Train travel is an essential way of life in Japan. Alex and I both begin and end our days at the Higashi-Zushi train station, joining the millions of Japanese residents who rely upon public transport. In fact, I am writing this piece while taking the Yokosuka Rapid Line bound for Shibuya bright and early this weekday morning.
We do have a car. Like most Americans, it was one of our first priorities. We began searching for our vehicle even before we had our Japanese licenses. But, while car travel may be more convenient (or at least more private), it is certainly more expensive.
Japan has financed its major highways through tolls. In the US, the closest example I can give is the New Jersey Turnpike. You get a ticket at the entrance, and then pay based on how far you travel. The Japanese system, while similar, has a few distinct differences (besides all instructions being in Japanese). Most essentially, it’s much bigger. It’s more like hundreds of turnpikes connected to one another. You get a ticket, travel ten miles, pay the ticket. Get another ticket, travel seven miles, pay the ticket. And so on and so forth.
Second, there’s the price. While the individual tolls aren’t outrageous, they add up quickly. Ranging in price form $3 to $30, it’s a bit of a crap shoot (at least for those of us who aren’t intricately familiar with the highway system). Tolls back and forth the 45 miles to Tokyo are around $35 each way. But depending on where you’re going – not necessarily the distance – they can get much pricier. We recently traveled to Chiba, a city east of Tokyo (though closer to us geographically) and paid more than $140 in tolls.
So, we have become train people. And as such, we attempt to follow the rules, because yes – there are rules! Mirroring Japanese culture as a whole, train travel has a prescribed etiquette. No talking (maybe… very quiet whispering). No eating. No drinking. No phone calls. No loud music. And one seat per person – no exceptions. If you have 10 shopping bags and a suitcase, they must all sit directly on your lap so you won’t take up more than your allotted amount of space.
What’s remarkable to this American is how everyone follows the rules. People are silent on the train, no matter how crowded. And no self-respecting Japanese would ever take up more than one seat or make a ruckus onboard. (Tourists, including this chatterbox… not so much! We try but, then again, we frequently get dirty looks!)
Alex, a tried and true rule-follower, silently takes a 7-minute ride to work everyday, while I – well, I try to be quiet – and hop on for an hour or so to go into Tokyo, holding my purse tightly against me, not for fear of pickpockets, but to avoid crowding my neighbor. Sometimes I bring a book or my computer (like today). But frequently I put in my headphones (full assimilation!) and people watch, because the train is a perfect microcosm of Japan, every walk of life mingling on the tracks.
There are the school girls, wearing their plaid skirt and sweater set uniform – practically a Halloween costume. My favorite is to watch them arrive in the mornings, square backpacks filled to capacity, filing onto the train. As soon as they are safely out of sight of watchful parents, they instantly begin to roll up their skirts in unison, lifting them from knee-length to just below the crotch. And they will stay that short, no matter how cold it is outside, until they arrive back in the evening, when they will reverse the process and return home looking respectable. It’s hilarious, and reminds me of my high school gym class, when we would all roll up our hideous green basketball shorts until they created the world’s largest camel toes!
Then you will see the gamers. Mostly men, but I have sat next to a female example, who are obsessed with their virtual worlds. Sitting or standing, it doesn’t matter. They are plugged into their phones or other devices, fully immersed in their game. They won’t notice if you bump into them, they don’t get up to give their seat to the elderly (as is expected). And they frequently jostle about as if their actions in the game affect their physical body, often elbowing their unlucky neighbors. I once sat across from a twenty-something guy who was playing two separate games on two separate devices, with one earbud from each blaring so loudly that the whole train noticed. (He did not follow the rules.)
There are the adorable old couples. Eighty plus and still able to use public transport. I almost laugh at the idea of watching my 87-year-old grandmother attempt to figure out the train system (even if it was in English), climb up flights of stairs, deal with thousands of people pushing and rushing through the station, and then possibly stand for over an hour on a barreling bullet train bound for the city, where she will then have to make her way up four or five more flights of stairs only to walk all around the city, carrying everything with her as she goes. After only two months here, it is my goal to grow old like the Japanese. Capable, energetic, and engaged. On the train, they are quiet, respectful, and sometimes a little smelly ;-). More often than not, they are asleep.
Which leads me to my next category: the sleepers. Many people nap on the train, and I’ll admit to dozing off myself once in a blue moon. It’s easy to be lulled into slumber by the monotonous movement and soft silence. Fortunately, sleeping is perfectly acceptable onboard. Indeed, snoring is often the loudest thing you’ll hear on the train, and slumping onto the stranger next to you as you nap is also a common – and condoned – practice.
Finally, the largest category is the commuters: predominately men dressed in black (always black) business suits. They ride in early in the morning, especially if they are coming from the “suburbs,” often catching the 4:30 or 5am trains. And they return on the last train back each night, arriving home around midnight, only to repeat the ritual the next morn. Often on the way home they are drunk and rowdy, as it is required to go out and “party” with the boss after work. This is where business really gets done, or so I’ve been told. (Note: you may break train etiquette if drunk. Drunkenness is an acceptable and almost appreciated state here in Japan – for a man.)
I bet that many of you have read this post and wondered why I’ve yet to mention the most famous aspect of Japanese transit: the pushers! If you aren’t aware of them, let me enlighten you. Pushers are men employed by the railway companies whose job it is to literally stuff people onto the train. They wear official uniforms, looking like high-class bellhops complete with white gloves. Standing at attention next to every car door, they direct commuters into lines, and the rule-following Japanese smoothly fall into single-file formation. Then, when the next train arrives, thousands upon thousands of Japanese (and a few bewildered tourists) pour from the train, jostling back and forth, attempting to beat the bottleneck and be the first up the escalator, always hurrying to change subway lines.
Then, the well-behaved, single-file line transforms into a massive blob. People who happily accepted their place at the back of the line, now try to wind their way to the front, hoping for a coveted seat on what will be a painfully full train. The crowd never seems to end. As someone inside the train, I recall thinking, “surely, no more will fit,” Only to be squeezed even tighter against the woman next to me. Closer, frankly, than most people would get on a first date! And then, just as you contort your body to fill the tiny space left available to you, the pushers leap into action, physically forcing people further into the abyss, making room for more travelers. White-gloved hands hit any body part they can find, insisting the recipient move back, further back, even further. And then they cram the final stragglers into the car, often holding a person onto the train with their own force until the doors slowly close, and, at the last moment, they efficiently jerk their hands from the small opening, just in time for the closure to snap shut, locking us all in.
You might call it a death trap. It certainly feels that way as the train picks up speed and hurtles toward our next location, where we arrive and people literally fall out as the automatic doors open. Then the entire procedure is repeated. People who were shoved deep into the black hole of the train now emerge, pushing and shoving their way through hundreds of commuters to depart. Instantly, their tiny plots of space disappear as the collective crowd organically adjusts, molding itself to accommodate new passengers.
Yet, amazingly, the trains are renowned for their promptness. Japanese transit is almost always on time. In fact, if you are late to work due to train delays, you can stop at the information desk and receive a “train delay certificate,” proving that the famously punctual system actually ran late! (It might seem silly for an adult to provide a “note,” but tardiness is not acceptable.)
Therefore, it is my humble advice to avoid traveling on the train during rush hour. It can prove dangerous, and you certainly won’t be able to sit and read, or even enjoy your people watching. Instead, you will have a lovely view of someone’s back, because there is no room even to turn your head.
Train travel here is a way of life. Sometimes it’s relaxing, sometimes chaotic; but it’s always a wonderful way to see the people and experience the culture of Japan. You might sit across from a woman dressed in traditional kimono, wearing geta (customary Japanese footwear), with her hair perfectly coiffed in an elaborate design, complete with flowers and accessories. But next to you is a completely westernized business man with leather briefcase and gold rolex. If you’re lucky, you might get a great view of one of the youthful subcultures: a girl bedecked in baby pink, hair in pigtails and donning 10-inch fuchsia platform boots; a boy (who might not look it) wearing skintight blue leggings decorated with stars and planets, his hair spiked straight up over a foot tall, dozens of earrings dangling from his ears; or maybe you’ll see someone like me, obviously American, dressed in jeans and blazer, looking out of place with my blonde hair in a braid, and attempting not to stare as I take in the wonderful, strange, exotic, beautiful world around me that is Japan.