The Tokyo subway system is the busiest underground network in the world. 3.1 billion people rode around the city in 2013. But it’s not all about massive numbers of people – this amazing network is full of charming quirks. Whether it’s special employees that push commuters into a packed train, incredible punctuality, or the cute jingles that play at every station, Tokyo’s subway is a force to be reckoned with!
The busiest subway in the world
While not the longest in terms of length, Tokyo’s subway is the busiest in the world. Every day, 9 million people race around the subway tracks to get to their destination.
The busiest stations in the world
Talking about individual stations, 45 of the top 51 busiest train stations are in Tokyo. The number one spot goes to Shinjuku Station, which handles 3.5 million people per day!
The punctuality of the Tokyo Subway
The average headway (interval between trains) is about 5 minutes. During rush hour, the shortest headway is a mere 1 minute, 50 seconds!
To help alleviate overcrowding during rush hour, the Tokyo Metro company offers rewards to those who travel outside of peak periods. The Hajaoki initiative offers points to those who travel very early, or late, and when a enough points are accumulated, the passenger can submit their name into a lottery to win a 10,000 Yen prize.
Introducing the sleepy salaryman
In the subway tunnels under Tokyo, 1am – we sat on the carriage and watched a Japanese salaryman fast asleep and snoring, collapsed like a ragdoll, briefcase at his feet.
We were witnessing Tokyo’s famous workaholic culture first hand. Or maybe he’d been at the bar for one too many sakes! Tokyo’s subway is amazing. Punctual, convenient, at times totally insane; here are the best things about Tokyo’s subway system.
Technology and cool ideas
The subway trains themselves have a something of a shaky, mechanical feel like an old Paris metro line. But, they’re crammed full of ideas to suit modern Tokyo, and busy people on the move. The seats are heated, which is perfect for winter – however, they tend to make one feel really drowsy, so i’m not surprised so many people fall asleep!
To try and liven up what could be a dull, repetitive journey, many stations play calming bird noises to soothe strung-out commuters. But by far, my personal favourite are the jingles that chime at the arrival at every station, with a touch of Nintendo nostalgia, Totoro string music, or a sweet little MIDI tune (listen here). Stepping off the train to the tune of collecting a power star in Super Mario 64 is a really cool feeling!
Screens announcing the next stop is standard, but they also tell you which escalator your carriage will stop closest to, the direction it goes, and which end of the platform is best for your exit! There are more nice touches – many trains reserve a ‘women only’ car during peak hours to prevent groping, and all the warning signs for pushing and following the rules are cute cartoons (very Japanese!).
Then, of course, there are the vending machines – fancy an ice cream on the platform while you wait for your connection? Or want to recharge your travel pass on the platform? You’re in luck!
The train stations have everything (and I mean everything)
Your spirits uplifted by a cute Kokiri Forest or Peach’s Castle tune as you exit the train, now it’s time to discover the world of the train stations. The stations in Tokyo can be enormous, sprawling things, but happily, they’re spotlessly clean, easy to navigate, and always feel safe.
Buying tickets was a minor concern we had before visiting, but there are many English translations to be found, and often a smiling staff member with white gloves and a crisp uniform to help navigate the machines.
The biggest distraction by far is the food. We often found ourselves distracted for an hour, wandering the food stall corners, just admiring the eki-ben lunchboxes, gorgeous cakes and desserts, noodle shops with long lines. And yes, there are always free samples.
What surprised me is the high quality and beautiful presentation of train station food – much of it would feel right at home at a posh department store. You have stand-up sushi bars specifically designed for hungry salarymen to grab a 5-minute bite on the way home, and even stand-up ramen counters on the platform itself.
During rush hour, people pack like sardines. A typical move is to run into the doorway of an already bursting train carriage, so that train guards need to shove and stuff the person in (like one last sock into an exploding suitcase). Guards nicknamed ‘pushers’ actually work together to jam people into exploding train doors.
Once inside, people don’t even hold on, and just use the crush of bodies around them to stay supported. To be on a train like this once or twice is definitely an interesting experience, but I definitely feel sympathy for regular commuters.
For a truly jaw-dropping sight (maybe crazier than Shibuya crossing), I recommend visiting Shinagawa station at rush hour. We were waiting for friends in Shinagawa station, just as people were heading home from work.
From a Starbucks on the first level, we overlooked a pedestrian tunnel the size of a highway (linking the station to the business district), watching thousands and thousands of black-suited Tokyoites moving into the station like an endless river of swarming ants. Amazing!