Japanese trains: Confusion, convenience and crowds

My first day in Japan was less than ideal; the lack of any real language ability  was a tremendous challenge, especially since I was forced to navigate the complex spider-web of subway lines that crisscross the Tokyo metropolitan area. Normally the Narita Express train would be able to take me directly where I had to go but as luck would have it service had stopped due to an accident. So I had to take 3 different trains in ordered to arrive in Totsuka. A process which should have taken an hour, ended up taking almost 4 due to me getting lost in the maze of Japan’s subway stations.

Tokyo Station’s fancy exterior

I was not kidding when I said that train stations like  Shibuya station are massive; at the very least in large metropolitan hubs like Tokyo and even Kyoto, train stations tend to go beyond simply train services. Entering  a train station is often like entering a shopping mall and in many cases train stations are directly under massive malls with everything from restaurants to salons, arcades, clothes stores, konbinis...the list is endless. Being in a train station is an experience all its own and one could be entertained for hours by simply wandering around the seemingly vast, endless corridors and seeing all they have to offer.

Stores and subway stations

Aside from shops, the sheer size and number of train lines that are serviced by each station means that transferring or taking the right line can be challenging if you don’t know the route, even for locals. I often found myself looking at the map along with several Japanese people trying to see which of the many, MANY lines would be best to take. Of course after awhile you start to memorize the most useful ones for you but it’s always good to use the map for alternate or new routes.

Tokyo’s confusing train lines map

To add yet another element to the mixture, rush hour is extremely uncomfortable as literally millions of Tokyo residents go to work  in the morning and go home at night. The positive of this is that, unlike other countries, people in Japan will generally allow you to get off before they try to get on themselves thereby avoiding the pushing and crushing mass of humanity. I for one have had my fair share of being packed tightly to the point that no one can move, as if the train were a can and all the people sardines. This is especially the case with the last train of the night as everyone tries to get on instead of being left behind despite, adding a whole new meaning to the phrase “there’s always room for one more”.

But Japan is convenient and trains are no exception. You can get virtually anywhere by train: from Akihabara to Kamakura and even down to Hiroshima, trains are everywhere. Every station for that matter has their own little tune, giving you a pleasant few seconds of music to enjoy and making it easier for those who are blind to distinguish between stations. Trains are always punctual, arriving directly on time and leaving on time, as is customary in Japan’s strictly punctual society. Finally we have the cream of the crop, the almighty shinkansen (bullet train). If you’re in a hurry to get anywhere in the country just hop on one of these speedy trains and you’ll arrive in almost no time. A trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima will take 4 hours and while it is a bit expensive, it’s worth the experience to see the rolling green of Japan’s countryside as you travel several hundred kilometers per hour.

Beautiful views and shinkansen

Following the destruction of WWII trains and railroads literally connected the country in more than one aspect. Today they have become an integral part of Japanese modernity, innovation and convenience. Personally I have slept both in trains and train stations, I have hit my head on the really low bars to hold onto, I’ve gotten lost and I am certain that at some point you will too.


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