I don’t think I’ve gone a single day in the past month without riding the subway. Although Tokyo’s colorful, labyrinthine subway map can be dizzying to look at, it’s actually extremely straightforward to use. (Although I have had the experience of going to the wrong platform and boarding a train traveling in the opposite direction. Since I’ve been successfully taking the right train from the exact same station for the previous two weeks, this probably says more about me than the subway system!) The signage is clear, with the floors even marked in some places to show which side you should walk on. The trains come exactly on time about every five minutes. People patiently queue up to board, even when the train car is very crowded and it seems like not everyone will be able to make it. Getting off the train is a different story: on crowded trains, when personal space ceases to exist and people are packed so tightly that one person breathes and the entire car seems to tighten, there’s a steady, irrepressible force coming from all directions as people try to disembark. The entire process is nearly silent.
Since just about any location in the city is close to a subway station, all of Tokyo feels easily accessible. I feel like I can hop on a train at any time of day and go anywhere I want, which is really exciting – the world I move through in a typical week has greatly expanded. I’ve also found that I like the peace and quiet of the twenty-minute subway ride to campus. In a day that’s often full of activity, the time on the train feels like a breath of calm – provided I can get a seat.
Despite the crowds and constant motion, the Tokyo subway is so efficient and convenient that it’s often easy to forget that I’m speeding underneath one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. Tokyo is vast, filled with layer upon layer of hidden worlds, and yet the subway makes it feel small. My perception of Tokyo right now is not so much a mental map as it is a collection of disparate districts and neighborhoods. I was surprised the other day to learn that Akihabara, the electronics district, was just a ten-minute walk from Ueno Park—since I’d been taking the subway, I had no idea they were anywhere near each other. The time spent between stations feels like time in limbo. To me, the subway is a magic teleportation tube that transports people, with some time lag, from one distinct location to another. We just board at one station, get off at the next, and ascend the stairs to emerge in a totally different world.