Like no other country in the world, Japan is a nation of trains and train riders. You can get pretty much anywhere you need to go here by rail, except for the small outlying islands of course, and 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 have networks 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 for nearly everyone in Japan.

It is no 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 to one another, below ground or above, in vast complexes servicing multiple lines run by competing companies.  There are hundreds more stations in the surrounding areas that make up the Greater Tokyo metro. And the same credit card-sized train pass everybody carries with them 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.

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 was 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 is more than five minutes delayed in the morning someone will meet the passengers at the exits to hand them notes for their bosses explaining the situation. A large and growing number 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 these are still sometimes labeled 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 speaking above a whisper at all, let alone yakking into a cell phone. Sure, 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 having a beer on the way home from work is fine). I’ve mentioned before that most Japanese tend to follow the rules of society, and nowhere are those rules more clearly defined and thoroughly understood than on Japan’s amazing 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 a blistering 375 mph (600 kph). This new technology will 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.

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 working in central Tokyo gets to and from their jobs by train, unless they’re lucky enough to live within walking distance. 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 aren’t permitted to drive to work, even if we wanted to.

There was a young Canadian guy who joined my company, Marunouchi Fudosan, a few years ago. (1) He has since moved on to greener pastures, but shortly after he was hired he noticed there was bicycle parking available in the basement of our office building. When he looked into how to use it, though, he was told by our HR department that employees are not allowed to use bikes or cars to get to work. The reason for this, as it turns out, is that the company pays for each employee’s commuter train pass, as is the custom in Japan, and therefore, during our commutes, we are covered by the company’s insurance policy. That policy requires that we walk or take the train to the office to reduce accident liability. 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 thankfully destined to become fewer and farther between.

More ominously, many rail operators have initiated “ladies only” cars during the peak commute hours, because of the rampant problem with chikan (痴漢), perverts who grope random women on the crowded trains.  The rush hour trains are often so packed that if someone decides to cop a feel, 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 train cars have security cameras installed, though, if you need to identify your molester, or clear your name.


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. And I don’t mean tipsy; I mean absolutely knee-walking shitfaced. I’ve seen men so wasted they wouldn’t have made it down the stairs alone, being helped along by their 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. Whether or not they get groped is anybody’s guess.

One morning a while back at about 7:00 am, I saw the station crew politely trying to get this guy up off the concrete platform and on his way, while the commuters were filing in around him for the morning rush. And this guy wasn’t having any of it. He woke up just long enough to get belligerent with the staff, who were just 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 I arrived at my station late at night, and walked passed a young drunk guy in a suit and tie. I had noticed him on the train, swaying dangerously and barely able to stand. And here he was, 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, not saying a word.

But drunks and perverts are one thing. I have yet to see a single act of serious violence at a Japanese station or on board a Japanese train. Oh, 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 even really 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. Not coincidentally, this is also when Tokyo’s notoriously expensive taxis tack on a hefty nighttime surcharge. I would think the people who make such a sprawling, complex transportation system work so well could probably figure out how to run trains 24 hours a day, like a lot of cities do.

The nighttime shutdown is a pet peeve of mine because I have a bad habit of missing the last train home, or worse, catching the last train and then falling asleep on board, and then 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 even longer now, after moving offices, but I still don’t mind. On the train, I have 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 tricky to do if you’re driving a car.  And hey, if I’m lucky, I might even get a seat in the morning and grab a few winks.

I suppose I can foresee a day when I’ll finally be fed up with riding the rails here. But for now, I am all aboard.

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

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