Jet Lag and Train Life

In a somewhat mischievous way, Chris was eager to see me encounter two things upon my arrival in Japan – jet lag and culture shock.


Dude, where’s my lost day?

While a 15 hour time difference is staggering, great advice from Rick Steves (a man whose life I’d love to have – he makes a living traveling to Europe and telling the tales in fantastic guide books) helped me get jet lag under control :

Leave home well rested… use the flight to rest and reset… on arrival, stay awake until an early local bedtime…

Rick Steves : Conquering Jet Lag

Rick is right – staying up is the key to getting off on the right foot.  That doesn’t mean I wasn’t feeling hungover on my first full day in Tokyo, but at least I didn’t want to sleep while I supposed to be awake (and vice versa.)

What time is it in Tokyo?  Take the current time in Saskatchewan, add three hours, and flip AM to PM or PM to AM.
What time is it in Tokyo? Take the current time in Saskatchewan, add three hours, and flip AM to PM or PM to AM.

Adjusting to being awake while North America sleeps surprisingly wasn’t hard at first.  The only time the 15 hour gap was hammered home was when I would post something to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram only to get zero interaction. Afternoon coffee in Tokyo is a little lonely when everyone else around you is texting up a storm and your entire social network is just hitting its REM cycle.  It wouldn’t be until I was sound asleep (and North America was just getting to work) that my phone would start vibrating, gyrating and flashing like a strobe light.

As for the culture shock, I thought I was pretty well prepared.  I mean, I read the guides and had an idea of the social niceties that I needed to adhere to in order to not make a fool of myself – with possibly enough etiquette tips under my belt to wow locals who’ve seen the crazy gaijin do abhorrent things.

And overall, I passed with flying colours on the Miss Manners test (save for wearing my shoes in to a change room at an H&M – that had the young woman who was showing me in frantically trying to explain – in the most pleasant way possible – my clodhoppers needed to be removed.)

Where the real culture shock came in Japan was in the daily life – how Japanese people go about their day versus what we know as a typical day here at home.  Let me explain one example.

Train Life

Sure, there are corridors of North America where the train is a major part of daily life – whether it’s on the GO Trains in the Greater Toronto Area, or the various transit systems that link parts of the US eastern seaboard.  Even in Europe, London and Paris move at the pace of transit

But in Japan, the experience is so much more intense.

Train life is synonymous with work life in Japan.

Commuters stream in to Musashinodai Station - near Chris' place - for the daily commute in to work.
Commuters stream in to Musashinodai Station – near Chris’ place – for the daily commute in to work.

For some “salarymen” in the big cities like Tokyo, work starts early, work ends late, and work can be very, very stressful.  After-work socializing is part of the daily cycle, and depending how late that goes is sometimes dependent on how stressful the day has been (just like here.)

The difference is that the train lines that criss-cross the greater Tokyo area turn in to a giant pumpkin around 1:00am.

If you miss the last train, there are options.  Cabs exist – but are expensive.  You can stagger to a capsule hotel, but the desire to be in one’s own bed is often paramount.  As a result, the party starts (and ends) early.

Train commutes can take over an hour to get from where one works to where one lives.  As the night goes on, the number of people trying to get out of the city and back to the “burbs” grows.  Exponentially.  And the trains become more and more packed like sardine cans.

White glove-clad railway employees – called pushers – staff platforms at most of the major train stations.  Their job is to cram every last body inside the train cars, and ensure that when the doors close, no one is left dangling outside.  Any aversion you have to people entering your “personal space” is best left on the luggage carousel at Narita, because in Tokyo personal space is limited to the physical area your body takes up (and even that can be negotiable.)  Taking the train in Tokyo can be like a gigantic group hug that you’ve just paid ¥300 for.

A crowd of commuters disembark the Keio Line at Shinjuku Station.
A crowd of commuters disembark the Keio Line at Shinjuku Station.

Inside commuter trains during peak periods in the early morning and late at night, it’s a surreal scene.

The first thing you notice is the dead silence (at least during the morning and midday – at night, salarymen who have “kampai”d one too many times can sometimes get a little giddy, especially if they’re in groups of two or more.)  Silence is treasured – so much so, most major train companies have instituted “quiet zones” on cars where no talking is allowed and cellphones are verboten.

Across the rest of the train, you find that people have their own routines when it comes to keeping themselves occupied during commutes that can range anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes (if not longer) to get from home to work.

Paperback books sell for about ¥500 (C$5) and are very popular as a way to kill time. Also very popular – privacy covers which wrap around the outside of the book to keep prying eyes from seeing whether the reader is thumbing a crime novel or a smutty romance.  eReaders, as it happens, are more uncommon on trains as the price point of printed novels is much cheaper than eBooks, especially at used book stores like Book-Off.

Some people load up Android phablets or iPad Minis with their favourite TV shows and binge watch on the commute to work.  Some with Android phones and older “Galapagos” flip phones can even watch live TV as they make their way from point A to point B.

Enjoy some Japanese TV commercials

Cell phones help distract in other ways on the commute.  Cell service is alive and well – even in the depths of Tokyo’s subway network – meaning people can chat back and forth on a cross-platform messaging service like the popular Line, or keep up to date on Twitter and Facebook.  Talking on the phone is a massive etiquette no-no.

Line is a popular instant messaging application used by young and old in Japan.
Line is a popular instant messaging application used by young and old in Japan.

If you aren’t keeping yourself occupied with some form of entertainment, there is always the alternative – sleep.  It’s amazing to see how people sleep on Tokyo trains and subways.  Sitting down.  Standing up.  Holding on to handrails.  Standing against train doors. Squished between total strangers. (It’s not uncommon – nor is it unacceptable – for someone’s head to fall on to your shoulder as they doze off.  You just roll with it.)

I actually saw one guy standing int he doorway of a train car, and I was certain he was going to fall out on to the platform (he stayed upright.)

Sleeping on the train is not hard to do – the gentle rocking of the train lulls you in to a daze, especially after a long day of pounding the pavement.  My eyes closed many times and it was relaxing.  Surprisingly, people seem to wake up just before they reach their destination.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.  There is something oddly relaxing about sleeping on a commuter train.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. There is something oddly relaxing about sleeping on a commuter train.

And all of this goes on while people are often packed shoulder to shoulder on trains – often shifting their weight on the balls of their feet (and for the real pros – without hanging on to a train strap) as the trains rumble down the line.

Train culture gives you great insight in to a lot of the other dynamics of Japanese culture.  You gain an appreciation for how people move, how people interact, and the discipline people have about them – all things I’ll talk about in other blog posts.

For a prairie boy (who – mind you – has been on public transit in London, Paris, New York, Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles), it was all a little overwhelming at first and definitely something to soak in.  Culture shock?  Yep!  But a big part of the Japan experience.

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