24 May 2007

The Spy Who... Travelled on a Train

Tokyo: Peak hour

I leave GGHQ in a mad scramble, always late, for the ten-minute walk to the station. Except now it's a fifteen-minute walk because I am wearing ridiculous heels, a suit, and am swinging a freakin’ handbag over my arm. The early morning stumble is interrupted by the traffic lights opposite Mejiro Station. Regardless of when I leave home, I have to wait at these lights for an interminable amount of time, along with about one thousand other people. The crowd is restless as we stare at the red man, willing him to turn green/blue. The little man is the equivalent of a starter gun for the mad dash across the road. The tension rises as we glance at each other with narrowed eyes, size each other up, and pick out the weak links in the line up. The course can be charted easily: dodge around the obasan — there's always at least one old lady blocking the way — push little kids out of the way, and leap over the shopping cart of another obasan. Sararimen are also fair game for any amount of pushing and shoving. Tripping is not uncommon.

The lights change, and we're off! Some whippersnappers jump the gun and head off at an almighty sprint, but they can be thwarted by the throngs coming out of the station. As ever, the spatial awareness lack, about which I have complained bitterly alluded to once or twice, can complicate things somewhat, but when the race is over, we are all standing together on the platform waiting for the same train.

And here beginneth the real fun.

The two-hundred metre long train roars into the station. I stare in astonishment at the faces pressed against the windows and the swarm of people crowded in the train. I bolt to the end of the platform, convinced that it will be less crowded at the back of the train. One thousand other people had this brainwave, apparently, as the last carriage is packed. A single salariman and I both push and shove our way onto the train. The doors close, muffling the jingle that is particular to Mejiro. (They all have their own tune!) With my nose pressed flat to the door’s window, I watch the blur of the built-up cityscape flash by as we race for two-minutes to the next station (the stations are two-minutes apart).

Takadanobaba: The sarariman and I hop off to allow people to disembark. Not a single body leaves the train. We get back on, followed by ten more people. Just so you know, the way to board a train in this instance is to step on backwards, thereby pushing people further into the train with the power of your arse. Just don’t let one rip.

Shin-Okubo: No connecting lines here, so things aren’t looking good. I’ve been pushed away from the safety of the door and am unable to reach a hand strap. My arms are pressed to my sides from the force of the people squashed around me, and at one point my feet are actually about one foot behind my centre of gravity. But we’re all like this – there’s nowhere to fall because there’s no space to fall. Each commuter is holding the other person up.

Shinjuku: Thank fuck for that! There are about ten connections here, so surely most folk will get off. About half disembark, and then another three-quarters shove their way in. By now, I am in the middle of the carriage, with warm bodies pressed on me from all sides. I haven’t had this much action for a while, which is freakin’ tragic on so many levels. It’s like a mosh-pit, but you can’t actually move. I still manage to carry out some stealth surveillance, though.

Yoyogi: As one of the few folk to have access to a handrail, I am single-handedly holding up the weight of everyone at one end of the carriage as the train screeches to a halt and everyone falls forward. But I can do this because I’m a superhero.

Harajuku: With a weak and shaking arm, we pull into this mecca for the young-uns. ‘Sweet fucking Jesus and holy bloody Mary,’ I realise I am muttering, wishing I had scoffed a couple of Bloody Marys before the trip, ‘For the love of god, make some people get off this fucking train!’ Not a soul moves. But more get on.

Shibuya: This is where the sweet relief starts. About three-quarters of the people get off at this station, and only about half get back on. These are good odds. It’s also the station where things get nasty. Not in a western, in-your-face kinda way — oh, I wish — but in a rude pushing and shoving way. And I mean serious pushing, people. I was given a great heave-ho by a bloke the other day, and neither of us were even getting off the train. Perhaps it’s a way to release the frustration and anger that one inevitably feels after having their space invaded.

Ebisu: More pushing; this time from me, as I try to get from wherever I am to the door to Get. Off. The. Fucking. Train. I stand on the platform for a moment to collect myself. My clothes are ripped to shreds, my hair is mussed, and my makeup smeared across my face. But ... fuck me, I made it.

The Yamanote Line train runs every two minutes. Almost to the second. And each train is like this during peak hour in Tokyo. And just crowded, thereafter.

I stumble out of the station, and head underground for the connecting subway ride…

Taken while waiting for a train at around 11.00pm, Ebisu station.

Fun fact!
From Wikipedia: An estimated 3.5 million passengers ride every day on Tokyo's Yamanote Line, with its 29 stations. For comparison, the New York City Subway carries 4.8 million passengers per day on 26 lines serving 468 stations.


  1. Holy crap. I feel claustrophobic just reading that. I would serioulsy have a screaming fit or something if I had to endure that.

    You are brave.

  2. Yeah. This is why I moved to Hokkaido. The Yamanote was too much for me!!!!

  3. Sassy: I am waking up in the middle of the night thinking bout the horror that is the train ride. I'm not brave at all. I wish I were.

    Brit: I am loving your Hokkaido stories! I almost moved there just after I arrived in Japan. Still want to get my arse up there for some Sapporo fun at some point.

  4. Just use more Bushido, warrior spirit, when you ride the trains.

  5. Congratulations on the new job! Sounds great! Can`t wait to here more about it...

    Glad to hear you are staying in Tokyo too...we really do need to meet up sometime soon!!!

    Things have been crazy on my end too, just starting to catch up on blogs and write my own again now.

    I do not envy you for having to catch to Yamanote line...Watch out for wandering hands! I hate peak hour...I think I will stay in my current job just because I do not have to catch the train to get there!

    Best of luck!

  6. Yeah, rush hour trains make me think of "pickle-people" we used to make in primary school. You wrap cotton wool in scraps of stocking, glue on googly eyes, then stuff heaps of them into a jar with their little faces looking out. Voila - Yamanote/Chuo/Saikyo line in rush hour.

    Have you thought about taking the Tozai line from Takadanobaba? I used to ride it in the mornings and it's never as crowded as JR. You could change at Iidabashi for the Nanboku line and the R-ichome station instead (I'm guessing as to your final destination though). According to ekispaato that only takes one minute longer than the Hibiya-line via Ebisu.

    Or what about taking the Tozai all the way to Kayabacho, then changing to the Hibiya line there (maybe 36min)?

    I feel your pain!

  7. Perkunas: Ha, I'm trying to rise above it, but it's proving to be quite the challenge!

    Lulu: Hey, you're back! Excellent. Stick with your current job at all costs. The train rides are true hell. I can't believe that so many people travel that way for up to two hours each way every day.
    I'll try to organise a Tokes blogger/reader meetup when I'm a bit more sorted.

    Orientalist: Excellent advice, thank you. I could also change at Yoyogi for the Oedo line but it's sooo far underground, which is why I'm sticking with the Hibiya. I do like your idea of going to Kayabacho too. I've started leaving home a lot earlier and that makes some difference. Also, I'm moving to the Pong in a couple of weeks so it's only ten more travel mornings!

  8. Oh my fucking hell. I'm having anxiety attacks just thinking about a crowd like that.

    I recommend a purse-sized Taser.

  9. Like I always say ya don't go east for civilisation . So many nips in my killing zone at one time I'd be having flashbacks to D-day.

  10. I would try letting one rip GG. It may give you some extra space and it would be difficult to pin it on you with all those other folk in close proximity.
    You should pop in and pay "Q" a visit and see if he has any secret agent gadgets to make you trip more comfortable. A cattle prod springs to mind.

    I am so lucky to have an easy 10 minute drive to get to work.

  11. I so so so know where you're coming from. And the Yamanote isn't even the worst of them. Any line coming into Tokyo from Saitama or Kanagawa in the morning can make the Yamanote line look like a pleasant day at the park...

  12. Fat Sparrow: I know, I get pretty anxious just thinking about dealing with it too.
    The Taser is an excellent idea. I'd use it on myself so I'm unconscious for the duration of the trip.

    Old Knudsen: I'm surprised at how uncivilised it is on the trains, especially as people are so polite in every other aspect of life.

    Full: I would try letting one rip GG. It may give you some extra space... Nice advice but I can't see it working. There is no extra room to be had. I envy you your 10 minute journey.

    Mike: Oh my god, other lines are worse? Those poor people. I don't understand how they do it every day.
    It's the worst thing ever.

  13. They do kinda remind me of ants.

  14. Now I have no excuse not to go to TAFE. I'd be a shaking mess if i had to do that every morning.

  15. Forty_two: They do kinda remind me of ants... only they're bigger!

    Kate: I am a shaking mess. It's freakin' traumatic!

  16. Remember the first time I walked into subway at rush hour was speechless with horror.

  17. Flirty: It does make you stop in your tracks, doesn't it.
    I've worked out a cunning new system by which to deal with it: move within walking distance of SpyHQ. It's pure genius.

  18. oh I love my seven minute cycle to work even more after reading this :-)

  19. Hey, GG.
    Just like the Central Line every rush hour here. Fun!
    No chikan yet?
    I'm ahead of you there; I've been felt up twice now.

  20. I can only imagine how this must smell in July/August. Yick! Aren't people in Japan paranoid about germs? Just cough, sneeze, and (if at all possible)find a way to have a little fake blood trail dribbling out of one corner of your mouth... hopefully then they'll steer clear. (I know I would)

  21. Hi GG.
    I only just found your blog, to discover you have just left Tokyo!
    Good luck back in Oz.

    Thank you so much for the that link to the chimes on the different stations. I had guessed that each station had it's own and that site has the whole lot! Cool.

    I find the trains pretty bad, but I have to get in for 7am so they are usually bareable at that time. In the evenings it's bad though.