More about the trains

October 19, 2006

Probably because I’ve had so much to do with them in my three weeks here, and because everything else in my life is conducted in English, and mostly with English-speaking non-Japanese, the train system has been my point of entry into Japanese culture.

It is impressive. The scale of the sub-way and above ground system is quite mind-boggling. When you then realise that it all works like clockwork it becomes even more impressive.

The train from Odaiba where I live which travels over Tokyo Bay and into the centre of the city runs on pneumatic tyres and is guided by a single track, which I think is electrified. There is no driver – it is either guided by computer or remotely, I don’t know. The carriages are single story and quite small, but trains appear every five minutes. These trains travel above ground, along one of the many flyovers that the Japanese have used to solve their traffic problems (and, I suspect, shovel money into construction companies, but that’s another story).

From Shiodome station in Tokyo I switch to the Oedo line for the journey to Roppongi. This involves travelling down a number of escalators, or lifts, and then some stairs, and then more stairs, to reach the underground. In contrast to stations in Sydney, these stations are finished in white and brightly lit. These trains have drivers, and the neatly-uniformed guards have a ritual way of seeing the train off – when I get my camera I’ll record footage of the guard at Shiodome station.

No matter where you are on either of these two lines, a disembodied voice is always talking to you – telling you when the train is coming, where it is going, the name of the next station on the route, the connecting lines at that station, etc., in Japanese and English. Then there is a Japanese only commentary which I think says ‘be careful when you get out’, but I can’t be sure.

The thing is, you are always receiving information. On the above-ground JR lines, a small video display above the doors shows you: the name of the next station; where you are along the train’s route; and whether there is any delay along the line, what is causing the delay, and the length of the delay.

The ticket machines are quite impressive. Again, they give information in Japanese and English. Buying a ticket is simply a matter of looking at the map of the system to find the station to which you want to journey, checking the fare to that place, pressing the corresponding box on the screen of the computer in front of you, and throwing multiple coins down a chute at once, after which you receive your ticket. These small computers make Cityrail’s clumsy mainframe-sized machines, of which there is often only one at each station, with their single buttons for each station, look ancient.

Buying a concession ticket involves a bit more admin. You have to go to an office selling monthly etc. tickets, fill out a form, have it stamped by an elderly lady etc. The Japanese appear to be great fans of administration. But it prevents the problem of grown adults buying children’s fares from Cityrail’s mainframes, as my jaded eyes have seen too many times in Sydney.

On the trains, the Japanese try to avoid eye contact – although a few of them can’t help sneaking the occasional glance at the sweaty Gaijin with the red bag and crew-cut trying to find somewhere inoffensive to look during the journey. Some will read, others will sleep (it’s not feigned sleep, either – a woman fell asleep next to me last night, in that nodding way that people always doze off on trains, and ended with her head on my right shoulder) while others engage in probably the most widespread Japanese activity that I have noticed so far – sending text messages, or looking at ‘bideo’, on a mobile phone. No-one answers their mobile phone on a train, that would be impolite, but they text like crazy. Walking, waiting at the lights, in cafes, they can be found writing and sending text messages.

Sometimes, when the ‘Yurikamome’ above-ground train is pulling in to Shidome station, I’ll catch site of a Shinkansen bullet train gliding slowly into or out of Shimbashi terminal. They are very elegant. I’ll try to catch one on footage – again, when I get my camera. My first contribution to Japan’s national debt will occur on 30 October, so I’ll try to post pictures a little while after that.


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