Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Trains of Tokyo

Earlier this year, I read this article:

In case you didn't read the link or the URL title itself, the article presents a list of the 51 busiest train stations in the entire world, and yep--you guessed it!  Most of those train stations are in Japan.  In fact, you have to scroll about halfway down the list to find a train station that isn't in Japan.

It was articles such as this one (and the resultant, perhaps somewhat exaggerated word-of-mouth) that helped to form one of my most basic images of Japan long ago, years before a life in Japan was even a glimmer on the horizon for me: packed trains.  Putting aside everything Nintendo, busy trains were the first thing that came to mind when I imagined Japan.  I'd heard about trains packed so tight that stations needed an employee just to push people in so that the doors could close.  I'd heard about the rampant problem of groping on crowded trains.  I'd heard about the razor-sharp promptness and precision of the Japanese train schedule.  My main mental image of Japan was a salaryman in a suit, sleeping standing up while gripping the hand-rail (but not in any real danger of falling over due to the cluster of people crammed in around him).

Even as an abstract or fanciful concept (that is, something I would never experience myself), the Tokyo train system intimidated me.

Then, I moved to Japan... and that changed nothing.  For four years, the trains in Tokyo still intimidated me.  I preferred to bike, or walk, or catch a ride to wherever I needed to go, and would just as soon avoid taking the train, thank you very much!  The problem is, the further I needed to travel, the less I could get by with my diet of biking, walking or ride-catching.

At about this time last year, it occurred to me that my students knew the train system of Tokyo better than I did.  Now, one year later, I would say the opposite is true: I genuinely believe that I have a better handle on the Tokyo trains than 95% of my students (the remaining 5% are train-buffs who memorize that kind of information more for fun than out of practical need).

The reason for this shift?  It may have something to do with the estimated 160 hours I have spent riding the train so far this year alone.  I go to Otemachi for church each Sunday; I go to Meguro twice a month (once for worship team rehearsal, once for Gospel choir rehearsal); I go to Yurakucho each Thursday for community group; I go out to meals or coffee with my fiancee in Tokyo, Yurakucho, Daimon-Hammumatsucho, Ginza or a variety of other places on a regular basis.

I pass through Ikebukuro Station (#3 on this list, though apparently it has since overtaken Shibuya for the #2 spot) several times each week.  Numbers 8, 18 and 20 are all part of my regular routine.  The words "regular" and "routine" just about sum it up: this has become normal to me.  The crowds and busy trains no longer phase me in the least.  The map of the Tokyo Metro system (which makes the human nervous system look simple and straightforward) makes sense to me now.  I am beginning to gain an awareness of how everything is connected.

I'll close with a list of basic things I have learned while riding the trains over this past year:

1. Not all lines are equal.  The Oedo Line is roughly 50 meters above hell and my guess is that Satan himself had a hand in setting the fares.

2. If you get on the Marunouchi Line in Ikebukuro and are willing to wait no more than 5 minutes, there's absolutely no good reason why you can't find a seat.

3. The Yamanote Line has the most pleasant platform boarding melodies... but trying to get from Ikebukuro to Tamachi is a lose-lose situation.

4. The Seibu-Ikebukuro Line is weird; it's privately owned, and to downtown Tokyo folk, it's viewed as a rural line, kind of an isolated spur.  Yet, from Higashi Kurume, I can travel to Shibuya, Yurakucho, or even Motomachi-Chukagai in Yokohama (to name a few) without having to transfer!

5. Long train rides are the perfect time to work: I've graded many a paper (and this summer, written many a paper and read many a chapter) while sitting on trains to and from downtown.

6. If there are no seats available, or better yet, no grading/homework to do, long train rides are the perfect time to practice Japanese.  I've clocked many hours of JLPT vocab practice on my iPhone while on the train.

7. Another form of Japanese practice/entertainment is to translate station names into English!  Some of my favorites:
Ochanomizu eki = Tea-water Station
Otemachi eki = Big Hand City Station
Meguro eki = Black Eye Station
Mejiro eki = White Eye Station
Tsukishima eki = Moon Island Station
Ikebukuro eki = Glove Pond Station

8. I (and undoubtedly millions of others) will never tire of saying or hearing the name "Takadanobaba"

9. If I catch the Kotesashi-bound train on the Yurakucho Line from Tsukishima (Moon Island) where my fiancee lives, it takes EXACTLY one hour to get back to Higashi Kurume.

10. Suddenly, one hour of traveling doesn't seem like that much, anymore...  :)

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