Friday, May 04, 2007

The Station Experience - part 1

As always, click on any picture to load a larger version where the details can be seen more clearly.

If you live in Tokyo, you will very likely spend a lot of time in stations. I'm not sure of the exact statistics regarding how many people pass through major stations every day but it's a lot and that makes them lucrative areas for businesses to access a very large number of consumers. Incidentally, these pictures aren't necessarily representative of how busy things usually are. They were taken during the Golden Week holiday season (the first week of May) when more people are out of the city and not commuting on a regular basis.

When you first arrive in Japan, the public transportation system can seem a bit daunting and confusing. The picture at the top of this post is the signboard for incoming trains at Shinjuku station. This particular station is the major hub nearest our home. It's about 9 minutes away from us by subway and also happens to be the station where my husband's workplace is located.

The signboard may look hard to read but you can learn to interpret the information pretty quickly, even if you can't read much of the Japanese. For instance, the last number in each digital display is the track number the train will be departing from. Some of the digital information is in roman characters and some in Japanese characters in the picture. The information actually alternates so that you will eventually see something you can read even if you can't read it at first in Japanese. One tends to quickly learn how to read the characters for places their trains go to though.

The names of the lines are written above the digital display in roman letters and are also color-coded. The picture above of the foot traffic heading for the trains shows how the colors are used on signs to indicate where the platforms for various lines are located. The color coding corresponds to the color of the actual train cars so those who frequently use a line connect the name and colors pretty quickly.

When we first arrived in Japan, the cars were painted entirely in the color of the line but these days they're just painting stripes on them. I'm guessing this both saves money on paint and reduces the weight on each car as that much paint can get pretty heavy.

In the picture above, the woman sitting at the table works for the railway company. I'm not sure what she's selling but it could be passes, pre-paid cards, or even souvenirs. The stations tend to offer a variety of services and special offers. You can see a group of people gathered around a man who works at the station in the center. One thing you can almost always count on in Japanese stations is getting help from people who work there if you have questions, particularly at larger stations with lots of employees around. Just behind them, you can see a massive stairway to accommodate the huge amount of commuters. These steps are always great "fun" to hike up and down and a big reason why commuting is a chore for those of us with bad backs and knees.

Kiosks of all sorts are omnipresent in stations. Sometimes there's one little place in a way-point to a suburb and sometimes there is a cornucopia of them such that you can nearly make a full shopping journey just out of visiting a station. This little place sells cosmetics (on the back wall) for the lady on the go who needs a quick freshening up but finds her lipstick tube worn down to a metal ring. It also has a somewhat odd Mother's Day display which you can get a better look at if you look at the large version. It seems that "mom" would feel your gratitude if you picked her up some guacamole chips or dried mango. Nothing says "thank you for raising me" like snack foods.

There's a large department store near Shinjuku station's west exit called Odakyu and they have a larger and more impressive kiosk inside the station itself. The fact that they offer a large selection of beer and wine is somewhat curious but I guess they have them for people who need to buy gifts for those at their destination or who are too tired from a long day at work to stop off at a convenience store on the way home.

If you need dinner to go along with your booze, the same shop has a selection of deli items including salmon, roast beef, salami, and salads for relatively high prices. This particular kiosk has much "classier" edible fare than the average station shop as might be expected from a place associated with a department store.

Azur has a more pedestrian branch kiosk which resembles the type you find in most stations though this one seems to have more of a female-oriented magazine selection than some of the ones I've seen. In the middle, there's a large amount of cigarettes for sale and nutritiously-suspect snacks are on the right (just above books in case you are tired of texting and want to read during your journey). The closest you can get to a healthy bite is the "Calorie Mate" bricks sold in yellow boxes in the rack on the upper left. Batteries, disposable cameras, gauze face masks, wet napkins and other sundry items hang from the middle of the center.

Any place which sees tons of foot traffic is a good place for advertising and there is a huge poster for Pirates of the Caribbean III (World's End) in the station. My husband reckons the poster is 25 feet long. A list of theaters that will be showing it appears on the far right. I'm pretty sure a Johnny Depp or Orlando Bloom fan would kill for one of these intact. My guess is it's actually in several sections that were pasted together on the board and it'll come off with a scraper.

This board is one I'd not seen before. It's to indicate which trains are slowed or stopped with lights and to tell you why (I believe). Trains are rarely late as a part of their regular runs in Tokyo but it's not infrequently the case that they are delayed or stopped due to people jumping on the tracks to commit suicide, items blowing onto the tracks or the wires (such as errant plastic bags), or heavy rain or light snow. My guess is that boards like this spend a lot less time lit up in Japan than in any other country.

This is the view from just inside the impressively modern ticket wickets of the crowd loitering just outside. I'm never certain why so many people are always hanging around just beyond the exits like this but I guess they are waiting to meet incoming passengers. When it's very crowded and busy, this can become immensely frustrating because these clots of people make it that much harder to get in and out of the station.

I think one probably sees more of this in Japan and they present rather larger clusters because large groups will wait around for one person at transfer hubs such as Shinjuku as many of them may be coming in from homes on a variety of lines. Since they all are likely going to just get on another train to their ultimate destination, they don't meet at a more comfortable centralized location (like a restaurant or coffee shop).


Joanna said...

I'm glad you wrote about this... I'm getting a little scared about my trip to Japan and the railways. (even though I travel on my own to countries which speak little to no English all the time) Somehow the train system in Japan seems to scare me... I know I can ask for help in Japanese so that shouldn't be too much of a problem, but I don't know the train stations are so massive over there that I might get lost... O.o

What do you recommend as the best time to travel on the trains?

Roy said...

Did you know Shinjuku Station is the busiest station in not only Japan but also the world? An estimated 3.29 million people pass through on an average day. According to Wikipedia it's the world's second largest in size behind Nagoya (I guess I'll have to visit Nagoya station now!)

An interesting thing about railways in Japan is that the private lines are usually built, owned and run by giant conglomerates and so all the shops and services along that train line will always be group companies. E.G. on the Odakyu line, you get Odakyu department stores, Odakyu OX supermarkets, Odakyu real estate. Same goes with Keio line, Tokyu line, Seibu line etc...So it's an easy way to choose where you want to live. If you like Tokyu Department Store, live on the Tokyu line.

Shari said...

Joanna: Hi there. :-) Keep in mind that the train station pictured here is one of the most complex and not all of them are like this (just major ones). Fortunately, there are a lot of signs with both English and Japanese and arrows so I think you'll be fine.

As for the best time to travel on trains, it's any time between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm. That's the least busy time of day though the times to really avoid are rush hour periods, especially in the morning. That's when the sardine can situation occurs.

Roy: As always, you add a lot of interesting information in your comments and it's much appreciated. I knew Shinjuku station was busy but 3.29 million a day explains why it's such a shotting gallery to negotiate every time I go there. I love Shinjuku for shopping and walking around but I truly hate that station.