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A to Z of what to expect on a Tokyo A to B

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The Tokyo subway trains smell. That is to say, they smell good. It’s nothing special, just the standard climate control breezing in from the ceiling. Regardless, it didn’t occur to me how great their scent is until I stepped on board, at the beginning of my second visit to the land of sumo, Sanrio, and sweet smelling subway cars.

Of course, mention Japan, and most would envisage zen gardens, sushi, high-quality cars or electronics. Others may pair those nouns with their matching adjectives to describe Japan, such as serene, efficient, clean, orderly. Apply those archetypal Japanese descriptions to the Tokyo subway network, and you have perhaps the most impressive example of public transportation on earth. Peruse a subway map of Tokyo, and you will be astonished at the complexity of it, of the multi-colored noodles that seem so chaotic yet represent Japanese efficiency at its finest. Any point in central Tokyo is scarcely a five minute walk from the nearest train station, and it is consequently a heavily relied upon system. Metro Tokyo, including the satellites of Chiba, Yokohama, Kawaguchi, and various other cities, contains roughly 35 million people (that’s slightly more than the populations of Canada, or California), and 8 million of those people commute into the city on any given morning. Shinjuku Station, on the city’s west side, unofficially claims the title of ‘world’s busiest’ transportation hub; about 2 million pass through it daily. If a city’s transportation network could be likened to veins carrying blood, Tokyo is about 180 over 110.

Within metro Tokyo, over fifty routes interlace the metro area in a colourful linear choreography, moving millions in and out daily. This total is composed of three distinct levels of rail: national, municipal, and private trains. Japan Rail (JR East) operates the national lines; lines that are nation-wide in coverage but operate shorter ‘trunk’ lines in urban centres much like subway lines. Eidan and Toei operate the Tokyo Metro; Tokyo’s underground municipal subway. Construction companies, department stores, and other large companies often operate their own lines, which are private in ownership, but operate analogously to the remaining subway system. The rationale is, if the Tobu Department store terminates its line at its store in the city, commuters will be forced to pass through it on the way to and from work, thus generating more business. And business it does generate; the lower level food emporiums often found in behemoth stores such as Tobu, Seibu, or Odakyu, are a sea of hungry suburbanites every day, each having decided that crowds and expense are a better option than time spent cooking when they arrive home. Several of these routes are simply extensions of central municipal routes, meaning a seamless transition for passengers and financial savings for both operators.

The most important of all the routes is the Yamanote Line; an hour long loop that knits together the most vital nexuses of Tokyo with 34.5 kilometers of track. Visit a Yamanote platform during peak hours if you dare, where you can see the next train coming as the current one pulls away, each car bursting. Benches on board fold up to maximize capacity, while platform attendants push bodies through the doors to do the same, everyone sucking in their tummies like a fat guy at the beach. Sardine references aside, it’s not for those who value their personal space. The shorter among us may find their feet leaving the floor, their bodies held aloft by pressure from the surrounding swarm. Another line of note is the Keisei Limited Express, which in about 80 minutes travels the unusually large gap between Narita International Airport and Tokyo. There are faster, more expensive options for this trip, but the Limited Express is an ideal option at only 1000 yen, and with connection to the Yamanote Line at Ueno Station. A final line of interest would be the Yurikamome New Transit, a driverless waterfront monorail style route that connects the business hub of Shiodome/Shimbashi with the shopping and beachfront leisure area in Odaiba, via the Rainbow Bridge; the ride itself allows beautiful urban vistas on both sides.

The mix of immense passenger volume and numerous routes is the miraculous part – this system operates so efficiently and punctually that it would put most other world cities to shame. Even at an intense frequency of every 2-3 minutes (where most systems would just mark the timetable ‘Frequent Service’), there is a strict schedule that is followed to the second. Indeed a train late by only a minute (likely deemed ‘on time’ anywhere else) is a major concern here; if your train is slightly behind schedule, say 30 seconds, listen for an apology over the loudspeaker; if this stretches to a few moments, feel free to approach the platform manager for a note explaining your tardiness to the boss. Tokyo employers know that transit will have their staff in on time, and paying for their daily commute is commonplace. However this obsession with punctuality has unfortunately been responsible for recent accidents; conductors trying to catch up to miniscule lags behind schedule, such as the loss of over 80 lives in April 2005, near Osaka.

Japanese attention to comfort and convenience is simply a bonus to the efficiency. Several stations have individual jingles play when the doors open, so that those who have nodded off during the ride (as Japanese commuters seem bound to do), will recognize their station’s tune and alight when necessary. And the smell, the distinct scent of a Japanese subway train, is lovely. The train cars are always climate controlled and comfortable, but this added touch is truly noteworthy, an only-in-Japan oddity. The price paid for subtle transit luxury occurs at 1am, when all services cease. Until about 5am maintenance crews do their work, very necessary work indeed to keep this rainbow mesh of organized confusion operating. It can be a nuisance, though, for those enjoying a night out who are forced to choose between heading home early on the last train or staying out much too late and catching the first.

The subway is an integral part of modern Japanese life, woven into the national psyche as much as heated toilet seats; for a city of its size and wealth, automobile ownership in Tokyo is low. Neighborhoods are centered around the station, which becomes a focal point far beyond its raison d’être; the city goes to the station, not vice-versa. All things geographic are expressed in relation to the station; maps with directions, number of minutes to walk, pachinko parlors to turn at. Of the many inevitable comforts on a trip to Japan, the subway is bound to be the most overlooked, but certainly among the most worthwhile. The subway back home may never smell the same again.

For more information on the Tokyo rail network, please visit tokyo.chrisjongkind.com. For quality images of Tokyo’s trains and other urban scenes, please visit shiodome.deviantart.com/store.

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Mike has lived in Tokyo for more than 10 years and loves sharing his knowledge about Japan's metropolis.

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