train adventures / Tokyo – part 1c (densha)

Hmm ok, so it’s been about four weeks since I got back from holiday, and it seems like I still haven’t made a very significant dent in the documentation of the trip. I mean, I haven’t even gotten up to the most important part of the story.

But, don’t worry, we’ll get there. Can’t rush these things. Well, I guess you could, but I don’t want to.

Today I thought I’d take a break from plain narrative, and write about some of the practical aspects of the trip because they were important too. (“Densha” is the Japanese word for “train” – specifically those that run on electricity.)

I think most people would know that trains are a bit of a big deal in Japan. I don’t think you’d get very far, or around to many places if you were trying to avoid trains completely. As well-maintained as their roads appear to be, and as quaint as their taxis (with automatically opening and closing doors) seem to be, I am not keen on navigating their intricate roads myself (not to mention I probably don’t know enough Japanese to read all the road signs, although I do know the word for “stop”, and I suppose that’s probably one of the most important ones), nor am I keen on paying for a taxi every time I need to get somewhere outside of walking distance.

So, trains it was (and will be when I go back …eventually)

Prior to the trip, I’d read a lot about trains in Japan. I read that they pride themselves on punctuality, and that they just will not wait for you. I read that this doesn’t actually matter because most trains – particularly subway/metro/local trains – run very frequently, so you simply wait a few minutes for the next one. I read also that there are a number of different rail companies in Japan, meaning a number of different train lines, meaning I was starting to anticipate an absurdly elaborate train network…

But, as it turns out, it’s not actually that hard. I mean, really, the principle of train travel is quite similar to here in Brisbane (and probably just about anywhere else in the world that has a somewhat logical train system). To illustrate my point, but also to show you why I was a bit overwhelmed in Tokyo, here’s a simplified illustration of our train network in Brisbane:


Ok, so the image quality is not great on this one (sorry, I just picked the first image that came up on Google), but it’s enough to give you a general idea of what it’s like. We have a handful of centrally located stations through which practically every train passes (Central Station, Roma Street, Fortitude Valley, and maybe you could count Bowen Hills too…)

As long as you know which line your destination station is on, it’s pretty easy to figure out how to get there from any other station. At most, you might have to transfer once. Each line goes from one side of town, through the centre, to another side of town – kind of like a spider web without the circular linking parts (some people say this is a great flaw in our rail network) – so if you were travelling from the northern suburbs to south-side, you could, depending on where points A and B were, just stay on the one train.

In contrast, here’s a similarly simplified map of the Tokyo subway:

Tokyo metro map

And I feel like this leaves out some details too… Again, different companies, different routes. For example, it doesn’t seem to show the JR lines (namely the Yamanote Loop and Chuo Line). I remember the first time I looked up at one of these maps spread across the wall of one of Tokyo’s busy subway stations, and just thinking ???????? (that is actually the closest approximation of my actual thoughts I could manage within the limitations of typed language)

But if you take a second and just look at it properly, and just focus on the two points you need to travel between, it’s actually not so hard to figure out. I also had the help of the “tokyosubway” app, which had been recommended to me by a friend. It gives you the option of searching a route from your current location, or you can easily enter whatever stations you need, and off you go!

Side note: you’ll need a Suica or Passmo card (or some other similar card) to travel on the Tokyo Metro, and on the subways of a lot of other cities. The JR Pass will not cover these trips.

And, like our rail network in Brisbane, once you know which line you need, it’s fairly easy to find the right platform (granted, our busiest stations don’t use more than about six platforms at a given time, while many stations in Japan have 20 or 30+ platforms). This might be an over-generalisation, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I think most train lines tend to depart from the same platform (of a given station) every time. So, if you’ve made the trip once, you can probably just retrace your steps to make the trip over and over again.

Even so, I was quite in awe of how effortlessly my Tokyo friend seemed to navigate between Shinjuku, Ikebukuro (where we visited an owl cafe), Asakusa (where we saw Sensoji Temple and the Kaminarimon Gate) and Akihabara (where we explored shops, and had all-you-can-eat shabu-shabu on the top floor of a department store) all in one afternoon/evening on our first Saturday in Tokyo.

Well, this post turned out longer than I was expecting (I wonder how often I have to do this before I finally realise/accept that all of my Japan-related posts will probably turn out to be really long posts…) Still, I’m going to fit in a bit about Shinjuku Station because it’ll probably fit better here than anywhere else.

You might remember from a previous post that our Tokyo accommodation was in Shinjuku – quite close to Shinjuku Station, actually. For some reason beyond my comprehension, however, we could never find our way from the station to the hotel via the most direct route. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that we couldn’t find our way from whatever platform we happened to get off at, to the appropriate station exit. Once we were outside (wherever that happened to be), we were more or less ok. The station itself was just so discombobulating. (My sister would disagree on this, but I won’t hesitate to admit that she has a better sense of direction than me.)

What’s funnier still is that KF and I miraculously managed to find the correct exit on that very first night we arrived in Tokyo, but because it didn’t look quite right (it looked like it led to the back streets, which it kind of does), we went back into the station, and emerged from a different exit – still not bad, but not as direct as the first one.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I’m confused by how we could possibly have gotten that lost in a train station (even if it is Tokyo’s busiest station, and ridiculously convoluted). If for nothing else, I’d like to go back to Tokyo just to figure out how to navigate through Shinjuku Station. On the plus side, though, I think this initial experience prepared us for all the other stations we’d encounter throughout Japan, so that none of those were ever quite so perplexing.

2 thoughts on “train adventures / Tokyo – part 1c (densha)

    • Interesting… I had to Google the London Underground, but, yes, they are all quite similar. London’s rail network seems to be closer to Tokyo’s in terms of complexity, though!

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