How to Survive the “Last Train” in Japan

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Most of the time, whenever I about living in Tokyo, people ask me about the trains. I feel like Tokyo is famous for four things: sushi, anime, technology, and crowded trains – but everyone seems to only ask about the latter. I’m not sure how accurate any of this is, but it certainly took a little while to get used to the early morning and late-night crowded trains.

Let me explain. Tokyo is very much a 24 hour city – if you do it right. Because even though Tokyo is the most populated city in Japan, trains stop running at 1AM. No exceptions. So around 12:30AM, you need to make a decision: hop on the train home or stay out all night.

(Line of people trying to get on the train in Shibuya at around 12:30AM)

I’ve never stayed out all night. I’ve also never missed the last train home. But I have friends that have done both.

So, for the sake of argument, assume you want to catch the last train home. There are a couple things you ought to know.

1. Tokyo rush hour trains are not nearly as bad as everyone makes them out to be (check out the video of the train I often have to ride home). Yes, you are packed like sardines often in stifling heat. However, you are in the same boat as everyone else.

If you are in rush hour (after everyone gets off of work), early morning (while everyone is trying to get to work), or taking one of the last trains home (where everyone is trying not to be left in the city overnight) – you should expect to be squashed cheek to cheek with the person next to you. Once you accept the fact that personal space does not exist on the train, it is almost a pleasant experience.

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2. There is always room for one more. This especially applies to the trains leading up to the last train. Everyone is just trying to get home – on a limited number of trains. So, of course, they will try to squish every last person possible onto that train. I don’t know what happens to the people waiting in line for the last train who cannot seem to fit because, like I said before, there is always room for one more.

3. If you want to get on, face your back to the doorway and step backwards into the train. It will, of course, be crowded. As long as you can get one foot in, you are fine.

  1.      Get one foot in. I always put my left foot in first (so I can use my right foot on the platform to balance).
  2.      Grab the frame of the doorway with the same side of the hand. If you put in your left foot, grab the door frame with your left hand.
  3.      Twist the rest of your body in. Once you have one side in, you can sort of slip in the cracks.
  4.      When the door shuts, try to push back, suck in your tummy, and keep your purse away from the door (or it might get caught).
  5.      Once the doors shut, you can let go of the frame, relax, and allow yourself to be smashed up against the window of the door. Japanese trains are sturdy – you can lean up on the door as hard as you would like, it will not break open.

 (I drew a little picture illustrate. Don’t judge)

4. Japanese trains are silent. No one talks to each other or on the phone. No one listens to music too loudly. (Unless they are very drunk) No one complains. No matter how drunk a majority of the passengers are on a Friday night, there are no drunken brawls or loud singing. I like that.

If you have to throw up (on account of it being a moving vehicle, crowded, hot, and uncomfortable), do the polite thing and wait for a stop, run off, relieve yourself, and catch the next train (unless you’re on the last train, then just hold it).

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5. Try not to move.

Once, on a train with my friend, there was an old (very intoxicated) man who accused a younger salaryman of touching him in appropriately. It was the first time I had actually heard talking on one of the last trains. Now, granted, I don’t know how true the claim may or may not have been. But as soon as he started yelling, the train let out a collective sigh of “not again.”

Regardless of how pure your intentions may be, when you’re squished that tightly together, with no room to even more your arms, hands will end up in uncomfortable places.

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Deal with it – and try not to make it more awkward than it already is. Chances are, you are might be the only one who feels uncomfortable. Everyone else is already used to it.

6. Don’t play with electronic devices. This is mainly important because of my earlier statement. No one can move their hands, so when you try to reach into your bag to text, play on your iPhone, or change the song on your iPod, you disturb other passengers. Japanese train etiquette is very important.

That being said, I have to listen to music otherwise I get train sick. When I’m waiting in line to board a crowded train, I put on my “rush hour playlist.” It’s my 13 favorite soothing songs. That way, when I get on the train, I can still listen to my music without disturbing anyone else.

It is common to listen to music on the train, especially when it’s crowded (otherwise all you hear is the labored breathing of all the other squished passengers).

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7. Hold your bag or purse in front of you. If you are one of the lucky 30 or so people on the train, it is common courtesy to store your briefcase or backpack on the rack above where people sit.

If it is too crowded and you can’t get anywhere near the rack, hold your item in front of your chest with your arms wrapped around. I do this to protect my purse from being crushed (too much). Don’t leave your purse or bag on the ground; as the train sways along the tracks, people tend to shuffle around a bit (as a collective group). If your purse is on the ground you can easily trip someone else or have someone step on your belongings.

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8. Control your smell. One of the great things about Japan is that it is really rare to meet someone with body odor. I’m not just talking about bad body odor; I mean any body odor whatsoever.

One of the things they really drilled into our heads during pre-departure study abroad class is that if you are not Asian and need to use deodorant, you need to bring a year-long supply to Japan with you. Japan has deodorant, but it’s this flimsy, icy-spray on that works for about 3 hours – max.

If you know you’re going to be out until late, layer on the deodorant. It’s not fair to the people next to you. I have so many Japanese friends that dislike foreigners for their smell; it’s not middle school anymore, there is no shame in wearing deodorant. That being said, don’t drench yourself in cologne, because that is just as bad.

9. If you by the door, at each stop get off (and wait by the side) to allow the passengers behind you to get out. If you don’t you will just be shoved out anyways. It’s best if you go first, of your own free will – that way you can get a more advantageous spot next time around (more toward the center, less toward the doors).

(Don’t make fun of my drawings. I think they are helpful.)

10. The safest and most comfortable place on a crowded train is in the middle, between the seats. People can only push you on two side there, as opposed to all four sides near the door.

Try to get in the middle.

11. When you want to get off, regardless of where you are positioned on the train, just loudly say “Sumimasen” (excuse me) and try to wiggle out. If someone next to you feels you move, they will instinctively move back to create room. People are very helpful, and like I said, everyone is in the same boat.

12. When you first get on, don’t be offended if station attendants help shove you into the train so the doors can shut. It’s their job. They have to do this for several hours every day.

Be nice and polite, don’t shove, don’t push back, and don’t lose your temper. Also, be careful about the train tracks, when you’re drunk (or the people around you are drunk), it is easy to fall onto the tracks.

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Trains in Japan really aren’t all that bad.

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About Grace Buchele Mineta

Born and raised in Texas, I am a part-time blogger on the search for the next greatest adventure. In my spare time I enjoy writing, drawing comics, and traveling with my husband, a boxing businessman from Japan. Contact: Website | More Posts

6 Comments on How to Survive the “Last Train” in Japan

  1. So you don’t see any people using their smart phones on trains in Japan?

    • Usually yes, a lot of people are on their smart phones. But if it’s super crowded, most people won’t pull out their phones in fear of them getting knocked out (and stepped on), or so I’ve heard. Also, if it is so crowded they can’t actually keep their hands in front of them, they can’t really use their phone anyways.

  2. Oh em gee is all I can say…

  3. I lived in Tokyo for 6 years and I can vouch for every word above. Great read!

    • Thanks so much! I was pretty shocked the first time I rode one of the crowded trains. It wasn’t until the 4th or 5th time around I learned to gravitate toward the middle.

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