Saturday, November 7, 2009

Going to Shinjuku Station

According to Wikipedia Shinjuku Station in West Tokyo is the busiest train station in the world. I have no reason to doubt that. Apparently on about 3.5 million people per day pass through the station complex.

3.5 million. Per day.

We decided to pay our respects on a weekend, hoping to find the crowds somewhat diminished. This seems like a good time to talk about the amazing Tokyo transit system. Here’s a map:


I don’t know if that will be readable – here’s the link to the system’s website: Tokyo transit. There are some 35 lines that serve the greater Tokyo system. They loop and criss-cross back and forth. Within the city there are often many ways to get to a location. We really don’t know the where’s and why’s of one route over another, so we just pick what looks to us to be straightforward. We have rechargeable cards that allow us to access all the lines – and since there are two subway companies and one train company that simplifies things. We pass the card over the turnstile on the way in and again on the way out and it figures out what we owe. That part is simple.

A trip or two ago to Seattle Wilf found a little Tokyo subway book at Elliot Bay bookstore  and it has been our lifesaver. It gives details of each line, how the lines connect and information about the major stations. For instance – there are 60 access points to the Shinjuku station complex. It matters that you get the right one – get it wrong and you can be blocks and blocks from where you want to be in a chaotic street scene with no street signs.

The good news is that there is a rationalized signage/numbering system. Each line has a letter associated with it – and a colour. Each station has a number. The signage looks like this:


We are at Station E 07.  E is the Oedo line, the big loop around the city. Station E07 is Kasuga. Next stop is E06 – Lidabashi. In theory you could find your way by just knowing that you needed to get from station E07 to E25.There is a subway station entrance directly across from our hotel. It is for another line, but by walking underground for some time we wind up at good old E07 – we seem to use the Oedo line a lot. Usually we find our way in and out without trouble, but one night after we has passed out of the turnstiles of one line we must have zigged when we should have zagged, ‘cause when we got to our friend exit number 8 we were behind a different set of turnstiles, and our card was not happy – no ingress, so how could it calculate egress? Fortunately the two guys in booth were used to dealing with confused tourists and sorted out our cards and let us out.

So, knowing the scale of Shinjuku station we did our homework. Worked our where the store we wanted should be, what exit would be required and this morning we set out. By paying close attention we wound up exactly where we wanted to be. And at 9:30 on a Saturday morning it was pretty quiet. In fact when we found the yarn store we wanted it wasn’t open yet. Off to Starbuck’s we went – it was up on the second floor of one of the shopping complexes attached to the station. At 10:00 we looked out and saw this:


This is the manager and employees of an eyeglass store. The manager has made a speech and they all bowed to each other. Now they are bowing to the street. They then turned in unison and:


bowed in one direction, then turned and bowed the other way. People are whizzing by, totally indifferent. More talking by the boss, another round or two of bowing and then everyone set off into the store at a run. One guy came out with a broom and pail and swept not the sidewalk but the street in front of the store. Others brought out display racks, signs, a red carpet. Quite a production……

The level of service everywhere is amazing. Huge number of staff in the huge department stores. Often there is a young woman running the elevator in the department store. In full, fashionable uniform. And seeming so totally delighted to see everyone, to explain what was on each floor, to make sure that no one gets caught in the door. Customers are greeted with huge enthusiasm upon entering an establishment and sent off with much thanks upon departure.

I’ve added a new phrase to my limited repertoire. Gochisosama deshita, which means (literally) ‘Thanks to you it was delicious’. This is said to the cook/wait staff/anyone involved at the end of a meal. I find it a real tongue twister to say but I think I’ve finally got it. I sure get a reaction when I try it out. Mostly surprise, but lot’s of ‘Very Good!’ and the occasional clapping of hands. I definitely breaks their reserve!

By time we finished our day around Shinjuku station it was falling dark and the lights were coming up. The streets were crowded, the noise was great – this was what I was expecting from Tokyo!


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