World’s Busiest Train Station: Shinjuku

Information was released last year detailing the worlds busiest train stations and Japan pretty much monopolised the top 50 list with only five of them not in this country. It’s not until the number 24 position that a non-Japanese station appears by way of Paris’ Gare du Nord! Of course it’s a little uncertain how the data was calculated and how accurate it is as India’s stations are not represented in the chart despite reportedly handling millions of passengers every day.

It was no surprise really that the top spot was held by Shinjuku station and last year there was a documentary on Channel Five in the UK detailing 24 hours in the life of this station. It aired just a couple of days before we took a trip back to England last August. I tried to find it online when I returned to Japan but was unsuccessful and inevitably I forgot all about it. However, my memory was jogged slightly by having a guest to guide round Tokyo recently and when I mentioned the station being the worlds busiest one I went a step further a few days later and found it online.

You can watch it here.

This 45 minute programme offered a fascinating insight into something that I, like millions of others, probably just take for granted. Tokyo is of course a mega sized metropolis and at its heart is this station which is like no other. The narrator bombards the viewer with a barrage of incredible statistics. Three million people pass through at rush hour and a train arrives every three seconds on one of 35 platforms. At peak times there are only two minutes between trains on the same line. 4000 people get off. each train and another 4000 then get on in order to keep everything on track. 25,000 trains go through the overground and underground platforms at Shinjuku every day. The guards only have 30 seconds to load each train and there have of course been some very famous images over the years of brute force pretty much being used to fill the carriages with the commuters squeezed in like sardines in a can. In fact, the trains have double the numbers they were designed to take and I’m so thankful that I only have to ride in such conditions a couple of times a year!

It’s 1.38am at the station as the documentary begins and its all empty and quiet but not for long!! As some expert says “Shinjuku never really closes, it just sleeps” and no sooner has the last train and all its drunken revellers left, and its time for the cleaners to work their magic and clean the place which is the size of 6o football pitches. Only a few hours later and the working day begins again and believe it or not many staff members sleep at the station and even have a special alarm clock; an automatically inflating, rising bed that lifts the sleepers head!

“Only perfection will do” is the staff philosophy and their discipline, dedication and teamwork is second to none. A few seconds late is late in Japan and one guy even says that being late is stealing time from people. Commuters seem to rely (almost too much) on the trains getting them to work exactly on time in a country where people just aren’t late for work. This means that everyone has no choice but to pile on to the trains with the aforementioned guards giving them a helping hand at times. There is supposedly no time to wait for the next train and slow boarding can cause delays which lead to a dangerous numbers of people congregating on the platforms. It’s a situation which can spiral out of control very quickly if the trains don’t run like clock work.

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If it wasn’t difficult enough just maintaining an efficient and reliable service at the best of times then think what its like when you throw into the equation the likes of earthquakes, typhoons, terrorist attacks, suicides and drunken revellers. The greatest fear is total shutdown which, despite the constant relentless pressure, rarely ever happens but of course on the 11th May 2011 that is exactly what happened and that date showed that Tokyo finds it very difficult to function without Shinjuku station.

I’ve seen this mammoth-sized station in a different light since viewing this programme and can appreciate the grand-ness of the place and its dedicated workers. The select few which featured in this documentary showed that there is hardly any time to draw breath as dozens of people pounce on these almost-robotic workers to ask questions galore as soon as they appear on the scene in the parts which are open to the public. It really is crazy and the staff need to know the station inside-out as well as the Shinjuku area which tourists and locals alike enquire about.

Justin Lee Collins – Turning Japanese

In February this year Channel 5 in the UK had a short three-part series under the overly-used ‘Turning Japanese’ name. Back in 2007 ITV2 had Kelly Osbourne Turning Japanese and this one featured comedian Justin Lee Collins throwing himself deep into the culture of this country.

Inevitably these programmes about Japan focus mainly on the weird and unusual things which I kind of understand as thats what gets the attention of the overseas public. However, when the focus is on things like bra for men, love-dolls, Kubukicho hosts, themed restaurants etc it’s not exactly showing what life is like for the average Japanese person! Needless to say, this probably won’t stop many people back home thinking that these things are common place in Japan!

I am a fan of JLC and particularly liked his ‘Bring back…’ Channel 4 series and this was also interesting to me for obvious reasons. To his credit he did throw himself in at the deep end without too much prejudice and stayed away from making the usual stereotypical comments. Of course he had difficulty getting his head around some things (but so did the translator Mai) but he wasn’t too judgmental and didn’t revert to the comparison-to-back-home analysis which most of us have been guilty of in the past.

At the outset he did say that he wanted to get beyond the cliches and find a connection with the country. He said he didn’t have an interest in robots or manga which I was relieved about as those areas have been covered many times. The second episode was the one I enjoyed the most as it was mostly about ‘manzai’ in Osaka which is a fast and furious type of comedy featuring double acts consisting of a straight man and a funny man. This really showed the differences in humour between our two nations. British humour is based on what we hear whereas Japanese is on what they see and that is slapstick comedy which is considered a bit old fashioned in Britain.

The most entertaining part had to be the bar which has a monkey for a waiter which JLC said was the “most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen in my life” to which he added that it wasn’t right. You can see that part here in a five minute youtube video. Trust me, its worth watching and saves me the hassle of describing it to you.

Other things to be included in the programmes were crowded trains, vending machines, capsule hotels, hiring a dog, finding partners, karaoke for pensioners, Tokyo apartments, weird ice-cream flavours and particular focus on stressed out salarymen (business-men) who cope with it in different ways. For those who can’t handle it there is Aokigahara Forest at the foot of Mount Fuji which is more commonly known as suicide forest. This provided some of the series’ more serious and shocking parts.