All Hail the Mighty Japan Rail!

(Taylor Bond is a writer and content creator currently based out of Seoul, South Korea. She is a graduate of Georgetown University’s English Literature program and spent a year studying East Asian Liberal Studies at Waseda University in Japan. Her photography can be viewed on Instagram at @halfratstravel.)

After spending the entire duration of my undergraduate career navigating through the mess of Washington DC’s public transportation —hopping from circulator bus to the red line, sitting confined inside the compartment of a one-tracked subway car trapped underground, escalating into the very depths of hell at Dupont Circle just to miss the train heading downtown— arriving in Tokyo was a near fever-dream experience. 

The train stations were more reminiscent of Disneyland, where guests arrive to the gates of Magic Kingdom shuttled by a pristine monorail, catching glimpses of the glamour of capitalism and cartoons, than the cramped, piss-stained metro services I was adjusted to expecting from America. Once, a random sample of swabs on NYC’s A line train revealed a long list of surprising substances —one of which was anthrax. I walked through Shinjuku Station in disbelief. 

Where were the turntable hoppers, the hordes of scrambling rats, the street performers with a visible desperation for fame?

Instead, there were humming crowds of people weaving in and out of underground side-alleys and stairs leading to the basement of department stores. The center of the passageways had small bakeries; I caught the smell of a cheese tart as I walked by and nearly pulled an illegal u-turn maneuver to get my hands on one. Everything passed fast, kept to a strict schedule. Stopping for a pastry seemed like it would unhinge that careful flow. It was remarkable. As an American, I had never seen this level of cohesion and cleanliness in any subway station in my life. 

Japan does public transportation right.

That’s an indisputable fact. The train systems were refined enough that a ride on the Shinkansen wasn’t just an unbearable necessity for the journey, but a segment that could be appreciated (I mean, I certainly had a fun time picking out my pre-boarding bento from the station, swiveling the chairs around, and watching the sharp-nosed bullet trains roar through the station like mechanical birds of prey). I would be hard pressed to muster that same kind of enthusiasm for the local Metro North commutes from New Haven to New York, where large groups of suburban moms with similar blonde-highlighted haircuts smuggled bottles of rose wine for the two hour trip. Their intoxication levels — and their noise levels — increased in tandem as the train churned closer to the city. 

There was a lot to love about getting around the city in Japan. Lines ran reliably. With one pass, I could tap in and out of all of the different gates, cutting through the center of Tokyo with a single transfer. The cost was nothing remarkably different from the NYC metro price’s, and nowhere near the convoluted calculations that DC demanded for a short ride through the capital’s 5 mile diameter. People, somehow, behaved reasonably. Even when getting stuffed into the rush-hour carts, there was visible order and very few signs of disgruntled aggression. Wherever you were in the city, there was no doubt that a subway station would be somewhere close by. For the most part, everything was clean, well-maintained, regulated to a tee. A Japanese friend visiting the States got mugged on his first night in the city; in Japan, I got a friendly couple explaining my directions home to me after I got lost, wifi-less. 

While riding the trains in Japan, I felt safe. 

Safe and silenced, and at times, suffocated by the invisibly present demand to be respectful of others. During the times I rode the subways with my friends, my American voice felt like a fog horn disrupting the still quiet or like a blundering mistake forgiven simply because I was foreign and naively unaware of cultural differences. The trains were undeniably superior yet oddly stifling. Moreover, on Japanese trains, delays usually stemmed from one of two reasons: earthquakes or suicides. And while the regularity in schedule was something to be lauded, the deviation from that schedule often betrayed a darkness. The system was golden yet gilded; beneath the glitter, it felt like there was a faint emptiness inside. 

I found myself missing the old man performing his ehru at the platform of Grand Central’s 7 line, his karaoke-esque background music playing tinnily over his portable CD player. He was a reminder, at least, that certain parts of the chaos could be predictable. People carved out their niches with tooth and claw; this was proof of life. Even if it was at times dirty, loud, demanding, it was evidence of all of these people’s efforts, their issues, their will to survive and prosper. There, I could blend in happily to the backdrop of gritty tenacity, commuting to one of my part-time jobs hardly awake, one hand grasped tightly to the subway pole, the other struggling to turn the pages of a book I was reading, wedged in between families, workers, students, immigrants, travelers. Raw and unpolished.

And now, as I curse the MTA for shutting off night-time service on one line and express-tracking trains on another, turning my twenty minute commute into an hour, I think fondly to the Yamanote line. The theme music differed from station to station, so that, even half-asleep, I could pick out the distinct sound of my station’s song —the intro to the Astroboy animated show. In those days, I’d look out the windows from above the ground and watch the city I had grown to love speed by. The stark grey concretes of Ikebukuro, the idyllic greens of Nishi-Nippori, all of the destinations and jumping-off points for these Tokyo neighborhoods would blur together. I could reliably meet my friends within minutes of our arranged meeting time and board the compartments without having to throw a few elbows to other riders jostling behind me. I could hop on a simple subway train and take it all of the way to Yokohama. The differences between the American system and Japan couldn’t be any more clear. 

Nothing is perfect, of course, but the train system certainly Japan gets pretty close.