Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Gamer's Guide to Tokyo: Trains

Last may, I took a trip to Tokyo, Japan.  It was awesome, I had tons of fun, and I realized that there's not a whole lot of information for gamers on what to do and see in Tokyo.  Thus begins this series of posts.  I'm going to point out the important things to see and check out in Tokyo, in as many districts as I can.  In addition, I'll point out as much cultural information as I can, so you don't stick out like a stupid tourist.

Tokyo has a train system that rivals every other nation out there.  The train system is a true engineering marvel, from the tracks themselves to the way society uses them.  But there's some important things to know about the trains.

There are two main payment systems used on Tokyo's rail system:  Suica and Pasmo.   Both use RFID chips and special turnstyles to get you where you need to go.  Simply tap your card on the reader at the turnstyle when you enter the station, the tap it again on your way out.  The turnstyle will automatically calculate your fare and debit it from your balance.  When setting up your card, there's a ¥500 (~$3.75) fee associated with the card.  They also give you that amount as a balance.  This is to discourage wasteful spending and littering.  When you leave the country, you can trade in your Suica/Pasmo and get the remaining balance back.  You may want to consider keeping it, as they are reloadable at virtually every rail station, and they make for an easy souvenir.  Many vending machines will also accept Suica/Pasmo as payment.  The two most recent Dance Dance Revolution games can also use your Suica/Pasmo to track your stats.  They'll ask you to set up a PIN, create a profile, and then you're good to go.  You'll scan your card and enter your pin before putting in your money to play the game.  My group used Suicas, and when my girlfriend traveled to Japan a few months later, she used a Pasmo.  It's really an either-or that boils down to personal preference.

If you're planning on traveling throughout Japan over the course of a couple weeks, there's a special Japan Rail Pass for foreigners that grants access to pretty much everything.  It's expensive, but for what you get, it's definitely worth it.  If you're staying within Tokyo, you might do better just buying a Suica and manually adding money.  I spent about ¥10,000 over the course of my 8 day trip.  ¥2,200 of that was the trip to and from the airport, which were the most expensive legs we took.  Overall, you may want to consider this option if you're only staying in Tokyo during your trip.  As always, break down the costs and plan ahead!

Riding the trains is a very...unique experience.  There's a very rigid system to it all.  When you enter the station and approach the platform, you'll see lines painted on the ground.  You might see people already lined up, follow their lead.  Normally, people waiting in line will stand to the sides of the doors, and those who are getting off the train exit in between them.  After that, it's a mad scramble to get on the train, and make room for everyone else.  IMPORTANT!!!  If you're entering the train and there's space ahead of you, keep moving!  You will need to make room for as many other passengers as possible.  You will get very close to the people around you, so make sure your deodorant is up to snuff.

All stops in Tokyo will have a distinct, audible tone at the station.  Every station is different, and someone with a good ear can identify the station by the jingle.

While riding, the train will announce every stop in Japanese, English, and then Chinese.  It will also tell you which doors you need to exit from, left or right.  If you need to get out, a simple すみません (Sumi masen, "excuse me" or "I'm sorry") will let people know you need to get through.  Just squeeze past the other passengers as politely as you can.  No need to shove, just work around them.  The doors will have a audible warning before they close, so don't be too close when you hear the sound.

By and large, seats are reserved for the elderly or parents of young children.  There are sections usually at the front of each train car that have signs stating this, though culturally, you can consider this true of the entire car.  If you see someone coming in, offer your seat to them.  It goes a long way, and your gesture will be appreciated. 

During the rush hour, expect to be dead silent on the train.  Nobody talks during rush hour, and honestly, you should expect this at pretty much all hours.  When in doubt, watch the locals.  If they're talking, it's safe to assume that you're okay to chat with your group.

Map of the Yamanote Line
The Yamanote Line circles Tokyo.  Trains arrive every two minutes during rush hour, and about every five minutes during non-peak hours.  They are very, very exact, and don't like being late.  Don't be that guy that tries to sneak in at the last moment, the conductors will hate you.  If you're not sure how to get to a specific stop, check the train maps located at each station.  They'll post a list of all stops on that line, and how many minutes away they sit. A map like the one to the right will show on the little LCD screens over each train door.  They will cycle through Japanese and English, and give you an idea of where you are on the line.

My group used the Yamanote Line almost exclusively.  We were staying in Asakusabashi, which is one stop away from Akihabara on the JR Chuo line.  So we'd get to Akihabara, then ride the Yamanote as far as we needed.  Tokyo, Akihabara, and Shinjuku are all major hubs that we would take transfers to other trains as needed.

For the most part, the train system shuts off after 11:00 PM, so be prepared to take a taxi if you're out lat at night.  The taxi will be super expensive, as much as 7 times the cost by train. A train ride from Haneda Airport to Asakusabashi will cost about ¥1,100, whereas a taxi will cost as much as ¥8,000.  Plan accordingly.

Hopefully this helps, be sure to check out my other Gamer's Guide to Tokyo articles on this blog!

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