Should you have gotten this far into the guide you should have your flights and hotel paid for well in advance and are saving muy amounts of dinero to ensure you have a shit kicking good time in Japan. If you haven’t followed my advice, then it may be too late to salvage a decent trip unless you’re willing to sacrifice a lot of life’s luxuries (like food and shelter) to get there.
Hopefully you have also attempted to study Japanese in some way. To be honest, the pronunciation and grammatical patterns behind the language are not hard to pick up. It’s vocabulary and consistently reenforcing what you’ve learned so you don’t forget it that is the hard part. Remember, with a bit of effort you should be able to somewhat survive with limited skills. At the minimum you should know enough to ask for stuff at a basic level. Be prepared to whip out the dumb gaijin look when people start rattling off full speed Japanese in response.
C’mon Ride The Train
With that said there is another thing you must study and that is how to get around. Trains dominate most of the public transportation system in Japan. Depending on where you live their train system can be thought of more efficient than yours. It definitely is compared to where I live.
Take a look at the train map for my city:
Obviously simple right? Well yes, but extremely inefficient, slow and at times it’s faster to walk or take a cab or just drive to get where you want on time. If you ever come to my neck of the woods it’s better to rent a car than take public transportation.
Now look at the JR Train map for Tokyo:
The Tokyo one looks overwhelming doesn’t it? I’m sure those of you in big cities like New York or London are just rolling your eyes at the non-complexity of it all, but if not then you may be in for a world of hurt because of the plethora of colored lines going all over the place.
Prepaid Fare Cards
Seeing that the train is most likely going to be your main source of transportation (unless you’re rich & can afford a private driver or cab) you probably need to have a way of paying for daily commutes. If you are not planning to go day tripping outside of where ever your home base in Japan is you can either buy a Suica card or a Pasmo card. Each has their benefits but if you’re confused by it all stick with Suica to be safe.
The perks to the Suica card are the cool penguin on the front it, you can use it as payment method at konbini’s and you can geek out by singing Suika Baby when you first buy one.
If your trip involves going on the shinkansen (bullet train) and outside of your home base frequently then perhaps a Japan Rail Pass would be handy. As a commenter on the first installment of this series mentioned, these are useful for going to more than one city. Be mindful that these are only available outside of Japan and are fairly expensive. So if you get one, make sure you exploit it fully.
All those colors
If you end up making your home base in Tokyo and intend to just bum around there you will need to be familiar with the Yamanote Line. This is a rapid transit loop that has 29 stops serving Tokyo’s major stations and urban centers. A total trip around the loop can take from 50 – 70 minutes and while not the fastest way to get around; it is the easiest for foreigners to comprehend.
I mean, who doesn’t understand going around in a circle endlessly?
When time is of the essence then you’re going to need to break out of the comfort of the Yamanote line and start using many of those wonderful colored lines that represent the subway system. I realize that it doesn’t look like the easiest thing to navigate but it’s actually one of the easier tasks you will undertake during your trip. Well, compared to finding a street address in Tokyo.
Think logically about where you’re going and you can trace your route through numerous options from the closest station to your hotel/apartment. Maybe reading a map is too hard? Then you can use this online train route finder. Enter your starting and ending stations in romaji, pick the date and time you are leaving and click submit. The page will return your train fare cost and approximate trip time.
Having this information handy before you go to Japan will give you an idea of how much you want to allocate to daily travel expenses. For the 2 weeks I was in Tokyo I refilled my Suica card four times at 2000 yen a charge. You can allocate more if you like depending on how long your stay is or how often you’re going to be going around the city.
Also, you won’t have to worry too much about asking for directions if you already have a general idea of how to get to the places you want to visit. But then you lose the chance to try out your Japanese. So it’s give and take in that area I suppose.
For more on the general use of prepaid fare cards and other train related information I direct you to our friends at Japan Guide.
Advice for riding the train
- Don’t get lost in the train station
Japanese train stations are busy and can cause disorientation if you are one who is directionally challenged. This has happened to me in Shinjuku station where I almost ended up getting on a bullet train going out of the city.
If you ever get stuck there are plenty of attendant stations around but don’t expect anyone to speak English. If you can get away with simple direction related questions in Japanese you should be okay assuming you remember the vocab associated with the subject.
Otherwise put on your best lost gaijin puppy eyes & try your best at sign language or pointing at a map or something.
If you end up walking out of the wrong exit you’ll have to go for a fare readjustment to get back into the station. Again, try your Japanese or show your fare card to the attendant & shrug your shoulders.
- Don’t jump the suicide doors
I’m sure that many of you have heard of people jumping to their deaths in front of trains. I was told that there’s even a public announcement that politely informs you of a delay due to “Human interference” or something to that effect.
At some platforms there are things called suicide doors to prevent such tragic accidents. These are automated to open when the train is fully stopped. Of course that doesn’t mean they’re impenetrable and people still have jumped them. But don’t be stupid.
- Wait for people to exit the train before barging in
Unlike a lot of places, the Japanese train riders wait for others to disembark before getting on. Don’t be a douche bag and elbow your way in as soon as the train doors open.
- Be prepared to stand a lot
There’s no such thing as non-peak hours on the Japanese train system from what I have experienced. The cabs are wide to accommodate a large number of people standing. Remember my advice about comfortable shoes? You’ll be glad you listened if you’re stuck standing.
Should you not enjoy close quarters then a crowded train may not be for you. But what can you do? Suck it up and wait for everyone else to get off. If you can find a seat go for it, but be ready to do the right thing and give it up to an old or handicapped person.
- Drunk salary men exist
If you ride the train later in the evening you will see and most likely smell drunk salary men. Unlike the movies they aren’t loud and obnoxious and are kind of just there attempting to hold themselves up.
It’s kind of funny to watch these guys and they’re comedy gold if you’re ever on the train and need something to keep you entertained (besides the lovely ladies and school girls) between stops.
It’s best to laugh at them after you get off the train rather than while you’re on the train with them.
- Don’t be surprised to see people staring at you
You, the foreigner will attract attention whether you like it or not. Well, unless you’re Asian then you get no play from anyone. =P But if you are a non-Asian person then you may get some stares from the locals who will most likely be talking about you behind your back.
Smile politely and try not to make a fuss on the train unless some really hot school girl starts hitting on you. Then all is fair game.
This should be enough to get you ready for the Japanese train riding experience. I have yet to experience the joy of being squeezed into a train cab by pushers so perhaps you’ll have to ask someone else about that.
I hear it’s not fun.