Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tales of the Train

When you live in a city of 13 million people, and when half that number ride the train and subways each and every day, strange sights become commonplace. Not to say that such sights become any less strange, but rather not so rare. Tokyoites are in most cases unfazed by things they see on trains, and pay them little mind. In a sense, one has to tune out his surroundings to a certain degree, or gawking and cringing would become almost a full time activity. How many odd or nasty sights can we look at before they fail to hold any interest?

But then there are some like me who don’t give up too easily and happily fasten a surreptitious eye on spectacles from planet weird. Truth be told, I never lost my fascination for the weird, the wacky, the shameful or disgusting which is often a common feature on Tokyo trains. Let me share a few favorites.


Returning home late one night, I found myself seated not far from what appeared to be two businessmen, both sprawled on the floor near a door. Both were drunk, one passed out, shoes pulled off and tossed aside. The other was casually rummaging through the pockets and wallet of his friend, though he wasn’t taking anything. When the train reached the next station, he laid aside the wallet, reached over and gently nudged the other man’s shoes out the door and into the space between door and platform. I got off at the next stop wondering if the unfortunate man would ever figure out what had become of his shoes.


Found myself one afternoon opposite a still young grandmother having a hard time with her three rambunctious grandchildren, all between five and eight years old. The youngest boy took a large wad of bubble gum out of his mouth and threw it onto the floor of the train. Grandmother gasped, scolded the boy, then bent and picked the glistening lump off the floor. From her handbag she took a tissue and wrapped the gum in that before tossing it back on the floor.


The Japanese of all people are shy of confrontation. The average person will do his or her best to avoid situations where the usual hum or flow of public life is threatened. Most will resolutely ignore things that would provoke a response from many Americans or Europeans. Anyone spending time in Tokyo and on its trains and subways will eventually find someone, man, woman or child falling asleep on their shoulder. In my experience most Japanese will sit patiently—though uncomfortably—as a total stranger sleeps snuggled into their shoulder. And yes, there are the creeps who seek out a pretty female shoulder to sleep on. Poor girl, I sat across from a nasty example one day, this one an honest case of innocently falling asleep. A man had gradually sunk against the girl next to him, and while she nervously waited for him to wake up or shift to the right, out of her line of vision the man drooled a puddle onto the beautiful blue-violet of her mohair sweater.


(Warning! This last is not a pretty picture.)

Around Christmas and the New Year holiday season most people attend frequent parties. Restaurants and bars are usually packed, as are the trains. It is more common during this time of year to see drunk people on the trains and station platforms. The Japanese are very tolerant of people who have had a bit too much to drink, and don’t make quick judgments regarding the behavior of such people. On a Shibuya bound train during the bônen-kai (year end party) season I stood within splatter-range of a nasty accident. At Meidaimae Station, the stop nearest Meiji University, three college boys boarded the train, all of them barely able to stand, so drunk were they. They grabbed hold of overhead grips or bars to steady themselves. All three stood over and pressed against three seated people. The doors closed, the train lurched forward and in a sudden calamity one of the three boys threw up a stomach full of beer and noodles, all of it spewing directly down onto the head of the man seated in front of the boys. It was a scene from an engraving by William Hogarth. The inflicted man sat frozen with his mouth a perfect O, drips of vomit, chunks of corn and pork running down his face, while on his head hung a perfect wig of long white noodles. The young woman seated next to him poked at the bits that clung to her sweater. Before anyone could recover from the shock, the train reached its next stop, the doors opened and the three boys stumbled, tumbled off the train.

Big Cities have their wrinkles.

TOP PHOTO: One interesting aspect of this photo is the man on the right sitting almost under the dark pink sign on the window stating that it is a train car reserved for women only. Not really unusual, since many men ignore such notices, which are meant to alleviate the risk of ladies being groped on crowded rush hour trains.

MIDDLE PHOTO: Notice the total disregard of the drunk man by surrounding passengers.

BOTTOM PHOTO: “Coughing on the Platform”

Modeled on the painting of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, this beautifully done 1979 ‘manners’ poster about smoking hours is titled HÔMU DE CONCON” and is a play on the French cancan dancers. Concon is a coughing sound in Japanese, and ‘hômu de’ means ‘on the platform.’ The words at the bottom left state the hours smoking is NOT allowed on train platforms: morning from 7:00 to 9:30, and evening from 5:00 to 7:00.

As of a few years back smoking is not allowed at ANY time on train platforms or in stations, apart from the rare smoking corner at some stations.


  1. Loved the grandmother wrapping the bubble gum in a tissue and then unexpectedly throwing it back on the floor. Always remember a sign about education on the NYC subway, something about little Johnny saying, "I is not going to school." And of course someone scrawled across the bottom of the sign: "And now I are a millionaire."

  2. LOL! I'm a die-hard people watcher, too. I drive my family nuts, actually. Good post!


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America