I’ve been riding CTA trains for over 10 years. To some, that makes me an experienced traveler and to others a mere rookie, but I believe I have experienced most of, if not all of, the wonderful rainbow of situations that pop up on an L train: randomly going express, long unexplained stops, doors that won’t open, the cast of characters you might find on a late-night Red Line train, conversations you overhear that should never be spoken out loud let alone in a public space, and many, many more. So imagine my excitement when a group of fellow AnimeChicagoans and I got to navigate the spaghetti-like Tokyo subway system. I was eager to see how one of the best transit systems in the world operates. And just like anything else in the world, there are both pros and cons to the Tokyo subway system.
Pro: Getting from place to place will only take about 30 minutes, max.
Tokyo is big. This isn’t an understatement. By the end of my vacation, I was clamoring for wide open spaces, which is strange considering that I enjoy the vast sprawl of Chicago and its suburbs. But imagine being able to traverse the Chicagoland area with relative ease, like you would riding around the Loop. Well, Tokyo has that in spades. Every landmark, shopping center and neighborhood you’d like to see in Tokyo has a least one, if not many more train stations ready to take you wherever you want to be. This is something Chicago seriously lacks. There are wide swaths of areas that the CTA trains simply do not reach. Now you might say that the CTA has a bus system to get you where you need outside the trains, and while that is true, we never needed to take a bus in Tokyo on our trip.
And as expected of this system, every train was on time. Now, as a CTA veteran, if you asked me what time the next L train comes, I’d just shrug my shoulders and say “whenever I see it coming”. Sure, the train tracker system the CTA recently added does help a bit, but I have more than once watched as a listed train disappeared from the listed upcoming lines. This kind of thing is unacceptable in Japan, seeing as how many people rely on the train system to get to work.
Also, when I say that you can get just about anywhere in 30 minutes, I mean it. Granted, the most out of the way stations are going to take longer, but it pretty much holds true. You can’t even get to downtown Chicago from some lines in that amount of time. I should know, I’ve had to explain my lateness on multiple occasions.
Con: Provided that 30 minutes is sometime before midnight.
Almost everything shuts down in Japan at midnight, especially the trains. I’m not sure if the trains no longer running is the chicken or the egg in this scenario, but I’m certain that the bars and restaurants staying open is intrinsically linked to the the abrupt end of train service at 00:00. I’d like to believe that the heightened service during normal running hours in Japan is a trade off for the lack of any from midnight to about 5 in the morning. However, that schedule would never work in Chicago. Heck, most of our bars don’t close until 2AM, some stay open until 4AM. I could not imagine being stranded in some parts of Chicago after midnight, but I’m certain rideshare companies would be raking in even more dough. This may just be a cultural thing, maybe Japan has fewer late night shifts than we do, so the need isn’t there. Still, it is frustrating to have to pack it up at 11:45 PM at a bar while on vacation, only to find that the trains are done running for the night.
Pro: Every stop is connected, so getting where you want to be is simple.
You would think that with the seemingly illogical mess that the Tokyo subway system is would confuse any newcomer up for the challenge, but with the miracle that is Google maps, navigating this urban maze becomes 90% easier. Even when Tokyo’s subway map makes our city’s map look like a color coded elementary school-level endeavor, and especially even though I didn’t speak a lick of Japanese, I had no real problem finding where to go. What helps this is that there are signs and maps everywhere, and most of them have English on them. This may be due to the fact that Tokyo is hosting a Summer Olympics in 2020, but our group certainly reaped the benefits early. And even when the signs fail you, the staff is there to at least try to help, or at least get your foreign butt pointed in the right direction.
Con: If you don’t mind paying for transfers to multiple systems, that is.
Unlike the CTA, which is the sole entity running the public transit in Chicago, Tokyo has a whole lot of different companies running all the various train lines that make up the web-like system. What that means is that unlike here in Chicago, where you can just hop from one line to the next, in Tokyo you have to usually transfer to a whole different set of lines, which usually entails buying another ticket. And as frustrating as it is to many Chicagoans that the Metra can’t get on board with out new Ventra overlords, the fact that Tokyo, with its vast network of lines and the overwhelming need of its citizens to use the system for most of their travel, doesn’t have a centralized electronic payment system for the myriad lines available is even more frustrating. That isn’t to say that there are no electronic fare payment systems. In fact, there are at least five in Tokyo alone, and they all service a unique set of transit lines. Just frustration upon frustration.
Pro: Everyone is polite and will keep out of your way.
I mean, it is Japan, this is to be expected, but for me it was a breath of fresh air to not hear inane chatter coming from every direction on a crowded train car. I know my worst days on the CTA are when I forget my headphones at home, because then I get to subjected to the most nagging conversations imaginable and having to overcome my urge to tell everyone to shut the heck up for just a few seconds. Add in the random baby who won’t stop crying or the person who still doesn’t understand the concept of headphones when listening to music and it can turn a good day bad, real quick. That obviously wasn’t the case in Tokyo. What was even more impressive is that with the added silence of the passengers, I was able to notice that the trains were also very quiet, unlike some CTA rail cars that sound like a washing machine with a bunch of marbles in it.
Con: Except for rush hour.
It’s no surprise that all bets are off at rush hour, this much is true everywhere. Granted, Japanese politeness is still prevalent, but moving around train stations during this time is like a salmon swimming upstream, but in every direction you turn. It is near impossible to not be in at least one person’s way at any point in time. Luckily, Tokyo didn’t have many people walking below snail’s pace like you would find on downtown Chicago sidewalks, and maybe that’s because the people are just used to moving that fast. And yes, it is 100% true that trains get ultra crowded during this time, to the point that staff are pushing people in and making sure the doors close. Most of our group got to experience that first hand, but I backed out of that situation and found another line to take. It was only slightly less crowded.
These are just a few of the strengths and weaknesses of the Tokyo subway system. Overall, I would say is was a positive experience. There are a lot of things I think that the CTA and Chicagoans in general could learn from the way it is managed. However, I know that these changes aren’t likely to come soon, seeing as how we really need to have a cultural shift happen before then, but if enough people start supporting public transit as an efficient and clean method of travel it might be just around the bend.