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The Tokyo transit system

Monday 4th June 2012


Daniel Robson lets the Japanese train take the strain

Tokyo transit systemI wonder how the great geniuses of human civilisation – Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Morrissey – would react if confronted with a Tokyo train map. Part of the problem is that there isn’t one: With the train and subway lines run by about a dozen different competing private companies, there is no single map uniting the countless lines that tangle their way around Tokyo. There’s one map for the subway lines, one for all the train lines operated by JR East, and one for all the others. And even then, each map looks like a plate of multicoloured spaghetti.

Shinjuku JR Platforms SignThen there are the super-stations, such as Shinjuku, housing not only dozens of platforms but also several department stores, eateries, kiosks and juice stands, spread over a mind-boggling space with literally scores of exits. The first time I ever used Shinjuku Station on my own, I walked in big circles for half an hour until I finally found my platform. It doesn’t help that few of the signs are translated into English, and appear in an inconsistent mess of colours. Even the Japanese ones often fail to direct you to where you’re trying to go.

When you do successfully locate the platform, you then have to work out which train stops at your destination – the Rapid, Express, Rapid Express, Semi Express, Section Semi-Express, Local…. Still, the trains in Tokyo, and indeed all of Japan, are amazingly efficient. Usually steering the train in at the exact minute written on the timetable, the drivers are drilled to stop at a precise point so that the markings on the platform match up with the doors, allowing passengers to queue ahead of time in an orderly fashion. Conductors make peculiar hand gestures and calls, even when alone, apparently a technique designed to keep them alert. And when someone throws themselves in front of a train (a popular form of suicide, since it’s a final finger to the conformist rat-race system), the whole mess is cleared up within 30 minutes and charged to the victim’s family, minimising disruption to commuters.

It’s also cheaper. Although there’s no equivalent to London’s Travelcard, minimum fare is usually around 130 yen (£1), and if you buy the wrong ticket you can simply pay the difference on arrival at a Fare Adjustment machine – no nasty penalty fares. Or you can use a Pasmo or Suica card, equivalent to an Oyster card.

The trains themselves are roomier than those in England. Even the subway trains have overhead luggage racks and plenty of legroom, so you’re not sitting toe-to-toe as on the London Underground. They’re also air-conditioned, taking some of the stench out of the morning commute.

Inokashira Line staff help customers clear doorsThat’s not to say they don’t get crowded. The Inokashira Line, which runs from Kichijoji to Shibuya and which I ride every day, gets so crowded at rush hour that they employ platform staff to squeeze passengers into the carriages like cattle. The overcrowding makes it easy for certain perverts to indulge in groping, and as such, some trains offer a women-only carriage at certain times of day.

For further-flung destinations, there are a range of fast trains, most famous of which are the Shinkansen (bullet trains). The Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka covers 250 miles in two and a half hours – three times quicker than riding a regular Limited Express train. Though sadly not as exciting as you’d imagine (you’re not pinned to your seat by the G-force or anything), they do feature buffet carts selling hot and cold food, as well as revolving seats that allow you to sit in a group of four anywhere in the carriage.

Tokyo is also served by buses, of course. I rarely ride them, because they’re slower and often more expensive than the train. Also, there are no night buses. As the trains all finish at around 1am, a night of drinking will often lead you to Tokyo’s other mode of public transport: taxis.

Taxi drivers in Tokyo are among the most useless in the world. Although their cars are usually equipped with sat-nav, the drivers rarely know how to get where you’re going. You tell them your destination, and eight times out of 10 they reply, “OK. So what’s the best way to get there?” Clearly not by taxi.

Oh, the amount of times I’ve been late because I mistakenly thought it would be quicker to go by taxi than by train or on foot. And the amount of times I’ve had to haggle down the price on the meter after the driver got hopelessly lost. Once I sat watching the meter rack up nearly double the usual cost in a stationary taxi as the driver struggled clumsily to find my home on his satnav; it turned out we were around literally one corner. And several times, I’ve had to sit and wait while the driver got out to ask directions.

Part of the problem is that a large percentage of Tokyo taxi drivers don’t actually live in Tokyo; they come in from Yokohama, Chiba and other neighbouring towns, lured by Tokyo’s dense population. It’s never hard to find a taxi in Tokyo; they’re like ants. Except, of course, that ants usually know where they’re going.

For all its faults, Tokyo’s transit system beats the hell out of London’s. I’ve never felt I need a car in Tokyo (though I do have a bicycle). Just remember that when navigating Tokyo, if you get lost or ripped off, you’re not the only one...

Tokyo transit system

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