Trains in Japan: The Good, the Bad, and the Useful


We Said Go InspirationIn Japan, I learned appreciation for the train. The train and I spent hours together: it was the fastest and most efficient way to get to around (without a car, it was my only way). For me, and millions of Japanese people, the train wasn’t just the transportation of choice: it was a way of life.

When I first arrived in Japan, I loved taking the train: everything was new and exciting. I gazed out the window during my hour-long daily commute as scenery passed by: flooded rice fields, tile-roofed homes, stone Buddha statues, and red torii gates. There were equally interesting sights on the train: nautically inspired school uniforms, business suits in the heat of summer, colourful fashion choices, and cellphone charms of varying shapes and sizes (some bigger than the phone they dangled from).

But after weeks of commuting, train travel changed from a journey of discovery into a chore. No longer was the businessman falling asleep on my shoulder charming, no longer was the group of students squishing me onto the train exciting. Wily senior citizens consistently thwarted my attempts to get a seat, and I grudgingly resigned myself to standing. I now dreaded taking the train, and when I wasn’t thinking about how much the train annoyed me, I was talking about it. I complained a lot: the train was too crowded, too slow, too noisy, and too boring. These bad feelings were making a significant part of my day detestable.

I needed to change taking the train from something I loathed to something I could at least tolerate. If millions of Japanese people could take the train every day without losing their minds, then so could I. With that in mind, I decided to look to my fellow passengers for inspiration. When I started to pay attention, I saw that Japanese people filled their time on the train with all kinds of things.

Students studied from textbooks and worked on assignments; business people flipped through binders, and highlighted notes; some passengers listened to headphones, and others read a newspaper or book. Japanese people on the train weren’t talking on their cellphones like I was used to in North America. They were texting, playing games, or watching videos, heads bent over, phone charms swaying as the train started and stopped. Napping was a popular train activity; somehow, passengers who were asleep for the entire ride opened their eyes just in time to stand up and exit the train.

Now my eyes were opened too: I had discovered the strategies of Japanese train-riders! And, although I wasn’t convinced I had the secret sense that would successfully wake me up at my stop, I was convinced I could enjoy my time on the train. At the very least, I could make it worthwhile.

I was determined: no longer would my time be lost to the void, it would be used for something. When I brought my Japanese textbook, my studying advanced; when I brought a novel to read or music to listen to, I could ignore my lack of personal space; when I planned my work for the next day, I could relax when I got home. I had changed my time on the train from insufferable to productive, sometimes even enjoyable.

In Japan I spent a lot of time on the train, and it went from exciting, to onerous, to useful. The train didn’t just take my ticket, it took my time too. That time belonged to me and what I learned in Japan was that there was a way to enjoy it. How did I find a way? It was riding the train of course, right beside me.

About the Author: Heather loves traveling, cooking, and scuba diving. She currently works as an engineer and writes when she can find spare time between playing soccer, doing yoga, judging poetry slams, and P90X.

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