The Japanese public transport system is truly remarkable. It’s a feat of organization and engineering admired across the globe and an icon of Japanese efficiency. Kilometers of track and cable bridge the nation, pulling the strings of this already tight-knit country even more taut. However, what captures the imagination of this newbie resident isn’t the unparalleled work of infrastructure, but rather it’s the millions of passengers that step from the platform to those 21st century locomotives every day.
Whether it be the easy serenity of an outpost like Haramuko station or an honest-to-God zoo like Ikebukuro station, when you see your train approaching, a people-watching enthusiast will know it is about to be open season. I find the beauty of the Japan rail system is how it counts all kinds as its passengers. The average local line will find the fishmonger, the facial-piercing aficionado and the middle management salary man all sharing a row of seats. Be on the lookout for anything from the bravest fashion decisions to even just a face that looks like it knows some stories, a trip on the train grants a fleeting perspective into the lives of its thousands of daily fares. The man in the suit loosens his tie and opens his top button, and judging by the clench in his jaw, he is seriously considering undoing his belt buckle. There’s the child staring holes in me as he hangs off his mother’s sleeve. I may well be the first foreigner he has seen in person. If I had sprouted a second head, he still couldn’t gawk any harder. The young woman leans over to her friend to show her something on her phone. She receives an embarrassed giggle and a playful bat on her shoulder for her effort. Down in priority seating, an old man sits all by his lonesome. By my estimate, he should be too old to be traveling like this on his own. I consider if he doesn’t have a choice in the matter as he rocks with the motion of the railcar, eyes fixed on the window adjacent. I suppose no matter where we get off, we’re all just trying to get home.
The trains are a crossroad for both commutes and human experience. Everyday, every person who taps that PASMO card or prints that ticket is on a mission. Just like everyone else. We all have places to be and arrival times to meet, getting in each other’s way in the politest fashion possible. ‘Time waits for no man’ would be and apt slogan for the bottom of each ticket stub. In the intimate corridors of the underground stations, us passengers go about our individual lives, together. Countless faces stream past you, each one in their own little world as you try to avoid having your foot stepped on. This intersection of each individual’s objective acts as a stage to witness common courtesy in action. There isn’t an inconsiderate shove or impatient elbow to be found in the bustling juncture of migration. Even with limited seating, no one would dare butt in line. Patience prevails even with strangers nearly standing on top of each other during the snarl of the morning rush. From what I can figure, there seems to be an unspoken understanding in play. Something along the lines of, “I have places to be, you have places to be. Let’s make it a little easier on each other.”
In my experience, the time spent on the train serves as a kind of interlude. An in-between. I got on this lunch box on wheels knowing it’s going to spit me out elsewhere, in the meantime, there is a moment of stillness. The metallic hum and sound of rushing wind opposite the glass creates a lull in which I can’t help but let my mind wander. For some, this is the calm before the storm of another workday. Others with armfuls of reusable grocery bags hurry home from the supa, running the gambit of transporting frozen dairy in the Kanto summer. Standing or sitting, spacious or shoulder to shoulder, you’ll witness family daytrips with kids in coiled excitement, having to be patient before the day’s adventure begins. Regardless of your destination station, at this moment we have no choice but to pause. There’s an understated sentiment in the incidental company of perfect strangers, all together and avoiding eye contact, indirectly sharing a minute of quiet before we are return to the circus of daily life.
Delving into the subway systems of metropolitan Japan can, on occasion, have you feeling like conveyer belt sushi. Like your just another unremarkable busybody neck deep in the contemporary rat race. Even amongst underground tunnels and mazes of automation, there’s always a spark of life to be found when you pop in for a jaunt on the train. A million little stories playout everyday amongst the turnstiles and platforms, with characters weaving in and out of each other’s lives likely to never interact again. One gives up a seat for another, a dropped Suica card is returned, or the most amusing to spot, two strangers lock eyes for an inadvertently tender moment. The multicolor rail maps display Japan’s circulatory system with every color of the pallet. Each hue represents a line, and each local line represents an irreplaceable aspect of the denizen’s lives. A train car offers a cross section of modern Japan. Life moves fast in the age of the shinkansen, three hundred and twenty kilometers per hour to be exact.