Get the Inside Track on Tokyo’s Trains

To really see Tokyo, ride its ubiquitous trains. Paris has the Eiffel Tower and Rome, the Colosseum. And Tokyo? What might one choose as the signature sight of Japan’s mega-metropolis?

Tokyo’s trains | BCBusiness
The view from one of Tokyo’s famed trains.

To really see Tokyo, ride its ubiquitous trains.

Paris has the Eiffel Tower and Rome, the Colosseum. And Tokyo? What might one choose as the signature sight of Japan’s mega-metropolis?

Asked to recommend a landmark, locals will often offer up the Tokyo Tower, a rather unexceptional TV structure, or even Tokyo Disneyland. But Tokyo has another unmistakable feature, visible all over the city: trains. They are essential, inescapable and the most dynamic aspect of Tokyo’s vibrant cityscape. More than a means of urban transport – although unequalled at that – they can become for the visitor an attraction in themselves.

Tokyo subways are almost as extensive as plumbing. With a subway map and a little figuring you can take a train anywhere, usually with no more than one transfer. But although the subways are essential, it’s the above-ground Japan Rail (JR) trains that really give Tokyo its romance. Along with the giant signs and video displays of Shinjuku and Shibuya, the interurban JR lines are among the most identifiable aspects of the city.

Weather Tokyo winters resemble a drier version of Vancouver’s. Summers, however, are hotter and can be uncomfortably humid.

Best Bed Tokyo hotel rooms can be pretty tiny, but Hundred Stay Serviced Apartments and Hotel at the edge of the Shinjuku district offers a balance of comfort, elbow room, affordability and, if you’re lucky, a view of Mount Fuji. (Odakyu stop on the Chuo-Sobu Line.)

Best Meal Many tourists get up bright and early to visit the Tsukiji morning fish market. But jetlagged souls can sleep in a bit and still sample some of the city’s best sushi restaurants in the surrounding area. (Tsukiji stop on the Hibiya subway line.)

Can’t Miss It’s the street life that you’ll remember. Vibrant, bright and noisy, the Shibuya Station intersection shows up in almost every video montage of Tokyo. Don’t miss Takeshita Street in Harajuku, a bizarro fashion show every day. (Harajuku stop on the JR Yamanote Line.)

Taken individually, most Tokyo structures are thoroughly unexceptional. The city gains its impact largely through the sheer hyperactive vitality of its many neighbourhoods. What animates these urban vistas are the trains – perhaps two or even three together, parallel and perpendicular, flashing past each other before veering apart, rattling over bridges as other lines roll through beneath.

Certain train lines are thought to have their own cultural personalities, reflected in the neighbourhoods they pass through. Even the tracks themselves are built into the Tokyo streetscape. In neighbourhoods like Yurakacho and Shimbashi, train overpasses often have little shops and restaurants tucked into the archways, small nooks and hideaways that almost inevitably summon images of Blade Runner to a first-time visitor. On the popular Yamanote Line that rings central Tokyo, major stations like Ueno, Shinagawa and Shinjuku are destinations in themselves, huge retail hubs thronged at all hours. Arrange to meet a friend at some station landmark – the famous statue of the little dog Hachi outside Shibuya Station, or the naked woman at Ueno’s Central Gate – and you are guaranteed to be loitering in a large group of fellow singles. Tokyo train stations are all about going places, in more ways than one. Of course, if you’re late arriving you never get to blame traffic.

Japanese commuter rail systems have arguably had an impact on global technology. Japan’s history of innovation in the field of cellphones and personal devices must surely be due, in part, to the large number of Japanese consumers who take trains to work rather than driving, creating a huge market for high-tech alternatives to the sudoku puzzle.

There are quirks and mysteries to the Tokyo train system. Why is it, for example, that every time a train pulls into Ebisu station on the Yamanote Line, the theme from the movie The Third Man is heard? Why do train drivers, alone in their cabs, ceremoniously point at approaching trains? Why does the Yurikamome Line, alone among Tokyo trains, run on rubber tires? And what of the unfortunate history of incidents that eventually led rail companies to create all-female cars during morning rush hours? (That last one you can probably guess.)

Ultimately, Tokyo’s trains would not be so memorable if they had nowhere to take you. But Tokyo offers new worlds at every stop. Leave the driving to them.