At last, a post about the Japanese trains! Just what you've been waiting for, I know. =)
(By the way, my ankle is slowly, slowly healing, but I'm fairly sure I completely overdid it with walking on Monday and Tuesday, so I've been home from school the last two days. Sort of bored, actually, as a lot of my time involves keeping my stupid foot elevated to get it to stop swelling. Anyway, back to trains!)
The trains in Tokyo are simply awesome 95% of the time. I am someone who has an extraordinarily poor opinion of American trains--Amtrak wins no bonus points in my heart. I have long rebelled against taking the train whenever I had to go down to DC from where I live in NJ, since it's so abominably slow most of the time. And although Amtrak has tried very hard to improve service in the past few years, it's simply too expensive for its value, in my opinion. I'd still rather fly, despite having to go through security. The NYC subways are decent, and so is the DC Metro, but I use neither on a regular basis except when I'm in either city.
Having said all that, I adore the Tokyo trains.
For starters, they're clean. Sparkling clean, in most cases, despite the massive amount of people who use them daily. They also come on time; when the schedule board says the train will be there, the train is THERE. This is a new and unique concept to me. =) On the more central Tokyo routes, they have announcements in both English and Japanese; on my commuter feeder line that I take first, they're Japanese only, but I view it as kanji listening and reading practice. =)
They have a million and one handholds. They also have extremely comfortable seats. They are, generally, at a decent temperature, although I suspect that I will soon be very, very warm once it heats up some more.
Aside from the trains themselves, the train stations are like mini-cities. Even the smaller stations have a couple of stores and kiosks; the bigger stations like Ikebukuro or Shinjuku are massive. You could spend the entire day in Ikebukuro station and its adjoining department stores and never go above ground at all. The train stations have bookstores galore, conbini galore (convenience stores, which are a class above the US variety), tons of little restaurants... clothing stores, fresh vegetable vendors, accessory shops, and fresh fish mongers. That's not even counting the things that are in department stores. And depending on whether you choose to go out the north, south, central, east, or west gate of any station, you'll encounter a completely different set of shops. As with the trains themselves, everything tends to be scrupulously clean. Japan is the only country in the world that has free plastic umbrella wrappers literally everywhere you go....
But lest you think it's all peaches and cream, we do need to talk about the other 5% of the time when I don't love the trains. Which is rush hour, or more precisely, morning rush hour.
I take two train lines to get to school every morning: the Saikyo and the Yamamote. The Yamamote is a central Tokyo line, which is crowded in the morning, but not unbearably so. The Saikyo, on the other hand, is like a living human death trap. I'd compare it to sardines, but it's even more than sardines. There are so many people crammed into one space that if you can't get one of the many handholds, it really doesn't matter, since you will be held upright by the sheer pressure of that many other people surrounding you. It gets a bit iffy when the weather is wet because then the train floor gets wet from people's shoes, and everyone starts to slip and slide. Except there's not much of anywhere to slip and slide, so we all end up cascading into each other.
I've developed a healthy respect for a competent train driver, since you can tell who is good and who isn't. The good ones know how to slow the train down slowly enough so that everyone doesn't ricochet off of each other when the train stops... and the bad ones don't know how to do that at all.
The sheer crowded nature of the trains in the morning is one of the reasons, besides major elevation of the ankle, that I've stayed home. Try balancing the majority of your weight on one foot, with a handhold if you're lucky, and staying in one spot for more than fifteen minutes before you can change trains at Ikebukuro. It's a miracle I didn't die on Monday and Tuesday. =) Tomorrow morning, I use the rest of my ankle tape, fashion another temporary brace, and hope that I can get a handhold for my commute. Thankfully, my ankle brace that my husband mailed from America arrives tomorrow afternoon, which will give me blessed stability. Go express mail! =) (Coincidentally, it was cheaper to mail the brace by international express mail than to buy a new one in Tokyo...)
I'll leave you with a video that shows how exactly they get all of us into the trains in the morning rush hour... this is seriously what my commute looks like every single morning.