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June 3, 2009

Man, I am the worst blog updater ever. Sorry about that. Especially since I came to Tokyo, I barely spend any time at home! I always seem to be out and about somewhere, spending all my money and wasting a lot of time. Because the biggest difference between life in Kyoto and life in Tokyo, is that Tokyo is a hell of a lot bigger.

That might seem obvious, but to a guy from li’l ol’ New Zealand, it really takes a while to appreciate just how big this place is. And how big is it? Really big. I went to a popular shopping district the other day, there was a queue waiting for entrance to a shop with a waiting time of about 30 minutes. Just to enter. One indication of how big this place is might be the fact that my main form of transportation has become the train. In New Zealand it was the foot, the bicycle, or the car. In Sydney I moved up to the bus, now that I lived somewhere with a population big enough to support one. It was a big day for me. Kyoto brought my first real taste of travel-by-train, but even then it was mainly for inter-city trips to Osaka and the like. Most intra-city travel was still achieved by the humble bicycle. And now I’m in Tokyo, the train has finally come to dominate my transport lifestyle.

Everywhere in Tokyo is pretty far from everywhere else, the distances exaggerated even further by the hordes of human flesh you have to push aside just to get down the street. Because not only is Tokyo big (I’m sure other cities are bigger), but it is crowded. Insanely crowded. I got off a train at Harajuku the other day, took me about 20 minutes to exit the station. Trying to get from A to B down the street, especially in the looming heat of pre-summer, is unspeakably unpleasant. So, we have the air-conditioned, friendly train system.

This shows the lines operating in and around the city proper. Easy, yeah? Pretty much anywhere you need to go, you can get there via train. Or rather, by changing trains several times at various stops. Going somewhere for the first time is like one of those movies where the bad guy keeps ringing the good guy’s cellphone and telling him to change lines suddenly at some random station in order to get to the hostage before the bomb goes off. And feeling like a hero when you rush around the station is a better feeling than feeling like some foreigner who is just lost in a maddening maze of tracks.

Considering all the trains, and the frequency (often within 3-4 minutes of each other), you would think travel would be pleasant. But sadly, this is rarely the case. Japanese people seem to be raised on the belief that the train which is about to leave is, in fact, the only train this hour, and they are damned if they’re gonna miss it. This particularly applies to changing trains, and leads to one of the major things which has pissed me off since I arrived here.

The Japanese are generally a very polite people. But all that goes out the window at the train station. It’s seriously a jungle out there, and only the fittest will survive. My regular daily trip to the Uni usually goes something along these lines:

My train pulls into the station near my dorm. I wait to board at a position a few cars from the front. This position is no accident; I have chosen it strategically through much trial and error. When this train pulls into Shibuya, its final stop, the front car will be the car closest to the ticket gates, and therefore the closest to either more trains, or the beauty of the exit. However, this fact has not escaped the attention of my fellow travellers. As the front few cars roll by me, I am privy (through the window) to a grotesque mash of clothing and flesh, people pushed so far up against each other that some people are distorted in quite unnatural ways. Schoolchildren have their faces mashed into salarymen’s backs (or their briefcases), little old ladies are swallowed up entirely and never seen again. Pressed hard against the windows themselves, or even more so, the glass doors, faces are twisted into nasty wracks of discomfort, necks almost at snapping point. Hats are dislodged from heads and sitting aimlessly above the herd. It seems improbable that people are even breathing, but breathing they are – the evidence is in the smeared condensation running down the inside of the windows and into passengers’ splayed eyeballs.

The Cars of Hell roll past, and come to stop at the end of the platform, where the greatest concentration of new passengers is waiting to board. As the train comes to a stop, all the waiting passengers shuffle forward to meet the door, so eager to get on board that they don’t even allow room for anyone wanting to disembark to do so. The doors open, and the current passengers are spewed out onto the concrete, like a zit popping on the face of the train. There is a period of sway and shuffle as some of the current passengers attempt to fight their way out, and then they emerge, shirts untucked, hair ruffled, sweat everywhere, their briefcase raised above their head in triumph, gasping, their eyes wild. They quickly escape before they can be sucked back in by the now-even-greater horde trying to force its way back into the hole. There is no talking, just a constant push, push, push, people looking angrily and in discomfort at those pushing them, then continuing to do the very same thing to those in front. They can’t quite manage it themselves, however (fragile wee things), so the attendants come along in their nice sparkling jackets, suits and hats, don their white gloves, and hurl themselves against the crowd.

Eventually the people scrabbling against the concrete find steel, they clutch at it and pull themselves in. The attendants continue to push, sweat trickling out from beneath their shiny little hat. Somewhere, a rib cracks. The doors attempt to close. They shut on someone’s face. Reopen. The attendant gives the offending face a good shove, holds it there while the doors close again, this time on the attendant’s wrist. He withdraws his hand, pushes in a few more straggling pieces of clothing or fingers, and steps back, content.

As much as I would enjoy shaving about 7 seconds off my walk to the gates once this train reaches Shibuya station, that’s not the price I’m willing to pay. Hence I have boarded a few cars down, where while the seats are all taken, and many people are standing, there is still plenty of precious “me” space. I can even listen to music, can even pull out a book and have a read, should I so fancy.

The train trundles down the line, repeating the same farce a few times until it gets to the final stop, Shibuya. It’s time to get off, and it’s time for stage 2. I’m standing by the doors as we approach the station. When we stop, the doors in front of me will open, and everyone will get off. This is the last stop. That is common sense. However, as we are approaching the final stop, someone bumps my back. And again. I am pushed forward. I stumble forward a step and hit the door. But my assailant is in my back, I can’t step back. In fact, I am getting pressed into the door with ever increasing force. What’s happening? That’s right. Just as people were so keen to get on this train, now, they are equally keen to get off. In fact, it seems they must be the first off. We haven’t even stopped yet, and yet the passengers in the train are pushing towards the closed door. Pushing, pushing. I’m still not sure what this is supposed to achieve. Do the pushers want to be the first in front of the door when it opens, in order to be the first to leave? And so are they all trying to shoulder everyone else aside to force their way to the front? If so, that is so incredibly devoid of any social manner that I don’t really know what to say. Or, have they decided that the best way to achieve this pole position is to try to simply push their own body matter straight through any obstacles in their way? Because I can tell you, that doesn’t work. No matter how hard you push into my back, you won’t come out the other side. And yet they continue to do so. Feet are scraping against the steel floor as the salarymen try to advance, like a toy robot that has run into a wall, but his little feet just keep going. The train has not even stopped yet. There is nowhere to go. This is one mystery that I quite honestly have not yet solved.

The train stops, the crush gets harder, the doors explode open. The little walkway outside is instantly submerged in a flood of suits, glasses and combovers. People rush, push, scuffle their way towards the gates and out. However, these people I understand. Once the doors are open, you might as well get out of there as soon as possible. The people I don’t understand are those who stay on the train. To explain these people let me briefly describe the layout of the platform.

This is the last stop, so the train pulls into a little slot cut into the main concrete/tiled platform, surrounded on three sides. The main part of the platform, the side where people are waiting to board, is on the left. To avoid congestion, when the train pulls in, the doors which open are those on the right. These open onto a tiled strip of platform which runs down the side of the train, and then across the front of the train to join the main platform and the exits (which are in front of the train). This is the route the majority of people go when the train pulls in. However, there are always some people who stay on the train, and start playing the pushing-game against the left-hand side doors. Which remain shut for a significant amount of time after the others have opened. The idea, and it’s a good one, is that considering the berserker frenzy which fills the new boarders to an empty train, as they trample each other underfoot in their race to get a seat, it’s best to evacuate the disembarkers first. Thus, the right-hand doors open, everyone leaves, some time passes, then the left-hand doors open. However, there are always those people who, no-matter-what, want to leave by the left-hand doors. Why?

Because they’re closer to the gates. The mentality of these people drives me insane. All things being equal, if you had the choice through which doors to go from the train to the gates, the left-hand side doors would win, albeit by a small margin, as the right-hand-side strip adds a few seconds to the trip. But all things are not equal. The left-hand side doors do not open. These people think themselves so clever as they outwit the masses by taking the route which saves them approximately 3 seconds. But by doing so, they not only have to fight against the tide of new incomers flooding onto the supposedly-empty train, they also have to wait about 10 seconds to take it. These people make no sense. The ones with the smug smiles waiting by the left-hand side door in the front car would have already been through the gates if they had taken the right-hand side exit! Such blatant displays of arrogant stupidity really get me going.

Speaking of which. I’m not done yet. Let us return to the surge of people who have now exited the trains and headed through the gates. Those who are leaving the trains here are free, and I gaze wistfully after them. However, I am not leaving the trains, simply changing them. I have to keep my guard up through the gauntlet which constitutes the main area between lines, as everyone hurtles past at top speed, briefcases flying wildly, high heels clacking away like mad, panic on every face. Running, everybody needs to catch that next train as if their life depends on it. The one 3 minutes after it will be too late! Senior citizen outing groups are bowled to the ground by branch managers, and then hurdled by their staff in hot pursuit. People scream through the station as fast as their little legs will take them – until they reach a staircase.

Staircases inevitably have escalators attached. A staircase of any decent size will generally have a one- or two-man wide escalator gently trundling up the side. And this is where panic takes a break. Nobody takes the stairs. NOBODY. Considering the pure mass of bodies attempting to pile onto the escalator, a bottleneck results. People wait at the foot (or the top) of the stairs, waiting to get on. A crowd develops. More and more people come running to the spot, see everyone waiting at the escalator, join the group. I arrive at my own pace. The line waiting for the escalator stretches back 50 metres. The adjoining staircase is deserted. I walk past the panting queue, climb the staircase at a pace faster that the escalator is ascending, and continue on my way. Japanese people glare at me from the foot of the escalator, powerless as they wait impatiently. Those coming off the top of the escalator find themselves back on level ground and start their sprint anew.

I find my new train and go through it all again.

I try not to think about the ridiculousness of the whole situation here, but seriously, it’s insane. It’s insane. There is no need to cram onto a train that hard. There is no need to push to get off. There is certainly no need to wait for your “shortcut” to open. There is no need to run like that. Or if you really are in a rush, there is no need to wait at the foot of the escalator. So why do they do all these things? The same reason a lot of things happen around here. Because everyone else does. Doing something that draws attention to yourself, doing something which is not what everyone else is doing, is bad. Or if it’s not bad, it’s at least “not the way we do things”. Why not? Because no one else does. There really doesn’t seem to be any other reason that that.

Taking the trains is necessary to get around here, but I am sure it adds a lot of stress to peoples’ lives. People are already stressed enough as it is, what with all the karoshi – “death from overwork” – and all that. It can’t help that even getting to work in the first place and back is such an ordeal.

Maybe that is part of the reason why when people decide to kill themselves in Japan (as they so often do), a popular method of doing so is death by train. This is a message I see several times a day on the in-train information service.

The “accident”? It’s code for something everyone knows – someone jumped in front of a train. Must be a messy way to go, and must be fairly traumatic for those around – especially, I’d imagine, the driver.

But you know what’s more important? The inconvenience caused to other passengers by the delay. This delay comes at a price, and though I’ve heard several different quotes from several sources, they all come up pretty crazily high. Who pays? That’s right, the bereaved.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2009 5:30 pm

    Phew! It's a big one. Have printed it off to read at my leisure.

  2. June 4, 2009 7:59 pm

    Good God! This sounds like a Sydney pub on a Friday night. Glad you're doing well.

  3. June 5, 2009 7:16 am

    how pleasent it all sounds, god its different ot NZ, we havnt got enough people to support HAVing trains. maybe i shouldnt come visit??? how far away is it from nice places, we need to skype to discuss this, cooooooooooooooz after that entry i may prefer to go to greece or something. funny thou, all those years couped up with me, some of my wicked humour seems to have rubbed off 😛

  4. June 5, 2009 7:17 am

    p.s , i believe lemmings wernt that pushy

  5. June 5, 2009 11:16 am

    Haha, Christ, the pubs must be a lovely place to down a few around Sydney. Sad I'm missing out. And don't worry Jane, this is mostly rush hour I'm talking about. It's still pretty xrazy other times though. Though I don't know what you're talking about, I haven't lived with you for 9 years now! This is all me, baby 🙂

  6. June 7, 2009 7:38 am

    hahaha-funny rendition-reminds me of the 0740hrs porirua-wellington commute mon-fri late 1960s ,i recall that being hellish ;-]
    maybe not quite as bad!!
    hope there is enough good stuff happening there to counteract the bad ???
    i expect after this entry you will be highly sought after by the japanese /tokyo dept of tourism ,they will be keen to have you in their marketing dept………..;-]

  7. June 7, 2009 2:51 pm

    That's right, I'm doing great things for the tourism of this fine country 🙂 And don't worry, I've gotta have a reason for staying here, and that isn't it!

  8. June 23, 2009 11:06 am

    Glad to have you back! i loved the subway when I was in Tokyo last year but the best thing about being a visitor on a work trip was not having to travel at peak time – and

  9. June 23, 2009 11:07 am

    that's when I saw it as its most efficient and convenient!

  10. July 1, 2009 11:56 pm

    Hey Charles! Yep, the system is definitely efficient, just not a whole lot of fun 🙂

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