A New Yorker's (Sadly Lopsided) Scorecard of Tokyo Transportation

Some notes on six weeks of travel in and around Japan's great city.

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Courtesy of Eric Jaffe

Recently I spent six weeks in Tokyo for a project entirely unrelated to my transportation writing at Atlantic Cities, except insofar as they both involve the planet Earth and the human race. Still, I intended to keep a scorecard comparing Tokyo's transportation system to that of New York. I kept score for about two days before stopping, mostly out of pointlessness and a little out of patriotism. It was clear even at this early stage which city would win.

No doubt a glass-half-emptyist such as myself could find fault with elements of Tokyo's transportation network given the proper time and linguistic capacity. But within my admittedly limited sample set I found the network — particularly the intra- and intercity rail system — difficult to overrate. The worst you can probably say about it is that it very efficiency creates a problem of crowding. Which, to keep the sports metaphor going, is a little like complaining about the jog after hitting a homerun.

So I'll invoke the mercy rule and, rather than provide a halfway completed scorecard that was tending toward a shutout, offer instead a few broad observations, for New York's own system to take or leave as it will. Hopefully take.

Airport Transportation

Contrary to popular myth, not everyone arrives into Tokyo in a plane that looks like this:

When you do arrive into Narita Airport, Tokyo's main international entry point, you're about an hour and a half from the downtown area — which itself is often half an hour from other parts of the rather expansive city. You can take a taxi into the city from Narita for a fare on the order of several hundred dollars. You can take public rail transit into the city for a fraction of the cost of a cab but a multiple of the hassle, at least if you have big bags. Or you can do the sensible thing and take what's called the Airport Limousine Bus service for about $40.

That modest fee includes a comfortable ride, an orderly boarding process, great attendance to your baggage, and tip, which in Japan is always zero. Though the system is not limited to English-speaking travelers it's clearly intended for them — which, as I'd later find, pretty much goes for all Tokyo transportation. The Limo Bus doesn't travel to every hotel in the city, but dollars to donuts (yen to rice balls?) it goes to one that's either a short walk or quick cab ride from wherever you're staying.

The service is almost suspiciously well-staffed and as a result extremely efficient. Narita ground transportation is ringed with numbered signs and digital placards whose departure times and places appear in English. People stand in neat lines marked by chalk. Boarding assistants position your bags, after they're tagged by destination, at the precise spot where they'll be loaded onto the bus. When it arrives, luggage assistants run over and load all the bags even before the last person is on board. Announcements are in English too, including the one that tells you to silence your cell phones "as they annoy the neighbors." When your bus pulls away, the boarding assistant bows in its direction.

Public Transit

Confusing as the system seems on paper, it's very simple in practice. That's especially true for English speakers. Automatic card vendors have an English button, and if you're still able to make a mistake a little bell goes off and an attendant pops out of a door in the wall you didn't know was there and fixes the problem. Video displays on board oscillate to English, and the final speaker announcement for each station is also given an English — a practice very welcome to this tourist but which must grate on city residents.

In truth you don't even really need to speak any language to ride: just know how to count and recite the alphabet. Each station, in addition to having a name, has a letter-number combination denoting the line and stop number. So if you have trouble at first recognizing the name Azabu-Juban, you can instead just make sure you're heading for N-4 — the fourth stop on the Namboku line. There is also a wonderfully helpful map on every platform that shows you which car to board based on your destination or transfer needs.

The lines themselves are seamlessly integrated despite being owned by different companies: you can take the JR Yamanote line to the Mita line on the Toei system to the Namboku train on the Tokyo Metro system without ever leaving a station or buying a different fare card. The cars have cushioned seats and floors you could eat off and an abundance of hanging straps. I once counted 87 in a single car. The (numerous) ads not only grace the walls of the cars but also hang from the ceiling, and flap a bit in the breeze of the air ducts.

The entire system is almost impossibly neat and orderly. The bathrooms in the stations are perfectly acceptable to use. I didn't see a beggar or performer on a train once in six weeks, and even the guy who sells concessions on the platform wears a suit to work. In the morning people naturally form lines where the doors will open before the train arrives, and the platform speakers pipe in bird calls to increase the serenity. The floors of both the stations and the cars seemed clean enough to eat off.

Speaking of mornings, the early rush is everything it's made it out to be. Take the most crowded car you've ever been on in Washington or New York and add, oh, 30 percent more passengers. You don't have to worry about holding a pole or a strap because there's nowhere to move: you're essentially a subatomic particle. The only thing between you and any number of moral and federal offenses is a thin layer of polyester; once you reach a stop you feel partly obliged to cuddle with those around you. That said, at every stop, those nearest the door funnel out to allow others to disembark, then funnel back in with great aplomb.

Still there are concerns about groping on trains during the morning rush, so there are Women Only cars for those times. Of course the act of groping implies a freedom of movement which, in my rush-hour experience, did not exist. I'm also told that some men, to avoid such accusations, sometimes ride with their hands above their head — like a basketball player does to show he hasn't committed a foul — in what's called a bonsai commute.

I did ride several buses in the outskirts of the city but found little of note about them besides, once again, cushioned seats, and also the fact that they turn off their engines at every red light, presumably to conserve fuel and/or mitigate exhaust.

Intercity Rail System

I'm hardly the first to say it, but Japanese bullet trains — called the shinkansen — are also as good as advertised. Not to sound like a broken record, but these too are quite easy to use for an English speaker: the same digital arrival and departure signs that oscillate to English; the same on-board intercom announcement in English, though in a British accent; even the car diagrams on the tray table in front of you offer English.

Now the ticketing process can be a bit confusing. Unlike Amtrak, which has a single fare ticket from station to station, the shinkansen requires you to purchase both a basic rail fare and then also a seat fare. The rail fare, for example, covers passage in the Tokyo-Hakata corridor, but an additional seat fare must be paid to reserve an assigned seat. You can also buy a non-reserved seat fare, for slightly less money, and duke it out in the non-reserved cars with other passengers.

Shinkansen platforms, like those of the Limo Bus, are well-organized. Taped lines and hanging signs (again, which oscillate to English) show you where to stand based on which car you've been assigned and which train you're taking. (While Amtrak offers only regional or Acela trains, there are several types of shinkansen, ranging up to the Nozomi, or superexpress.) Platforms have vending machines, proper convenience stores, and smoking sections, where passengers huddle around air vents.

Watching the JR staff turn a shinkensen at the end of the line is really something. Once a train arrives workers blitz through the cars, wiping down seats and tray tables and window sills and generally straightening the place up. Then they flip the seats with the push of a lever so they face the other direction. The task is taken seriously: when passengers are finally allowed to enter, the platform agent bows to let you know it's time.

The bowing continues on-board — it's done every single time a conductor or cart vendor enters or exits the car. There's no quiet car, but there doesn't have to be. Anyone who receives a call steps out to the space between the cars to talk. There's a small vending machine between many of the cars, and smoking rooms between others. In addition to bathroom stalls there is just a general sink area in case you simply want to freshen. Some trains offer both Western and Japanese toilets: to sit or to squat, that is the question.

The seats are often filled despite holding more passengers than Amtrak. Instead of a two-two seating arrangement, the shinkansen have three-two seating. (The automatic ticket vendors intelligently assign the middle seats last, so that you can often ride, at least part of the way, with a free seat beside you.) The only complaint I had was a lack of electrical outlets, though that's only true on the slower trains. On Nozomi every window seat has an outlet of its own.

Pedestrians-Bikers

A lot of people ride bicycles in Tokyo. The popularity of cycling holds true despite the fact that there don't seem to be any bike lanes in Tokyo. That's impressive but also annoying, since it means a great many people ride on the already crowded sidewalks. No one wears a helmet. This is only halfway related to biking, but it seemed worth mentioning that food-delivery people ride scooters with heated compartments that hold the food.

What's striking to an American in Tokyo is just how many women ride bikes. What's striking to a New Yorker is how many people leave their bikes places without locking them. I won't say I thought seriously about starting a bike-lock business and hiring a number of bike thieves for pretty cheap to get it going. But it's possible the idea crossed my mind.

Tokyo is a very populous city so it's not surprising that the sidewalks and crosswalks are often very crowded. I once wondered whether the famous Shibuya crossing was the Worst. Crosswalk. Ever. but having visited in person it's hard not to appreciate how many people are accommodating at a single intersection, all while cars wait patiently. (There's very little honking in Tokyo compared to New York.)

An American pedestrian in Tokyo also can't help but notice the corrugated yellow stripes that line pretty much every walkway. At first I thought this was to separate lanes of walkers, something I've always wanted in the United States, but I'm told these are actually guides for the blind. It seems like a lot of effort for a small part of the population — that's not to say it isn't admirable, of course — but it speaks, like the English announcements and cell-phone courtesies, to a general transportation culture of accommodating others.

Cars-Taxis

The only element of Tokyo transportation I feel unable to evaluate with any authority is car travel. I know they drive on the left and don't honk much, but that's about it. I can remark only in brief on the taxi situation: it's expensive, with a starting fare up around $8-10, but you can pay with your subway pass — a remarkable feat of urban transport integration. (Side note: you can also use the pass to pay at most food vendors inside a station.) Also the taxi drivers wear suits and hats and some of them even white gloves. And they don't talk on their cell phone or headset. That might be annoying to the neighbors.

All images by Eric Jaffe

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