Japan

Underbelly of Tokyo

3 Comments 11 December 2007

Tokyo Subway - Super clean

Tokyo Subway - Super clean

For the ‘best of’ Tokyo Photography – click here!

For snapshots of the subway – click here!

There are 32 million people living in Tokyo. 8 Million of them ride the subway every day. That turns into about 3,000 people on each train. No wonder why most of the time you feel like a sardine and it often takes a white gloved ‘subway conductor’ to squeeze you into the car before the doors shut. Not only were they a great way to travel across the massive city at a reasonable price, but they provided quite a lot of entertainment for me as I kept my mind busy comparing and contrasting the Tokyo metro with other subways around the world.

Tokyo subwayThe first thing that stood out to me was that Tokyo is a clean city, ultra clean. You could do the ‘white glove’ test anywhere and it would pass, hell – you could even abide by a ’15 second’ rule if you dropped your food it was so clean – even in the subway. It was a far stretch from the New York subway that was my commuting vehicle for 3 ½ years. I’m not sure where they put all of the homeless people and the artistic entertainers in the Tokyo…because they weren’t in the subway. I’m used to associating the subway with an underground dark, dank, dirty, rat infested hole. So when I came down the functioning escalator to the heated platform – I was shocked to find recycling bins, helpful live attendants, and speaker systems that didn’t sound like the Peanut’s Gang teacher.

Riding the subway provided some of the best people watching around. I would sit and amuse myself watching all of the locals around me commuting, and construct conclusions about the people, the subway, and the culture. I concluded that 7 out of the 8 million commuters wore a shade of black, navy, or gray – leaving a bit of a gloomy glow. Photo: A busy station stop in Shinjuku – sea of people!
Shinjuku StationHowever – among that black you would often see a pink stuffed animal sticking out of someone’s pocket…a cell phone ‘charm’ (I would call it a cell phone pet from my perspective). Sure – we have cell phone charms – but it was if someone took a stuffed teddy bear and hung it off their phone – the phone danglers were huge and multiple. I watched kids and adults, men and women, whip out their phones with their dangling stuffed animal at the end, not ever fully understanding the functionality of it. Lord knows that it was too big to fit in your pocket, but there was some draw to the dangling furballs. I guess the obvious one is that they wouldn’t easily misplace or lose their phone!

conductor with microphoneAnother thing that stood out were the stations guards/conductors. There were always multiple conductors at each station, dressed in crisp uniforms, carrying an amplified microphone, and always wearing white gloves. These white gloved men were the keepers of order on the subway – they ensured that people waited in organized queues, and that the maximum amount of people were squeezed into the car in order to efficiently keep the system running on time. By the way, the subways runs about 98% on time – a miracle considering the amount of people. I would just sit there and let trains pass just to watch them do their job – amazed at the orderliness moving masses of people.

ConductorI’m not really sure what Tokyo locals do at night – but whatever they do – it must not include sleep. I say this because no matter what time of day, at least 50 % of the subway car was sleeping. I’m not joking – I actually conducted little surveys when I would ride a car – counting the number or awake people to dosing people. I couldn’t find any commonality among the data – young, old, blue collar, white collar, men, women – they were all sleeping. The strangest thing is that somehow, miraculously they would wake up in time for their stops. I started to wonder if their cell phones were somehow connected to the train schedule and would set off a little alarm at their stop and wake them up. It actually seemed like a feasible explanation after you see the amazing functionality that a Japanese cell phone holds!

The Tokyo subway system should be given the award for the most forward thinking subway I’ve ever ridden. They not only had recycle bins all over the stations protecting the environment, but they also had escalators and elevators at the stations making the whole system elderly friendly. Finally – they even had special ‘women only’ cars that they enforced during the rush hours. Considering you were shoved into the cars during the rush hours – a woman only car seemed liked a brilliant idea!

Photo: Subway map and ticket machines
tokyo subway mapAfter stumbling through the first day of confusing signs, maps, and Japanese ticket machines – I came to love the subway. I realized that there was much more English than I originally thought, I learned how to understand our direction and what station stops were coming up next, and I even learned how to finally buy a transfer ticket at a ticket machine! That feeling of going from total confusion to understanding it is priceless. But most of all, I was able to see a slice of Japanese culture that you will never see from a taxi – the underbelly of Tokyo.

Your Comments

3 Comments so far

  1. Yumiko says:

    I listened to Amateur Travelers Podcast, then listened your traveling story. It was very very interesting, so I came to here to read more of your story. I wish to travel around the world in future just like you! Anyway, this blog is very nice and interesting!
    As for train, I am not sure why we are able to wake up the right station in subway, but I guess probably many people get off at big station, so we realized I have to get off too by that foot sound of others. As for me, I usually use Yamanote line. For that train, each train station uses different sound while the doors open and close, so I understand which station I am now without looking at the station sign, so I try to prepare to get off when I listened the sound at the previous station. interesting? :) Bon Voyage!

  2. Sherry says:

    This is great information! I loved getting a ‘locals’ opinion on this! Your city was wonderful – I enjoyed every minute of it! I only wish the New York Subway could be as nice and helpful!
    Sherry

  3. cetulla says:

    Best transport system in the world! You didn’t mention that every station has public toilets, some of which could be in 5-star hotels. I love the punctuality, the cleanliness, the good manners, the speed of the trains, and the fact that you can get to anywhere you want, very quickly.


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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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