How to survive Tokyo’s subway sandwich

The Gateway goes behind the scenes of the world’s major transport hubs, revealing the logistics that keep goods and people moving. This month, the show is in Tokyo, Japan.

Story highlights

24 million passengers use the Tokyo rail and subway network every day

Rush hour periods can be overwhelming and exhausting experiences for the uninitiated

CNN speaks to freelance writer and Tokyo resident, Sandra Barron on how to traverse the Tokyo subway

CNN  — 

Japan is known the world over for its supreme train network. In the capital Tokyo, nearly half of all commuters travel by train, heavily outweighing other modes of transport like cycling, buses and private transport.

Of the 48% of people who use the public rail network, 22% use the city’s vast subway network.

Sandra Barron is an American freelance writer who has lived in Tokyo for the last five years. Having spent the previous 10 years in New York, she is a seasoned subway rider. But nothing could have prepared her for the congested world of the Tokyo subway.

Subway sandwich

“The peak rush hour is really unbelievable. I’ve only been a few times and I’ve really made an effort to avoid it ever since because it is really crowded. It’s like a cattle cart,” Barron told CNN.

“It’s just bodies squished as tightly as you can be into a small space. You can see people whose feet aren’t touching the ground sometimes because they are wedged in so tightly,” she laughs.

Barron recalls a subway journey early into her stay in Tokyo. “It was just streamed with people … I basically couldn’t get on the first couple trains with my bag. I finally got on and if you aren’t paying attention and you are on the wrong side of the train, you might not be able to get out.”

‘Pushy’ staff

On both the rail and subway lines, train operators employ “oshiya” (or “pushers”).

Barron says: “It’s funny because “pusher” sounds really aggressive but they wear uniforms, white gloves and they have hats. It’s like if you had a big laundry basket that overflows and you have to push the clothes down to close the lid. That’s what they do.

Infographic: The railway capital of the world

“They make sure everybody gets in and doesn’t get caught in the doors.”

The subway line operators have also introduced women-only carriages to help women commute more safely through the city. The designated train cars are usually recognizable by signs in the carriage and on the platform and were brought in to combat “chikan” (“groping”).

Subway snoozers

Another familiar sight on the Tokyo subway is sleeping commuters.

“A lot of people have a long commute – an hour, two hours. Also, a lot of people stay out late drinking and they start early and have long hours at work,” she says.

“There is a tolerance that if the person next to you falls asleep and their head kind of lands on your shoulder, people just put up with it. That happens a lot,” she adds. “People don’t like it, they don’t cuddle with them or anything but it’s kind of accepted that that happens.”

Watch: Car vs. Train race to Tokyo

The Tokyo subway ends its daily service between midnight and one o’clock, depending on the line.

“Oh God! You get a mad dash and all the conductors are platform attendants with megaphones reminding people: ‘This is the last train, it is leaving now’ … It’s literally like a wave of people running for the train,” says Barron.

For those unfortunate few that either miss their last train or fall asleep on the platform, there are a few options to pass the time before the first train begins in the early hours.

“They can stay at a capsule hotel, there are the manga cafes that are like internet cafes but you can stay the night in a little cubical,” Barron says.

“People sometimes go to fast food restaurants and wait it out because things start running again about 4.30 in the morning.”

When asked which subway network she prefers – Tokyo or New York – Barron can’t quite decide.

“Compared to New York, [Tokyo] is really efficient, really orderly, really clean … Gosh, it’s like which of your children do you love more.”

More: Japan rail quiz – How will you fare?

Barron’s top tips for stress-free subway rides

1. Buy a Suica card
A prepaid travel card that allows you to touch in and out at the stations. You can buy paper tickets but prepaid cards are easier and less time consuming.

2. Pay attention to your exit
Train stations can be huge terminals covering large areas of the local suburb with overwhelming crowds. Make sure you know where you are trying to get before you arrive at the station and keep an eye on the signs.

3. Follow the charts
Barron points out that each station has signs on the platform showing you which car you should ride depending on connecting lines. Use these to make your journey easier without missing your stop.

4. Be aware of your surroundings
Consider how people are acting and behave accordingly. Remember you don’t have to be the noisy foreigner.

5. Use an app or website
Barron suggests Hyperdia or Jorudan as a good route finder.