9 Ways to Survive the Japanese Commuter Train

By

March 9, 2017

Recently making the social media rounds, the video below shows a rather typical scene at a Japanese train station with commuters seeming to be able to defy the limits of space and squeeze onto an impossibly jam-packed train carriage.

In the beginning of the clip, you’re thinking that there’s no way that anyone else could get on because the passengers’ shoes are literally hanging out of the doorway. Nevertheless, at least seven others somehow manage to do the whole backing onto the train using their buttocks to push people out of the way- thing. It’s jaw-dropping magic.

Having recently moved to Tokyo, I’ve been lucky enough to join the ranks of these crushed commuters. Unfortunately, since having a cat-like ability to cram into tiny spaces and survive on minimal pockets of air doesn’t come naturally to me, I’ve been forced to think of several ways to help me survive my daily commute. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

1. Work out the least crowded section of the train

Depending on what train line you take, you might be able to work out which areas of your train will be the least crowded.

For myself, most people board the train at the front, back and very centre, as that’s where the transfer exists are. However, if you can calculate the carriages in between each of those sections, I’ve often found them to be a tad less on the human horde side of things. Also, try to park yourself in that little corner nook between the door and the seats — you can lean against the side of the seat then and get a blast of fresh (-ish) air at train stops.

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2. Make a silent friend 

Taking the same train every day, you’re bound to start recognizing your fellow sardines — I mean, passengers. A good way to prep yourself for the journey is by giving your passenger friend a “ganbatte” nod and creating an invisible camaraderie that will rouse your courage. I also like to imagine wild stories about who they are and where they’re going — that one salaryman with the bouffant hair is definitely an assassin from outer space.

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3. Listen to a playlist of calming songs or an audiobook

After the fifth person decides that your back is an excellent place to rest their elbows on, listening to a tailor-made train playlist can help you stay zen. I filled mine with as many songs as I could find under the “calm,” “chill” or “relaxing” genre. This has the unfortunate side effect of making my commute sound like a dentist’s waiting room, and boosting Enya’s album sales.

Listening to audiobooks is not only a helpful distraction but also a great source of entertainment. If you’re feeling particularly masochistic then you can even listen to the history of Japan’s rail industry. It’s fascinating stuff.

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4. Wear a mask

When I first started to take the train and saw the wave of people all wearing masks, I assumed I had missed the memo announcing the start of the zombie apocalypse.

Not only do they make you look like the antagonist from a cyberpunk movie, a mask will protect you from catching a cold from that sniffly guy sitting opposite you who feels the best solution for his sneeze is to spray it aggressively in the air like some kind of mucus machine gun.

Also wearing a mask feels comforting, kind of like getting a face hug.

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5. Study Japanese

I’ve found the time I spend on the train to be invaluable when it comes to studying Japanese. It’s the perfect trap to go through my flashcards for the day, and is also a helpful distraction. It’s also great fun to try to decipher the weird ads that are placed at perfect eye level.

Plus you’re killing two birds with one stone if you manage to learn useful train phrases, such as “Why are you so close to me?” and “I needed to get off eight stops ago, but I can’t exit the train – send help.”

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6. Play the Smelling Quiz Game™

I was compelled to come up with this game one hot summer day when I was stuck on a packed train for over an hour.

As your face is regrettably nestled into someone’s armpit due to overcrowding (or another reason?), why not try and guess what kind of shower gel they used that morning. It’s an absorbing guessing game to pass the time and fun for all the family! Bonus points if your answer is “nothing.”

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7. Watch videos of giraffes sleeping and master their skill

For those who are yet to be converted to the “giraffes are amazing” school of thought, I’d recommend watching videos of them sleeping. Why? Because then you can slowly teach yourself the invaluable art of sleeping while standing up. If you’re on a long and packed commute, it might be the only option you have to pass the time. I’ve seen plenty of Japanese people getting some shut-eye in the weirdest position ever and have always admired it.

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8: Get good at yoga

Not only will practicing yoga allow you to contort your body into the cramped space that you’ll have on a Japanese train, your tenacity might even impress your fellow passengers enough that they offer you a seat for your contorted body (unless it’s on the Yamanote Line, where I’m convinced that the seats there are just a conspiracy made up by the government). Being able to hold your breath is a bonus.

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9: Take the local train instead

Your experience might vary for this one depending on what line you take. As most people take the “commuter” trains in the morning that skip a lot of local stations, I’ve often found that taking a local often yields marginally less people. The downside is you’ll have to wake up a little earlier and your commute will be longer.

The best part about local trains is that they provide just enough room for me to practice my yoga, while I listen to a calm playlist, study Japanese and watch videos of giraffes.

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I’d love to hear your own ways on how you survive the Japanese commute. Let us know in the comments below!

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British teacher, Japan explorer and writer. I will exchange witty jokes for Marmite.
  • Dale Goodwin says:

    Many stations have “shihatsu,” which translates as the “first train leaving that station.” Depending on your station, these trains leave at certain times in the morning, and are always empty. Learn when those trains are and schedule your commute accordingly. Also, if at all possible, schedule a route with the fewest transfers as possible. Thinking out of the box is important too – sometimes waiting for the next bus will allow you to sit down and get you closer to your office than a train would.

  • Vv says:

    God, I needed this!

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