Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Taking the A Train

Tokyo subway train

The transportation system in Tokyo is great, but takes some time to learn.  It can be quite daunting at first, and it is necessary to stay focused on what you are doing and where you are going, so as not to end up in Kyoto when you only wanted to go to the Ginza district.
The city is apparently inhabited by a society of gophers--  the city is riddled with trains and train stations, most of which are below ground.  In addition, the train stations are frequently connected to large buildings, such as department stores.  There are many shops and small restaurants in the subways and in the basements of these buildings.  Interconnecting them are tunnels and walkways.  It is purely optional that you actually walk outside on a street that might be wet with rain, or slick with snow.  It is Singapore on steroids.  (Well yes, Singapore is about 4 M whereas Tokyo just crossed the 11 M population point)
For non-Japanese visitors there are a couple of things that make getting around a bit intimidating.  (1) Although many of the stations have both English and Japanese signs, a few don't.  Lucky you if you happen to reach one of these stations.  In fairness, the majority of the stations we visited were well mapped, well dirrected, and many signs were bi-lingual.  I can't say that would be true in many other countries.  (2)  There are several train companies with trains running in Tokyo.  So some stations have service from one or more of the companies and some do not.  The most direct route to your destination may require a transfer, and beware that you should only buy a ticket to the transfer point, then buy a new ticket for the connecting train, if it is on a different company--  the tickets are not universal.  It may be possible to reach your desired destination on one train company's tracks, but it may not be the most direct route.  In Shinjuku where we stayed, there were three stations within three blocks of our hotel, but were serviced by different train companies.
The main station at Shinjuku is absolutely enormous, and I'm sure there are people who have entered it and never made their way out-- still wandering around trying to locate the appropriate exit.

Here's the train map for Tokyo.  I found it a bit daunting.
How to get there?  There are just a few options.  Best bet for a visitor is to map out your travel with the hotel concierge.

One thing about the trains (and busses too) is that they are on time-- you can set your watch by their arrival.  It is all very well organized.  I took a coach from Narita airport to Shinjuku (about 1 hour) and it's pickup time and arrival at our hotel was remarkbly accurate.  The attendants at the airport loaded luggage on the coach, got the passengers on, and bowed to the driver as the coach pulled away from the curb.

Jazz music is apparently very popular in Japan-- it was played in many of the restaurants and stores.  There is no A-train in Tokyo, but there are a lot of others.

Shibuya Station--   When the light changes green, the street is swarmed by pedestrians.  Many people hang out in the Shibuya area, a hot spot on a Saturday night.  This is near the Hachiko exit at the station.  Here there is a bronze statue of a dog commemorating Hachiko, a dog who faithfully came to the station to meet his master, even years after she had passed away.  Apparently there are dogs like this around the world (and stories to go with them), as it sounds vaguely similar to the story of Grey Friar's Bobby, in Scotland.  (For what it's worth, Pike's Market in Seattle has a bronze pig--  but I don't know the story of why he is waiting there).

Hachiko--  He's STILL waiting!

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