I miss Japan. I've been going for eight years and I've gotten used to going annually, and we didn't this year. I blame the Bush economy.
One of the things I honestly miss is the trains. That includes the commuter trains, subways and the shinkansen (bullet trains). I might talk about the shinkansen separately in another post, but I've already talked a little about them before.
At home, I take the Long Island Rail Road and NYC Subway every day. Not too pleasant. After riding the trains in Tokyo, I feel like some kind of barbarian leaning over the edge of the platform to see if a train is coming (we have no electronic signs telling us how long the wait is), and our trains are dirty and uncomfortable and about as user-friendly as yellow taxi driver at the end of his shift. And they're always late. On the LIRR, a train is considered on time if it arrives within 6 minutes of its scheduled departure time. In Tokyo, a commuter train is considered late if it arrives 15 seconds after its scheduled arrival time!
Every JR line in Tokyo has its own theme song to let you know when it's leaving. Halfway through this video you'll hear the Yamanote line's music - this line runs in a circle around Tokyo:
The seats in both the commuter trains and the subways are padded and comfortable.
The cars are generally air conditioned, despite what that fan above implies. Some cars have "lighter air conditioning" and others have none, intentionally, for those that don't like it. And there are weirdos and freaks like that in Japan! But they give you that choice, unlike here, where every train is just blasted with frigid air, unless the a/c is broken. Then it's like 140 degrees.
The announcements in Tokyo trains are automated and bilingual, and the English version is spoken by probably the cutest female voice I've ever heard. (Well, second cutest.)
These days, JR and Tokyo Metro have standardized on the same voice for both the subways and commuter trains around Tokyo, though she kinda sounds like she had a cold on the day she recorded for the Yamanote line.
Here she is on the Tokyo Metro Marunouchi line:
Notice how quiet it is even on a busy subway train!
It's convenient how she tells you which side doors will open at some stations (this might be a JR-only thing). On a lot of trains, there are also LCD's throughout the car that show the locations of stairs and exits on the platform at the next station. Here's the Yamanote line again, a pretty good view of the screens:
Of course, the trains do get crowded at rush hour! This video is hilarious:
Honestly, though, it's not usually like that. I've never experienced anything close, and I've ridden the subway at rush hour. It's probably like the New York subway in that certain specific stations get crazy at certain times of day, but most of the system is pretty normal at all times and actually kinda dead during non-rush times.
On the Yamanote line, JR tried to at least help with boarding during crowded conditions like this by having two cars per train with 6 doors per side. You would have known these cars by the fact that they had big signs on them saying... "6 doors". (These are now being phased out so JR can install protection gates at all Yamanote line stations.)
The one thing that annoys me about Japanese commuter and subway trains is that they're built for short people. Look at the photo above - see the handholds? Yeah, they're at about chin level for me. If I'm stuck standing by the door, I get bombarded by these things constantly as the train rocks back and forth.
NYC subway trains are getting a little better:
But come on, it's not even close. Supposedly the NYCTA did visit Tokyo to see what's going on there before designing these new cars, though. But no padded seats, no high-res LCD's and the automated voices all sound unnecessarily aggressive. And we've still gotta all stand on the edge of the platform craning our necks to see when the next train's coming (and they're always late) - they won't have that sorted out for 20 years or more.
Tokyo is still building subway and rail lines. It's amazing to think that New York has been trying to finish its 2nd Avenue line for literally seventy years, but Tokyo has opened at least two major lines that I know of - the Fukutoshin Line and the Yurikamome Line - since 1995. The Yurikamome Line is one of my favorites, as it runs high above the city, then out across Tokyo Bay with great views of Rainbow Bridge, and into Odaiba. Take a ride along:
A pleasant commute is important to mental health. And it's one reason why I'm constantly so stressed out living here.