Survive Japan’s Trains With This Guide

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  • While Japan’s rail system is famed around the world for its scope and efficiency, it can be an intimidating thing to go through for someone new to Japan. Busy maps, crowded stations, and the ever-present Japanese language barrier can make it challenging for newcomers to efficiently travel on Japan’s many trains and subways. On top of all that, you’re riding with Japanese citizens who may be privy to certain rules and guidelines visitors may not be aware of. We’ve compiled a list of guidelines and advice for you to read so that when you visit Japan, you can avoid serious travel problems when going by train.

    Don’t Rush the Ticket Gates

    It’s important to be mindful of others around you when taking part in public transportation. While it may seem easy to breeze through the ticket gates on the way to the train platform, any mistakes can result in a loud and annoying blockage by the gate barriers. Since many people need to travel through ticket gates during peak transit times, any slowdowns can quickly result in a backlog of annoyed commuters. Make sure you have your ticketing information such as a ticket or metro pass out ahead of time, so you don’t have to waste time fumbling to pull it out at the gate. For those with tickets, make sure to insert the correct side of the ticket into the reader, so it can be cleanly read and hole-punched. For those using passes, the pass should make direct contact with the reader. Even holding the pass a few centimeters above it is enough for it to not be read and the gate will block you from passing. You should also keep track of the terms and charges on your pass; for pre-paid charges, the fare amount remaining is displayed when you exit a station through a gate, keep track of your amount charged so you don’t try to pass when your card lacks funds.

    Don’t Run to the Platform

    While it may be tempting to try and rush to the platform to board the first train you can once you pass through the ticket gates, you shouldn’t leave your common sense behind. Train platforms accomodate foot traffic from every direction, and it’s not an uncommon sight to see commuters walking right through ongoing crowds during rush hour. For your safety and others, keep your pace to a brisk walk if you’re in a hurry to reach the train. You should also follow the rules when it comes to boarding a train; don’t rush to board the train if its about to depart. This is considered a huge faux-pas as you’ll learn from the many safety posters found in stations: rushing to board is not only potentially dangerous, it inconveniences other passengers as they have to deal with you trying to get into the train car as well as delaying departure further by not allowing the doors to shut fully. Make sure to account for your commute time in advance, and be mindful of those around you by not rushing through the station.

    Pay Attention to Which Side of the Train the Door Will Open

    This is especially important to mind if you’re riding a crowded train. Platform locations aren’t universal, and their position relative to the train tracks can change from station to station. While many train lines have automated announcements denoting which side of the train’s doors will open to the platform, others are more subtle, sometimes having an electronic display above each door. During peak commuting hours, the trains can become packe with riders, often with passengers forming up around the doors as that’s where the most standing space is available. You should be wary of staying near one or another of the train when its crowded, as you’ll be in an uncomfortable position leaving the train if your stop’s platform is on the other side. To avoid inconveniencing fellow passengers when departing at your stop, try to stay near the center of the train car to make departing less challenging.

    Spread Out on the Platform

    Train platforms are large for passenger’s convenience to accommodate many train cars per ride. While it’s easy to just line up at the platform as soon as you enter, this isn’t always the easiest way to ride. Spreading out along the platform lightens the capacity load on each car and makes it a better riding experience, as no passengers will have to worry about a large crowd grouping up to board the cars that stop closest to the stairwells.

    Know Where to Find a Map

    If you’ve packed wrong one day while in Japan, it can be suddenly shocking to be caught without a copy of the local train map in your pocket. While rail maps are freely provided by most airport reception areas, in the greater Japan area finding maps can be a more tricky task. Most rail and subway stations will have a variety of resource literature available to the public on magazine racks, but many documents placed here relate to local matters, and may not be map information that’s more easy to understand. If that’s the case, you should seek out the office at the ticketing gate and ask for a map. The staff at rail stations will be able to fulfill a variety of requests, and have interpretation phone lines available if necessary.

    Don’t Overcrowd the Cars

    While people are generally respectful of personal space in Japan, that rule is exempted while traveling on trains during prime commuting time. While the period of Japan’s infamous packed trains of over 200 commuters are long past, many trains can still get uncomfortably crowded during peak hours today. To know when its acceptable to board a crowded train car, you should keep some things in mind.
    1. Standing room at the train car door. If people are bracing themselves against the doorway when it opens to passengers, you will probably not be able to board the car from this entrance. Passengers brace themselves against the doorways as a last resort as there is no room available in the rest of the car.
    2. Personal Carry-on items. If you’re traveling with personal effects, you should be mindful of how much space it takes up. Small bags and purses are acceptable, but for larger objects like packed bags or backpacks, you should try to remove those from yourself before boarding so it’s easier to move while onboard. This reduces the burden on passengers standing near you should you have to exit the train later.
    3. Nearby stations on your route. Most train lines in Japan have major stations with connections in which many people depart from trains. Check your route to see if major stations are on the way, which might make it acceptable to board a packed train as that means many passengers will depart soon on your route, making it an easier ride for you.

    Have A Route Prepared

    If you’re unfamiliar with the train route layout of wherever you’re staying in Japan, it can be challenging to try and get around at first. You should make use of what maps or directions you have available at the beginning of the day and try and plan out the train route for your itinerary ahead of time. This will helpful in a significant way; if you try traveling without a predetermined route, it can be very disorienting trying to make your way to your destination under the pressure of trying to meet trains coming to and leaving the station. To avoid a stressful situation and potentially messing up your day’s itinerary due to travel confusion, have a route prepared so you know which stations to look for and where to go.

    Don’t Hog the Handles

    As the train cars fill up and more passengers need to stand, you’ll need to start making use of the many handles available to keep your balance during your train trip. It’s important to be mindful of other passengers when taking your handle, so that everyone can be comfortable during their trip. Watch your position so that you aren’t reaching too far for a handle, don’t take the handle with both hands, and don’t play around with it during your trip. Follow these guidelines and you’ll find that the standing portion of your train ride can be more tolerable.

    Prepare for the Last Train

    While exploring the nightlife in Japan is a fun activity, you should be wary of having your nighttime fun being cut short by the dreaded last train. Information about when which lines close isn’t easily available in stations, so if you have a destination in mind you should look up the last train times for your route in advance so you can stay prepared. While last train stops won’t leave you completely stranded, they can force you to improvise a train route that can leave your wallet smarting. If you hear the platform attendants announce Shuuten (Last Stop), don’t panic and calmly gather information about how to get home from your present location.

    Did this list bring up something you weren’t aware of? When traveling in a foreign country, transit can become of biggest issues as you not only have to deal with unfamiliar places, but unfamiliar transportation guidelines as well. Hopefully some of these tips can help give you guidance should you come to Japan in the future.