Apr 17, 2019
This guide to surviving the crowded commuter trains of urban Japan is based on experiences and savvy gleaned by this commuter after years of squeezing onto one of Tokyo's most notoriously overcrowded rush-hour trains.
Japan’s inner-city railway and subway networks are often lauded with praise for the way they can whip the local populace around a city with spunky efficiency and punctuality, in an environment that is civil, and at a price that isn’t outrageous.
The people dishing out the praise however, tend to be transient visitors for whom urban Japan’s Biblically crowded commuter trains are an object of curious fantasy rather than tired fear.
No, for those of us who use these trains to get to and from work five days a week at times that collide with rush hour what will likely stand out more than any object of praise is an acute awareness of the Draconian crowds, delays, stops and starts, and manners (or lack thereof) of fellow commuters.
This expat has been a Tokyo commuter for some years now, everyday stealing themself for a journey on one of the Japan capital’s most notoriously overcrowded subway lines. And they’ve some tips to share about surviving the crowded trains, along with some squished frustrations to air.
Get up earlier
Short of packing the job in and moving to the kind of place in rural Japan where the local station is unstaffed and deals with two trains an hour, getting up earlier is emphatically the best way for urban commuters to ready themselves for the crowded trains in Japan.
It used to be that I would roll out of bed, into the shower, into some clothes, into a paltry breakfast and then out of the door heading to work. From being in bed to then being confronted with the awful chaos of Tokyo-bound crowds was a time difference of little more than 30 minutes. In short, not enough time and crappy way to kick-off any day.
I started getting up earlier. Glass of water, make a coffee, and then back to bed with a good book before getting up again to do the shower, breakfast and work-prep thing.
Still boarding the commuter train at the same time, but now more alert, more savvy, and in an entirely better mood.
Get up even earlier and do some exercise
I’ve since added another layer to the morning routine -- up an extra 30 to 60 minutes earlier to take a leaf out of the book of retired Navy SEAL and no-nonsense motivator Jocko Willink and do some exercise before hitting the shower and then sitting down with that book and coffee ahead of the leaving-for-work prep.
Now I’m arriving at the station with body relaxed, mind sharp, and in better shape. A far cry from Navy SEAL shape, of course. But I feel better than ever about the commute and I almost look forward to getting up early the next day.
This is hands down the best thing I’ve done to help me survive the crowded trains here in Japan. In fact “survive” isn’t the correct term. “Take on” is a better fit.
Don’t have a cigarette before boarding
During the smoking days a cigarette at the almost ubiquitous smoking areas near the train stations in Japan always served as a nice buffer between getting up and the day of work ahead. It wasn’t until I packed it in, and the inevitable moments of weakness which followed, that I realised just how much that cigarette was exacerbating my sense of irritation and commuting discomfort.
The smell of the fingers, the racing heartbeat, the injection of high-octane canned-coffee crap that I was always flushing through the system every time I had a ciggie did not serve, I now have come to actually feel, as a way to approach a crowded commute with any sense of calm.
Wait for the next train
In this commuter’s experience crowds and trains can sometimes come in waves. As with the experienced wave rider then, timing is key.
Case in point, the transition between the Tokyo Metro Tozai Line and the Ginza Line at Nihombashi Station which is a major bottleneck point in the Tokyo commute. Ginza Line trains pour in every two minutes or so but such is the Japanese commuter’s diligence (or naivety) that everyone piles onto the first train that arrives.
Those of us with a little more savvy and a couple of minutes to spare stand back as the platform drains of foot traffic. The next train almost always arrives before the platform has had chance to fill-up with crowds meaning the commuter can board without having to contort the body into any unnatural or uncomfortable repose.
Know your locals and rapids
The savvy urban commuter in Japan uses all the tools at their disposal to make for a smoother commute. Understanding the ebbs and flows of crowds as dictated by trains being local or rapid could be a way of sourcing out the quieter commutes. Or if not, at least you’ll have a greater understanding of the situation -- why one train might be busier than another, at what station a great passenger exodus takes place so you can be ready to snag a seat, whether it might be worth skipping a train and waiting for the next one -- which may pave the way to less frustration.
Get a podcast prepared before boarding
Trains can get crowded to the point that reaching into one’s pocket to pull out the smartphone and get some audio entertainment set-up is either impossible or likely to result in the touching of others’ posteriors.
Now, if you’re like me, any train commute is made better by having some tunes or a podcast to provide pleasant distraction, so it pays to have this all ready before forcing yourself onto a crowded train.
The same goes with any messages you need to send to let the people back home know that you’re on the way back so they can heat-up dinner, peel themselves off the sofa, look like they’ve been doing homework etc.
Avoid carriages close to platform exits
The Japanese partner likes to make use of those charts on train platforms that detail which carriage you need to be on to be closest to the exit at stations further down the line.
I take this to mean then that other passengers like to do the same thing. While I personally haven’t the inclination for planning on such a macro level perhaps a bit of savvy in this regard could lead to the commuter finding the least crowded train carriages.
Get in the middle early doors
Key survival protocol if you ask me. The propensity for commuters in Japan to endure that hugger-mugger of irritable humanity collecting around the train doors is as stupid as it can be annoying. Despite the pleas of train drivers, people are too often reluctant to “move further down the carriage.”
More fool them I say, even when standing passengers are already lined either side in front of seated passengers. Filing into the thin strip of space down the middle may feel counterintuitive but on the really crowded trains this is the best place to be! Well, the third best place after “being sat down,” and “standing immediately in front of someone sitting.”
At least here in the middle of the carriage the commuter can be relatively sheltered from the chaos and ever-increasing crowds near the doors.
Brace for departure
Another downside of being caught in the crush of commuters near train doors is the potential to be out of reach of hand straps and rails. In this case have feet firmly planted and as far apart as conditions will allow because when the train makes its initial thrust it comes with a great heave of off-balance humanity due to the few who were likely too busy gawping at smartphones to bother holding on.
Brace for more passengers
I’ve found that a part of stealing myself for the crowded commute is to understand that Japan’s urban trains can always fit more, and commuters duly oblige. It can be dispiriting to feel that you’ve secured a half-decent position on an impossibly-crowded train only for yet more people to force themselves on at the next stop.
The temptation is to push back but like a fast-food burger or, “Just one more drink,” you really know it’s not going to end well.
This situation can be exacerbated by some train operators at some stations who seem to have fallen into the habit of repeatedly announcing that they are closing the doors (without actually closing them) to try to persuade potential passengers not to board and instead wait for the next train. It has the opposite effect though, providing people with more time to board.
“Instead of keep telling us you’re closing the doors, how about actually closing them?”
No, a certain degree of acceptance is vital to keep the mind in good shape during crowded commutes in Japan. Although it probably doesn’t do much for the body.
Mind your manners
Set an example for others to follow and take solace in the fact that no matter how tiresome the busy train commute can be, you’re not the one acting up.
Man spreading, psychotically annoying and ignorant rucksack-on-my-back bearers, I’m-just-going-to-rest-my-book-on-your-shoulder-and-carry-on-reading book readers, takers of precious space for the playing of stultifying make-lines-with-fruit gaming app … the cast of annoying commuters on Japan’s trains is extensive (Yes, despite a reputation for being polite.).
Feel better about yourself then, and possibly your commute, by not being one of them.
Have your hygiene in order (even if others don’t)
What’s worse than being squashed against other commuters on a crowded train? Well, a myriad of horrors, but something in the same ballpark might be being squashed against other commuters who smell, fart, pick their nose, scrape away at bits of dry skin, and perform other unsightly inspections and probes of their body.
Perhaps not quite as bad, but still not great, would be being one of the above culprits and thus adding “shame” to an already substantial list of discomforts endured during a crowded commute.
So give yourself as little as possible to feel ashamed about, as well as help others in their attempts at commuter-train survival. Breath mints, body wipes, moisturizer, deodorant and self-discipline should all be tools to have at hand for the good of everyone’s commute.
Notes on surviving the crowded trains in Japan
On the point of “getting up early,” of course one could use this as a strategy to avoid crowded trains altogether rather than survive them. On the more notorious lines in Tokyo, for example, this could mean being ready to board your train around 6:00. From around 6:30 stations in the capital’s suburbs are already starting to get frantic.
Rail services and local authorities often try to incentivize the act of boarding a train earlier (than rush hour) with points-for-prizes schemes based on reading what time the commuter scans through ticket gates with an I.C. card. (Perhaps a little creepy.) The Tokyo Metropolitan Government also tried out a Jisa Biz campaign which encouraged train operators to increase services during peak hours and employers to allow workers to stagger start times.
For the foreign commuter in Japan though, such campaigns can be difficult to take part in without a good understanding of the Japanese language. Keep the eyes peeled to see if they become more accessible as we approach Tokyo 2020.
One should also be warned that Japan’s crowded train commutes are not limited to the trains themselves, with the chaos sometimes spreading onto station platforms. At some of the more notorious commuter hubs (Ginza Line at Nihombashi and Shimbashi stations in Tokyo being my primary examples) it’s not unusual to see people queueing up just to get onto the platform let alone board a train.
What advise do you have for surviving on Japan's crowded rush-hour trains? Let us know in the comments.
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For a long time, I commuted from Kashiwa Station to Meijijingumae and back again. What I learned was to investigate adjacent stations. For example, on the ride home, if I backtracked by one station, I could always get a seat all the way home. Backpacks and messenger bags are the best. Wear your backpack or messenger bag on your front, fall asleep, and you won't drop your bag when you get up in a hurry. It's amazing how after some time you can doze, get used to the timing and even in dreams, hear your destination announced. If you can't get a seat, bring a hook from the 100 yen store. You might find that, at the ends of the train cars, there are bars where you can hang your stuff and put your back to the bulkhead. Meditation music kept me calm, death metal pumped me up, and podcasts allowed me to stay in touch with the world or study Japanese language.
@TonetoEdo - Thanks for the suggestions. The "backtrack" plan sounds good. We've heard of this but have also heard of train station staff trying to prevent people from doing it (although can't recall how). Meditation music and death metal is quite a contrast. Any death metal recommendations?
@City-Cost I don’t know how train staff could prevent passengers from riding back one station. I simply stepped off the train one station beyond where I boarded, walked across the platform and rode home. Finland’s Kimmo Pohjonen Accordion Wrestling and Japan’s Girugameshu. Snatnam Kaur’s devotional music that I learned about in Kundalini Yoga lessons.