Rush Hour Sucks Everywhere
In Tokyo, rush hour extends to 8pm. Not because of systemic inefficiency, but simply because lots of people work later than 6 o’clock. And I am one of those unlucky folk.
When I was back home in Perth — behind my steering wheel in bumper-to-bumper traffic, dreaming of life in Tokyo and cursing the person in front of me — this is not what I imagined. In Australia, I taught Japanese and battled crowds in my car. I spent weekends prepping for the next week and holidays planning curriculum and writing reports. In Japan, I was going to teach English, spend my weekends wandering Tokyo and my holidays exploring, well, everywhere else in Japan. Dealing with rush hour hadn’t even factored into it.
Now I’ve realised how naive that oversight was. In moving to Tokyo, I’ve traded cars for sweaty human bodies and roads for train lines. And, I have to admit, it may have been a poor swap.
I’m waiting in an orderly line on the station platform and my heart sinks as the train rolls to a stop. I’m too far back in the line and no one’s getting off. I’m not getting a seat. I’m about to spend the longest chunk of my one-hour commute home standing on a train that’s packed tighter than a sardine can.
I allow myself to be swept onto the train by the current of people and soon find my place in the crush: pressed firmly between four strangers, gripping desperately to the handrail to avoid falling into the lap of the young woman in front of me. I think I might be standing on her foot. She doesn’t look up from her phone.
Around me is a constant press of strangers, everywhere, all the time, and usually all thirsting after the same thing: to sit down. This sprawling metropolis just never seems to have enough seats. Every night I battle for one and try to ignore the little voice in my head telling me to just give up and spend the night at the nearest 24-hour McDonald’s or seedy manga cafe. Perhaps a karaoke hall, if they have a promotion going.
This is life as a working woman in Tokyo. Bright lights flash by the train window and, every now and then, I’m granted glimpses of this famous city that so many dream of visiting and I fantastised about living in. I was enamoured with the idea of creating a life somewhere so mind-bogglingly big and full of opportunities. The idea of never-ending newness was intoxicating: new restaurants and cafes to try and hip neighbourhoods to explore. What could I find if I went just around that corner? An ancient temple? My new favourite bookshop? A hole-in-the-wall bento shop run by an adorable old woman with no teeth?
I had no idea, but man, I wanted to find out so bad. Yet, in all my dreaming, I didn’t account for the mundane aspects of everyday life, like what to do when you find cockroaches in your apartment (panic). Or how best to avoid rush hour (you can’t).
The train slows as we approach Shinjuku Station and the tension is palpable. People say it’s the busiest train station in the world, and because it’s located so centrally, it’s a prime seat-snatching opportunity. Those of us standing eye each other warily, but I’m out of luck. The young woman I’m leering over doesn’t look like she’s going to budge.
But the elderly man to her left is starting to stand and the businessman in front of him does the physics-defying manoeuvre I see all too often here: stepping back just enough to let the other person rise, but blocking others from potentially snatching the seat before sliding gracefully (and gratefully) into place. I used to do a similar thing back in Perth, but with a car. Slow down just enough to let someone in front merge and then slide into the empty gap they left before the car behind does.
Five more stops and I’m still standing, but we’re finally approaching the station where I need to transfer lines. Despite knowing better, I start to feel a little bubble of hope rising in my chest; maybe I’ll finally get that coveted seat on my next train. I pointedly — yet politely (this is Japan, after all) — shove my way to the door. On the platform, the air is only slightly less thick with exhausted human indifference and I’m caught in the flow of people and just go with it. It’s not like I have a choice.
The white shirts of businessmen are the foam in this sea. On the platform, I once again shove my way towards the horrendously long queue for the local train, which on the upside, is only two minutes away. When it comes time to board, I perform a magic trick and make space where there isn’t any. The train seems full, but I get on anyway, purposely placing one foot inside and committing to the squeeze, wiggling my way in with my hip and shoulder. I’m nowhere near the seats or even a handrail; I’m really just relying on those around me to hold me up as the train rocks back and forth.
My phone vibrates in my pocket, but my arms are pinned to my side. Someone’s briefcase is poking into my hip. Suddenly, I miss being in my little car in Perth’s rush hour. At least then I had personal space and didn’t have to face the human misery head-on. The train slows and those of us standing stumble in one direction and then the other. When we stabilise, I realise we’ve stopped at a station. The cool night air is a refreshing slap in the face, and now, just within reach, is a handrail. I grab hold of it and sag with relief.
In this kind of environment, it’s all about the small wins. I gave up a lot to follow my dreams to Tokyo. And because I took that leap, I’ve gained a lot, too. But the biggest thing I’ve learned is that when you’re finally living your fantasy life, everyday normality has fairly standard ups and downs. Cockroaches are universal and rush hour sucks everywhere.