Like no other country, Japan is a nation of trains. You can get pretty much anywhere you need to go here by rail, except for the small outlying islands of course. It’s a terrific way to see the country. Even the very development of Japan’s urban centers has been influenced by their rail systems, with the growth of towns and cities driven by development along the railways and around the many stations.

All but the smallest stations will have a network of shops and restaurants within, connected to, or surrounding the station itself. People identify their neighborhoods by which stations are closest to their homes, and children as young as five or six years old ride the busy commuter trains alone to and from school. The pervasive rail system is an important aspect of daily life in Japan.

I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that Tokyo has the greatest train system in the world.  Okay, I’ll admit, it sounds like an exaggeration, but hear me out. 40 million people are transported by rail in the Greater Tokyo metropolitan area every day, along more than 120 rail lines operated by 30 different companies.

As of 2003, the latest year for which I can find a report, there were nearly 900 train stations of various kinds (e.g., subway, surface rail) in Tokyo’s 23 wards alone, excluding cable cars.  Many stations are connected, below ground or above, in vast complexes servicing several lines run by multiple competing companies.  There are hundreds more stations in the surrounding areas that make up the Greater Tokyo metro. And the same train pass will work at every single one of them.

A 2013 list of the 100 busiest passenger train stations in the world shows that fully 82 of them are in Japan, including 44 of the top 50 and all of the top 23. The busiest station in the world, Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, serves 1.26 billion people a year.

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Commuters board the Yamanote Line at Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station during rush hour. Photo (c) Chris 73
Coming from train-poor, car-loving California, all of this seemed a bit overwhelming to me at first. But only at first. The amazing thing about Tokyo’s spiderweb of trains is how well it all works. The trains are very clean and almost always on time, and if a subway train is more than five minutes delayed someone will meet the passengers at the exits to hand them notes for their bosses explaining the situation. A large and growing proportion of signs are in English, Chinese and Korean, making life easier for foreign visitors than it was even ten years ago. There are helpful maps both inside and outside every station (although sometimes only in Japanese.)

The conductors announce every stop without fail, and recorded messages in multiple languages admonish riders to keep their phones silent and avoid making calls. Indeed, it is rare to hear someone talking at all, let alone using a phone. Yes, the occasional gaggle of tourists (not always foreigners, mind you) may bring their raucous conversation onto the train, but most people speak only in hushed tones out of respect for other riders. And hardly ever will you see someone taking up a seat with their bags or (gross!) their feet.  There are no panhandlers or impromptu musicians at all. No one is playing music without using earphones. No one is eating lunch (although there are sometimes people drinking beer on the way home from work). I’ve mentioned before that most Japanese tend to follow the rules, and nowhere are those rules more clearly defined and thoroughly understood than on the trains.

For longer trips, Japan’s famous shinkansen (新幹線), or bullet trains, rocket people between cities and across prefectures at speeds of up to 200 mph (320 kph). The distance between Tokyo and Osaka, for example, is about 250 miles (400 km) as the crow files, and the bullet train makes that trip with multiple stops in about two and a half hours. This is about the same as the distance between New York City and Rochester, NY, which takes 6 hours and 40 minutes on Amtrak.

Test runs for a new type of maglev shinkansen in April 2015 reached 375 mph (600 kph). The new technology is expected to cut the Tokyo-Osaka jaunt down to about an hour and a half. That’s less than the time it takes to make the 90 mile drive from Sacramento to San Francisco, unless there’s absolutely no traffic at all.

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A Japanese bullet train, or shinkansen, rolls down the coast. Photo (c) The Japan Times
By way of unflattering comparison, the fastest passenger train in the United States is Amtrak’s Acela Express, on the East Coast.  Running from Boston to Washington, D.C., the Acela will occasionally hit 150 mph (240 kph), but its average speed over that route is less than 70 mph (113 kph). This is in no way a bullet train.

On the bright side, though, at least Acela’s endpoint on-time performance is almost 80%. Almost….

Just about everyone in central Tokyo gets to and from work by train (or by simply walking if they are lucky enough to live nearby their offices). No one I know drives a car to work. Well, okay. One guy. But that’s it. As a matter of fact, at my company we couldn’t drive if we wanted to.

We had a young Canadian guy join Marunouchi Fudosan a few years ago. (1) He has since found greener pastures, but shortly after he was hired, he noticed there was bicycle parking available in the basement of our building. When he looked into using it, though, he was told that employees are not allowed to use bikes or cars to get to work. Turns out, the reason is that the company pays for each employee’s commuter train pass, as is the custom in Japan. Therefore, during our commutes, we are covered by the company’s insurance policy, and that insurance policy requires that we walk or take the train to the office for liability purposes. Surprise.

If I’m honest, I suppose I do have to admit that it’s not all peaches and cream on Japan’s trains. Depending on the line, the rush hours trains are quite fully packed. It seems the phrase “carrying capacity” doesn’t have a Japanese equivalent — at least not one that anybody cares about. Everyone has probably seen the hilarious videos of hired “pushers” (oshiya, 推し屋) shoving people into train cars like sardines into a can. Most of those videos are pretty old, though. I’ve only seen it happen once myself, on the Ginza Line in central Tokyo, and it was just a couple of people being “helped” into their car.  With Japan’s declining population, such sights are destined to become fewer and farther between, thankfully.

More ominously, many rail operators have initiated “ladies only” cars during the peak commute hours.  This is because there is a rampant problem with chikan (痴漢), perverts who grope random women on the crowded trains.  The rush hour trains are so packed that if someone grabs you, you may not even be able to tell who it was. And if a bystander sees it happen, there’s a decent chance he or she won’t say anything due to the strong tradition of minding one’s own business that is part of living in such a densely populated urban environment.  All trains have cameras, though, if you need to identify your molester. Or clear your name.

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Anti-chikan posters from Japan’s rail lines
It’s also not uncommon to see one of Japan’s famous salarymen on the train or in the station, completely drunk. I don’t mean tipsy; I mean just absolutely knee-walking shitfaced. I’ve seen wasted dudes who wouldn’t have been able to get down the stairs alone, being helped along by laughing colleagues. I’ve seen guys in suits passed out on the platform, or even literally in the gutter at the station, sleeping off a bender. Nobody bothers them, and they don’t get robbed.

One morning a while back, about 7:00 am, the station crew was politely trying to get this guy up off the concrete and get him on his way while the commuters were filing in for the morning rush. But he wasn’t having any of it, and was actually getting belligerent with the staff who were trying to do their jobs and shoo him off home. By the time I got on my train to work he was still lying there at the top of the staircase, face down, sawing logs.

Another time when I arrived at my station late at night, I walked passed a drunk young guy in a suit and tie whom I’d noticed swaying dangerously on the train. He was standing there, leaning against a column, pretending to casually read something on his phone. While vomiting. From a standing position. And the best part was that everyone else just walked on by, eyes front. No one said a word.

I have yet to see a violent act at a station or on a train, though. I’m sure it happens, but it’s way more rare than it is in, say, New York or San Francisco. Both of these cities, by the way, have train systems that are absolute embarrassments compared to Tokyo’s.

I don’t mind the occasional drunk, though, and I’m probably in no danger of getting felt up in a crowded car. My only real complaint is that the train lines all shut down for maintenance from around midnight or 1:00 am till around 5:00 in the morning. Coincidentally, this is also when Tokyo’s notoriously expensive taxis tack on a nighttime surcharge. I think the people who make sense out of such a complex transportation system could probably figure out how to run trains 24 hours a day, like a lot of cities.

This is a pet peeve of mine because I seem to have made a habit out of catching the last train home, then falling asleep on board and waking up who knows where when the train finally comes to a stop for the evening. If the trains ran all night, I would have had far fewer ¥15,000-plus taxi fares home. Unfortunately, as it stands, I guess the rush for that last train is just going to continue being one of the most important parts of the day.

Signing on to Japan’s train culture was an adjustment for me, I will admit, but it was one I was ultimately happy to make. When I left California, my commute was between 10 and 15 minutes by car, which was pretty nice.  When I arrived in Japan, my new commute was about 40 minutes by train, but even so I found it far preferable. It’s longer now, and I still don’t mind. No need to worry about other drivers or concentrate on the road. I can read or mess with my smartphone or whatever to pass the time, which is hard to do if you’re driving a car.  Hey, if I’m lucky, I might even get a seat in the morning and grab a few winks.

I can foresee a day when I’ll finally be fed up with riding the rails here. But for now, I am totally on board.

  1. Not my company’s real name. Marunouchi is a prime office area in central Tokyo, and fudosan (不動産) means real estate.
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