Trains In Japan Are Amazing

September 2012

The subway stops are numbered. The cars are numbered. The exits on the cars are numbered. The *doors on the exits* are labeled “A” and “B”. That last one might not do anyone any good except for the people doing maintenance on the cars, but the other labels sure do. There’s a sign in every station that tells you which car you should board based on the stop where you’re going or line you’re transferring to. In NYC there’s an app (Exit Strategy) and an entire subculture based on figuring that out. Tokyo just does it.

No one ever runs for the closing doors on the subway. That’s because the next train will arrive in about two minutes. This isn’t like the 1 train in New York where the conductor says “there is another train right behind this one” just so people don’t jam the doors when in fact the next train is 10 stops away and he knows it. No, the next train is always three minutes away, or less. It’s magical.

Speaking of magical, there is a magical card, the PASMO/Suica, that lets you ride *any* of the trains in Japan without having to buy separate tickets. This is the equivalent of the NYC subways and buses, NJ transit, the LIRR, the PATH, the Metro north, the T in Boston, and the Amtrak all accepting the same form of one-tap payment. It’s also accepted at vending machines and a lot of convenience stores, where you also just tap it against the card reader to pay. Not to mention the card’s mascot, which is a hilarious penguin.

There are machines to reload your penguin card *after* you enter the gate to the station, i.e. the most perfectly logical place to put one since it’s the place where you have free time. This seems really basic but SF and NYC both don’t do it. It’s good that it only takes about 30 seconds to add value to the card, because (see above) your train is arriving in the next 90 seconds.

The subway map looks like a bowl of spaghetti. This seems like a downside at first, but what it actually means is that it’s really easy to get to exactly where you want to go, usually with at most one transfer. There are also about 40 different maps of the various train systems. Again, seems bad at first blush. But each one is geared towards a person in a particular frame of reference, so if you’re looking at the one you need, it’s actually great.

There is cellular coverage on all the trains. But you never hear anyone yelling into their phone. Do you know why? Because there are signs that say “please don’t talk on your phone.”

Similarly, there are very few trash cans in the stations, or anywhere really. Some vending machines have receptacles built in for the stuff they sell, but that’s about it. If this were the case in the US, there would just be trash all over the place. But there’s not. Because people know not to throw trash on the ground.

Even apart from trash, the trains are *clean*. Both the cars and the stations. There are padded seats and about one strap handle every 8 inches (at two different levels on some cars). And these are the regular cars - a lot of longer distance trains have “green cars,” the equivalent of first-class cars, where I assume you can eat soba noodles off the strap handles. I actually noticed - and felt bad - when the condensation on a cold water bottle I was carrying started to drip on the floor.