A Quick Guide on How to Survive Rush Hour in Japan

Rush Hour Traffic in Japan: Does it Exist?

Japan is regarded as one of the most advanced countries in the world. They have it all: a robust economy that falls shortly behind just two other major superpower nations, massive technological advancements brought about by rigorous research and development, a top notch system for manufacturing goods, and a good policy making body that implements Japanese laws as needed.  However, the reality is that there is no perfect country out there. Each one, no matter how big or little has its own flaws. Traffic, for one, is a major problem that plagues plenty of countries all over the world.  Just take China as an example – they have an economy that is much bigger than Japan, and yet they are still afflicted with traffic. Chengdu in Southern China is considered to be one of the most traffic-congested cities in the world, making it one of the most difficult cities to navigate through.

Japan is a tad luckier than other nations when it comes to traffic congestion. A quick Google search on Japan's land traffic would yield no relevant results. Even locally published articles in Japan that complain about the traffic at their areas are non-existent, which means that there are no notable areas in Japan with particularly bad traffic. It is quite commendable that the country's capital, Tokyo, is regarded as the busiest, and the largest city in Japan, yet the traffic is very low. At worst, traffic in Tokyo only exists on several streets, and drivers may just opt to take alternate routes. The government is also very pro-active about changing policies to improve traffic, especially in a critical city like Tokyo. There are no Google images that show Japanese roads filled with non-moving cars. The reason for this is simple: a majority of the Japanese do not travel through the land. While car ownership has been increasing in the recent years as compared to two or three decades ago, and there are several reputable bus companies that provide public transportation through buses, the primary choice of the Japanese is still to take either the train or subway.

All over the world, Japan's extensive railway network is known for its efficiency. No other country in the world does mass transportation at a very fast speed like Japan does. While the fares are relatively more expensive, considering the prices of railway travel in other neighboring Asian countries, the convenience it offers is far worth the price. With the railway system, the Japanese can easily travel through different cities, or even prefectures, for only an hour. It is almost a breeze to navigate. However, it is quite difficult to navigate during rush hours when there are far more people traveling at the same time, as compared to non-peak hours.

Hence, to answer the question "Does rush hour traffic exist in Japan?", the answer would be yes and no. No, because technically, the usual traffic congestion is not a problem along Japan's roads; wherein cars would be stuck for long periods of time. However, it is also a yes because the railway systems experience a different form of traffic during rush hours. Instead of traffic caused by vehicles, rush hour traffic exists in the form of people. During rush hours, especially in the morning, the foot traffic is found to be the highest.

Rush Hour at Japan's Train Stations

An interesting fact about Japan's rush hour is that it has been an existing problem for forty years. The congestion of train stations was a major problem back in those days. It was a huge concern, so it led to a lot of drastic changes imposed by the government at an attempt to decongest the busy railways. It is important to note that the number of trains then were not as abundant. While Japan had a lot of train carriages already back then, the ratio of carriages versus the passengers was worse than it is now. This triggered the Japanese government to invest on more train carriages, and to continuously improve the train systems. As a reaction to the commuting crisis, even private companies made decisions in order to lessen the number of people commuting during rush hour. During that time, flexible work hours started being implemented so that the number of people commuting during the usual peak hours would be shifted to off-peak hours. With the combined effort of various sectors in Japan, rush hour commute has improved drastically. However, to this day, it still has not been eliminated completely.

Similar to most countries, Japan's rush hour happens during the time when most people are on the way to school or work. Every single day, Japan's train stations become busiest between 7:00 AM to 9:00 AM. However, the peak of rush hour happens between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning. This is a constant everyday occurrence, with the exception of weekends and holidays, where there are fewer people commuting. During the afternoon, there is another period of rush hour that happens after work hours. The busiest time happens at 5:00 PM, which is the time when most people get off from work. In contrast to morning rush hours, afternoon commutes are a bit less stressful since most people are not in a hurry anymore. A number of people commuting in the afternoon are also spread evenly, as rush hour spans to 8:00 at night. After 8:00 PM, commuting by train is much easier, until the last trip where there is usually a slight surge of people trying to catch the last train.

Tokyo Metro and JR East: Connecting Osaka, Hokkaido and Other Prefectures; and the Center of Rush Hour in Japan

The center of Japan's rush hour, unsurprisingly, is located within the different lines of Tokyo's railway system. In fact, rush hour in Tokyo's stations and railway lines are deemed to be twice as terrible than the worst rush hour scenarios on different prefectures. For example, the most affected train or subway line in Osaka during rush hour congestion will probably experience the same amount of congestion as the 30th most congested line. Shinjuku City, the second busiest city right after Tokyo City, is notorious for being a living hell for commuters during rush hour as Shinjuku is also filled with commercial districts full of working professionals. The busy nature of Shinjuku station brought about the presence of "Pushers" employed along various train stations. So what exactly are these Pushers? As the name implies, the Pushers are part-time railway assistants who are in charge of literally pushing people inside the train during rush hour.  While the name gives a negative connotation that these railway assistants violently push the passengers into moving trains. That is not the case – instead, they are present to push the passengers in a systematic manner. Even non-peak hours are considered busy for Shinjuku, due to the high density of people commuting.

There are various train and subway operators within Tokyo Prefecture. However, the biggest railway operators are JR East for bullet trains and Tokyo Metro for subways. There are a number of other operators handling minor lines within Tokyo, but their range is much more limited as compared to those two. Since those operators have the biggest number of lines traveling through Tokyo, for both bullet train and subway, most of the busier lines in Tokyo fall under their jurisdiction. For example, a line that is notorious for its terrible rush hour congestion is the Keihin Tohoku line, which can get particularly uncomfortable during rush hour. Meanwhile, Tozai Line and Chuo-Sobu lines are nearly as busy as Tohoku. Other stations that are also busy are Ikebukuro, Shibuya, Yokohama, and Shinagawa. These places also have a high number of offices and establishments that attract people, hence the high foot traffic.

With the high density of people traveling to and from Tokyo, there are plenty of ongoing developments to improve railway travel. This is the advantage of having many private entities controlling the railway system since they are able to simultaneously implement improvements along their area of dominion. A good example of Tokyo's expanding railway system is the Shinkansen line expansion. Just last year, the Hokkaido line traveling to Sapporo opened. This allowed traveling from Japan's center (Tokyo) going to the northernmost region of Hokkaido way easier for commuters. There are also ongoing projects that are not expected to be operational in at least five years.

Tokyo's train lines also experience a different type of "rush hour" during Christmas season, and it is also a particularly bad time in terms of congestion. A reason for this is the influx of tourists traveling to Japan during the vacation period. During the month of November, it is still not as bad since the number of tourists has not yet peaked, however as New Year approaches in the latter part of December, that is when the railway lines become most congested by the presence of tourists. In particular, the areas that are most difficult to travel to from Tokyo during the last week of December are Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe. However, it is also worth noting that the Hiroshima and Fukuoka routes can also get crowded at times. To get through the Christmas rush, a good alternative would be to make a longer travel through Hokuriku Shinkansen, before going into the busier prefectures, taking the JR East-operated lines. Otherwise, off-peak months such as February (prior to the peak of Cherry Blossom), or uneventful months such as August are much less congested.

Basic Commuting Tips for Riding Japan's Train or Subway during Rush Hour

To conclude the article, here are a few basics on how to commute during rush hour in Japan through the intensive subway system. With enough preparation and a good mindset, pretty much anyone can navigate the train station even during rush hour. It is particularly helpful for tourists to know what to expect, and how to deal with the rush hour commute.

The first and most basic tip for anyone who is traveling through Japan's rail system would be to avoid rush hour as much as possible. This is more applicable for tourists since their schedules are more flexible. For those who want to travel to a different area, the best time to travel would usually be around noon time, when the number of people is low. However, an individual who has an appointment in the morning may opt to travel before the rush hour starts.

On the other hand, those who have work or are attending school in Japan will have no other choice but to ride the train as part of their everyday routine. To make the commute easier, it is best not to carry unnecessary items while commuting. Ideally, an individual taking the train during rush hour can avoid the hassle by just bringing a small bag that he or she can hold on to while sandwiched inside the train carriage. A bigger bag is an inconvenience not just for the owner, but also for others. For one, the owner will have to be wary of his belongings. It will be harder to look after bigger bags, such as travel luggage, that they may have a risk of getting lost, damaged or stolen from amidst the rush hour havoc. Carrying a bigger bag will also mean less space for the people inside the train. Other commuters who are already in a hurry may find it an inconvenience to squeeze inside the train with big bags present. Out of respect, it is best to leave behind the big bags unless they are utterly necessary. Otherwise, he or she may just opt to take the train during off-peak hours instead.

Bringing children along rush hour commutes is also highly discouraged. Since children are smaller, and much more fragile, they may find it difficult to adjust to the rush hour madness. If the parent or guardian is not careful enough, the kid/s may end up getting lost on the train, as people flock to go inside. Bringing small babies along is a definite no, as well. While small children may come out of the morning rush hour commute unscathed, babies must at all times be kept far away from the crazily congested trains and train stations.

Another tip would be to maximize the use of a Rail Pass, which is basically a single ticket that offers unlimited rides. However, one must note that the Rail Pass only works with certain lines, and not all. Only the lines covered by the JR Group operator can enjoy the use of this particular card. It would be good to research in advance on the lines that will be taken while traveling to manage the cost, as railway travel in Japan may get expensive. There are also region-specific passes that are specifically for tourists only. These cards offer unlimited rides on train lines within the region. For example, a tourist in Kansai Region may opt to pay only 8,500 yen for a Wide Area Pass, which he or she can use for five days worth of commute.

While commuting, it helps a lot to pay attention to the schedule, most especially for departures. This is especially important for trains with fixed schedules. Usually, the entrances of train stations have flat screens that are similar to TV's, and these display the timetable of departures with corresponding ETA's as well.

To end this article, there is one final tip regarding rush hour that anyone will surely benefit from: be polite. The rush hour madness is prone to make people mad as well. This is understandable as no one likes being inconvenienced. However, while traveling, whether it is a daily commute to work or a leisure trip, people should always maintain a cool demeanor, and avoid being a nuisance to other passengers. It is actually very commendable how quiet it is inside train carriages. Talking loudly, whether while in the presence of a company or on the mobile phone, is wildly frowned upon. While commuting, it is also best to be kind to other passengers. The most common example is to say "Excuse me", when necessary. Tourists may opt to learn the Japanese phrase to use while commuting, though "Excuse me'’ itself can already be understood by most.

Rush hour commutes may not be fun, but being prepared, and having a steady mindset can do wonders for anyone. It is best to maintain a happy disposition, despite being sandwiched between lots of people. For tourists, commuting during rush hour in Japan can contribute to an authentic Japanese experience.