Here’s a little summarizing post about the various methods of getting around in Tokyo and how they worked out for us. You can rent cars and take buses in Japan, but they’re really more for rural areas. For all our traveling about, we never even came close to leaving the city, so these methods were not for us. So we stuck to walking, taking trains, and splurging on one taxi cab ride.
Even when we took the trains, we still walked from the stations to our destinations, so I’d say walking is by far what we did the most in Tokyo. Every morning, we’d walk from our hotel to the nearest 7-11 or Family Mart to get the day’s cash allowance (there’s a strong preference for cash over credit most of the time), and grab some cans of Kirin chu-hi.
After that, it was to the trains and more walking to reach our final destinations. Unsurprisingly, there’s not a huge amount of english signage floating around Japan outside of the impeccably labeled train stations. We got turned around a little bit here and there, but the only time we were seriously lost was when we were trying to follow poorly translated directions in Shinjuku.
That time, all we could do was retrace our steps, reread the directions, wander circles, follow hunches, and keep a lookout for public maps. The first one we found did not help us much, but eventually we found one that had the symbols we were looking for. It was frustrating and a little disconcerting at the time, but it was really a great experience, and a puzzle that we eventually solved.
Even lost, we never felt unsafe. Day or night, everything seemed really serene. Being the biggest city has it’s advantages, I suppose: a lot of potential witnesses to any crime that might be committed. Once, we were trying to track down a particular bar and wound up on some back streets that were a bit desolate, but it was a residential area and probably safer than it felt (creepy quiet compared to the other places we’d been).
If you’re visiting Tokyo, be prepared to walk! Even if you’re a moneybags who is willing to take taxis everywhere, a lot of the smaller stores are two stories and as much as seven stories, with out-of-the-way, sometimes scary old elevators that clearly are the back-up method of getting around. The largest stores and malls have escalators, but are themselves so large that you’ll be wandering around of hours to take it all in.
Oh my gosh, the trains! Growing up in Atlanta, with the highly mocked and often parodied MARTA, which is well-known for strange and often profane experiences, it is always a treat to be in a city with a real rail system. Tokyo being the treat of all treats. In Tokyo, there are a number of private rail lines, and this competition is probably part of the reason the trains to are so well-organized and maintained.
It sounds really complicated to have different lines for going different places, or switching lines (and paying two different companies) within one station to complete your trip. We were certainly a little apprehensive about getting to our hotel from the airport alone. But they make it as easy as possible, and we didn’t have any trouble. There is ample signage, including in english.
Plus, the people are so friendly. While we were making our way to the Hotel Metropolitan for the first time, we were studying a sign and a women approached us to see if she could help us – and to welcome us to her country! Can you imagine that in New York?! Instead of just telling us where to go, she guided us through the station and out to the street we needed while we chatted as much as we were able to, mostly about Starbucks (she is a fan). What an incredible first impression of a country.
Once you figure out where you’re going, you buy a ticket from an automatic machine. You select from different ticket prices, depending on how far you’ll be traveling on the train. Your ticket is printed on magnetic paper, and you swipe your ticket to get in and out of stations. If you try to leave a from a station farther away than what you paid for, you visit a fare adjustment machine to add more money.
For the most part, the stations and cars are far cleaner than other stations I have experienced. We weren’t accosted by panhandlers, nor did we see any urine! Crazy, I know.
While we were mostly traveling during the day, we did catch the morning rush hour a couple of times, which was a bucket list experience. I have never seen so many people in a train car in my life! What was most incredible to Adam and I was how polite and orderly everything was. Everyone really wants to get to work, everyone is waiting in line for cars that pull into the station already “full” – what I would call full – and yet we saw no pushing or shoving, and there were no raised voices of any kind. It was hushed, orderly chaos.
The platforms have places to stand marked on them, and people really stood in them when it was busy enough to warrant it. Queues were formed to either side of where a train door would open, and when the train arrived people disembarked in the center while the lines on the side started filling in the train. During the rush hour, there were public servants of some kind there to remind people of the rules and help facilitate the boarding/de-boarding process. They didn’t seem to have to do much since everyone was very orderly, at least at the Ikebukuro station.
The most “aggressive” thing we ever saw was one guy walk up to a very full train car and very gently just lean into the crowd until his weight was completely on them, slowly easing him into the overcrowded car while the car doors closed right past the top of his nose. Incredible.
The stations (and some sidewalks) have these ridged yellow tiles in lines crisscrossing going all over the place. They seemed really strange until I found out that they are pathways for the blind to follow – pretty neat! I’m sure how you’d warn the blind about some of those low doorways, though…
Like with other train stations in New York and other large cities, it was fun to see how the different stations were designed and decorated. Pretty much every station has its own theme song, and some of them were really neat. We managed to find the current Ikebukuro one online so we can always have a fun reminder of our trip. We also saw a lot of interesting and/or funny PSAs and advertisements.
One day we got pretty tired and took a taxi to nearby Sunshine 60 (a 60-story, mixed-use skyscraper with an observation floor at the top). The taxis were super clean, and they were all outfitted with these little custom lace details on the headrests and seat backs. Think old-school doilies on couches. Cute, crisp, and clean but unexpected.
Another unexpected thing about our taxi ride was the business man who, not paying attention, leapt in front of our swiftly moving vehicle. We were all sure that we were going to have a first-hand experience with vehicular homicide (though it was really the pedestrian’s fault), but the driver braked hard and we missed him. Also, the driver said, “Bakayarou!” That was kind of special, since the japanese don’t seem to cuss in public. Our friend said he’d never seen it before. And, in case you’re curious, as far as I can tell baka=idiot/moron and yarou=jerk/bastard. Fun!
The fare was also surprisingly cheap. They seem like a great alternative for when your feet can’t take it anymore, you’re in a rush, or you simply don’t know how to get there – Sunshine 60 was on the other side of the tracks from the hotel, and we weren’t able to locate a pedestrian crossing under/over the tracks.
In short, when visiting Tokyo expect to walk a lot, enjoy the extensive and well-kept train system full of polite people, and feel free to catch an occasional lacy cab ride.