find more room there. During rush hour though, there is absolutely no way you will not have to touch other people. This happens to be really uncomfortable for the Japanese. So what they do, is trying to be as invisible as possible. You’ll probably find no subway in the world where it’s so quiet. An unspoken rule in Japanese trains is to not speak on the phone. As I haven’t always been a big rule follower, I’ve happened to talk on the phone a couple times. After being stared at by a couple dozen judging asian eyes all at once, I usually ended up hanging up after all.
Looking around during the drive, you will notice, there are exactly two types of people. The ones that sleep and the ones that are on their phones. Either way they’re all facing downwards. Expect the totally knocked out ones, that usually end up in some drooling-mouth open-head falling on to another person’s shoulder-position. Phone-people, make up the biggest percentage though. You’d think those professional looking businessmen in their suits would do some important things. But when you sneak a peak, all they actually do is playing candy crush and reading online manga. Meanwhile, me being a half gaijin (foreigner) and being a total newbie to the Japanese culture, I’m either observing people or studying Japanese. Kinda had to get used to the fact though, that people around me always look at my stuff, while I feel secretly judged for my ridiculously easy vocabulary, since I still have to learn.
The train goes from station to station and unless it’s not a major station such as Shinjuku or Shibuya, the trains only get more crowded and crowded with each stop. When you finally hear the name of your station, you have to mentally prepare yourself to push and fight your way through the crowd in order to reach the door which could close at any second. Finally out, you’ll find yourself sighing of relief, but quickly realize you’re exhausted as hell and it’s not even 9 am. The good news though is, if you have to ride rush hour trains every day, you’ll get used to it. And with a positive mind set, you can see the bright sides about it. Like getting to cuddle with a bunch of strangers every morning before starting your day.
So if you’re ever planning a trip to Tokyo and happen to ride a train during rush hour, I hope this post might give you a bit of a heads up on what you will be expecting.
Peace and mata kondo