At this point, two-ish weeks into my year in Japan, I like to think I’m starting to get the hang of getting around Tokyo, albeit slowly. I’ve reduced the time I spend lost everyday down to where it’s almost non-existent; my commute to and from school by bike is now within ten minutes of how long Google maps says it should take, and when I am lost, I can now mumble through enough rudimentary Japanese to ask how to get back to my neighborhood, by way of asking for my subway station (sumimasen, Musashi Koyama eki wa doko desu ka?).
The subways, and trains in general here, are incredible. They run about every five to ten minutes, are almost always on time, and are clean, air conditioned and…not exactly comfortable. The infamous pictures of people crowded into Tokyo subway car, packed tighter than one would imagine the physiology of the human body would allow are very much a reality, and as I commute to and from my internship in Yokohama at rush hour, they have become just another part of my day. What really amazes me about the trains though, is not how crowded they can get, which makes sense in a city of Tokyo’s size, but how orderly the whole scene is. There is no shoving; people simply pack themselves onto the cars, folding into their neighbor like they’re being vacuum packed for a long stay in the attic, and then, as if by magic, exit the train at their stop without commotion, no feet stepped on, everybody simply moving out of the way when someone needs to get by. It took me a while to grasp the unspoken rules that make up the commuter’s social contract–no talking on the train, hold ones bag in front of you or place it on the luggage racks–but I’ve been able to take the train to Yokohama all week without getting a single dirty look, so I’m getting there.
However, my favorite way to get around the city is by bicycle. I was able to pick up a used folding bike for around $100 USD, and it has already basically paid for itself by allowing me to bypass the subway entirely on my way to school. It’s about a twenty five minute ride form my apartment to TUJ, which will be great once the Tokyo swamp summer ends and I can stop showing up to my classes looking like Nixon in a televised debate.
Traffic here in Japan is like traffic in England; you drive and bike on the left side of the road, which has led to some close calls when I’m turning and almost collide head on with a garbage truck. However, that’s only an issue in some areas, because in Tokyo, despite it being technically illegal in most places, everybody bikes on the sidewalk. The only other city I have experience biking in is Philadelphia, where, if you were to ride a bike on the sidewalk, there’s a fairly good chance somebody would go out of their way to check you into the street. Not so in Tokyo. Here, it’s not uncommon for the police on busy streets to usher bikers onto the sidewalk, so they that they can weave in and out of pedestrians instead of cars. All bikes are required to have a working headlight for riding past dark (something which can net you a fine of up to 50,000 yen if you get pulled over without one), and must be registered with the police to the person riding it. This last point is very important, as bike theft is one of the most common crimes in Japan; you can risk getting charged with grand theft bicycle for being caught riding a bike registered to someone else.