Notes from the underground

You may have seen images on sensationalist documentaries on how crazy and whacky Japan is; images of trains stuffed with people with white-gloved station attendants pushing in even more commuters, leaning on them so the automatic doors can squeeze shut. Well, unlike most of the things seen on such television programs, this is actually all true!
Being one of those idiots who like to start work early I find myself struggling with rush-hour travel both on my way to and back from the office. It's the price I pay for trying to live a healthier lifestyle. Sure, I could go to the office at 10.30 or even later, but then I'd be stuck eating convenience store pot noodle for dinner and not getting back until midnight. No, early to bed, early to rise, a full workday followed by a home meal, it's all good; except for the commute.

Unless you like to pay through the nose for a tiny apartment in central Tokyo it is likely you'll have a daily commute for up to an hour or an hour and a half each way. It's one of those sad facts of life in Japan. And yes, the trains are clean, fast, cheap-ish and punctual, especially compared to, say, the London Underground, they more than make up for this convenience with overcrowding. It differs from line to line and area to area, but if you're unlucky, like me, the train ride to work will be the most harrowing, bruising and aggravating part of your day.
Those people who honestly believe the Japanese are friendly, sociable people who always care for others in their community should take a ride on the rush hour trains. Like a survival situation can bring out the instincts in people, so the Japanese train system will bring out the worst.

Here are some of the things that make me lose my sunny disposition:

  • People who are too aloof to grab hold of the many straps or metal bars. For them the natural sway and starts of the train can be addressed by leaning into the person next to you. This is fine if you're standing in the middle of the train but if, more often than not like me, you're standing near the end of a carriage or near the door this can literally push the wind out of you. Imagine being stuck between a metal wall and the weight of a couple of dozen lazy people leaning into you.
  • People that don't grasp the fact that a row of people waiting in a certain spot is called a "queue". The station platform usually shows you where the doors will be once the train arrives, so people tend to queue up there so we can all enter the train in an orderly, impromptu "first come, first served" fashion. I find it strange that I sometimes get the angriest looks when I stop someone approaching the front of the queue from the side when I block their passage with my arm or umbrella. How dare I stop them from being so rude?
  • Pushing me in the back will indeed haste your way to the exit when the train stops. However, when the train is still moving and the doors still closed it does little but anger me.
  • Why on Earth try reading a broadsheet newspaper when all the rest of us are in a life or death struggle for breathing space?
  • We all know you saw that old woman. Pretending to be so engrossed in your book or pretending to sleep is fooling nobody. Sure, leave it to the foreigner to stand up an offer his seat.
  • It is simply too full. The air-conditioner is on full blast but you are stuffed into a mass of bodies. You sweat like a madman. People are already pressed against the windows and some guy still tries to push into the carriage. And by God, he manages it, somehow. It is nobody's fault really, but's crowded.

Here are a few useless survival tips for those who must commute in Tokyo:

  • Prevention is better than a cure. Find a place to live which offers you the shortest or most direct line to work. It is not always predictable which lines will be busy. When we moved to our suburban location our train line was moderately busy, but since a line extension and a few new apartment blocks were built it is now officially one of the busiest lines in he greater Tokyo area. Seeing as you can't really plan for this at least go for the quickest, most painless route.
  • Don't push back. Pushing back a tide of dozens will only tire you out. In stead, offer some resistance then quickly step aside. Then laugh at the indignant look on the face of the idiot next to you as he tumbles to he floor. Then make a big play of grabbing the strap again and steadying yourself. Who knows? After a few falls the guy may finally learn what those straps are good for.
  • Never become aggressive, pushy and loud. It only reinforced the stereotype that foreigners are aggressive, pushy and loud. And they fight back, despite what you may have heard! The best way is to be calm, soft spoken and direct. When a guy told me to move my arm because it was in his way I just looked at him and softly said "too bad", in Japanese. Within seconds he was on the other side of the carriage. This is a much more effective technique.
  • Avoid the express! Most people take the express trains. Sure, it'll get you home a few minutes quicker but it will be much more crowded than the local trains.
  • Lead the usual "developer's lifestyle". Go to bed late, get up late, eat lunch at 3 pm, eat a fast-food dinner at 11 pm and never see any friends or family on weekdays. It may be a shitty, unhealthy lifestyle but at least you can avoid the rush-hour.

It will be unlikely that you can avoid a commute by train when you live in Tokyo. It's one of those necessary Evils you are just going to have to learn to live with.


  1. Or you could try to find a job in another city.

    I work in Kyoto, and aside from many apartments being CHEAPER* than in most Southern English cities, it is very easy to traverse by bike, so there is little need to use public transport - and certainly no need to spend an hour on a crowded rush hour train.

    Hell, you could even live in Kyoto and commute to Osaka in 30-45 minutes (by train, of course).

    *ignoring the ridiculous key/gift money required to enter most places, the rent is often much cheaper than in the UK.

    For example, I used to pay £260 a month for a TINY room in a shared house several miles outside of Oxford. Now I pay roughly the same for a small, but pleasant flat in central Kyoto, complete with aircon, a large main room, kitchen and combined bathroom.

  2. I hear a lot of love for Kyoto from many corners.
    I really like Tokyo though. As a big city boy I can't fault it. But with that comes the strain of the crowded trains. Ugh. Every silver lining...