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Nine things about the Tokyo subway that will drive Washington commuters crazy

Post reporter Anna Fifield rode the subway in Tokyo and found significant differences between the subway systems in Washington and Tokyo. (Video: Anna Fifield, Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

TOKYO — Hey, Washington commuters, we know you’ve got it tough there. We heard about the delays and the outages and the safety problems and all that, and we don’t mean to rub it in. We just thought you might be interested in seeing how a subway system can work well.

So take a look at how it’s done in Tokyo, where the population in the greater metropolis is 38 million and the subway system accommodates more than 8 million passengers a day. At one station alone — Shinjuku — an average of 3.64 million passengers pass through each day, making it the world’s busiest station, as certified by Guinness World Records. Shinjuku has more than 200 exits and even has its own app just to help people get around the station.

The Tokyo subway network sure is much bigger and much more complicated than any in the United States, but with subway apps and the Japanese equivalent of a SmarTrip card, it’s pretty easy to master.

Here are a few things you might like to ponder, Washington commuters, the next time you’re whiling away the minutes on the platform (just make sure to download the page first, since you probably won’t have a cell signal down there).

1. The subway runs like clockwork.

It’s totally normal to see people fast asleep on the subway. Then suddenly, they wake up and get off at the station just as the train is pulling in. How do they know? The subway trains run on such a strict schedule that passengers can set an alarm on their phone. Then it rings in their headphones in time for them to wake up and disembark at their station.

If the train is even one minute late, a staff member will come on the loudspeaker and apologize profusely for any inconvenience caused.

2. It’s totally orderly.

Even at rush hour, when stations are jammed, there’s no chaos. People stand in the designated lines on the platform, to the sides of where the doors will open, and wait while everyone exits the train. Then they get on the train (at busy stations during peak times, there are white-gloved attendants to literally help cram people in).

There’s a system for escalators (stand on the left, walk on the right) and a system for stairs (always follow the arrows), a system for walking through the station (again, follow the arrows) and everyone abides by it. Even if there’s no one coming down the other side.

3. It’s super clean.

It’s not unusual to see subway cleaning staff vacuuming in the station or disinfecting the handrails. There are never any trash cans, but there is never any litter either — everyone takes their wrappers and papers with them. Many stations also pipe the sound of birds chirping or other nature music through their speakers.

4. It’s also super safe. 

Many newer lines have fences along the platforms to keep people away from the edge. But in the older stations, you’ll find staff who ensure everyone is back behind the yellow line and clear of the train when it’s coming in and leaving the station. At peak times, you’ll see whole rows of them keeping everyone moving through at maximum efficiency and maximum safety.

5. Thirsty? No problem.

There’s almost certainly going to be a vending machine offering hot and cold drinks on your platform. You might even find a machine dispensing ice cream or French fries. In bigger stations, you’ll find whole kiosks on the platform. (But of course, no one would ever eat on the train. That would be inconsiderate.)

6. No noise pollution.

Speaking of inconsiderate, even though the cell service throughout the subway system is good enough to stream video, you’ll almost never find anyone speaking on their cellphone (“almost never” because you might occasionally hear someone saying in a whisper: “Sorry, I can’t talk. I’m on the subway.”) No overheard conversations about someone’s boyfriend problems or bragging about their weekend.

7. Even the safety signs are amusing.

It’s Japan, so there are a lot of rules and warnings. But the signs make sense — be careful when you’re drunk and near the platform edge; be careful when you’re walking and texting not to push someone onto the tracks — plus they’re drawn in the most adorable way. They’re basically art.

8. There's an app for that

Yes, the subway system is huge and can be daunting. But there are apps that tell you the best route and calculate walking times between platforms, and even some that give exit numbers for popular destinations and let you know which stations have free WiFi. And yes, they come in English.

9. When nature calls.

We know, we know, this is getting ridiculous. Point made. But can we tell you just one more thing about Tokyo subway stations? They all have restrooms, and they're almost always clean and well equipped. It's not unusual to see a station bathroom that looks like this.

Happy commuting, from Tokyo.

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