Want a glimpse of daily life in downtown Tokyo? Take a ride on the Yamanote loop line.
For most Tokyoites, the line is an incredibly punctual and efficient transportation system for commuting. For tourists, it offers a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people in many of the city's neighborhoods.
Operated by East Japan Railway Co., the Yamanote Line makes a loop around the center of the city, connecting 29 stations including key stops such as Shinjuku, Shibuya and Ikebukuro. A complete loop of about an hour offers scenes of Japanese daily life: jam-packed commutes, views of the famous Shibuya crossing, local shopping arcades and stand-up noodle shops on train platforms.
Running above ground, the train offers clear views from its wide windows as it moves 3 million to 4 million people a day — about the same as the entire population of Connecticut.
Trains are so densely packed during morning and evening rush hours that passengers don't need to hold onto a handrail to avoid falling. There are shoves from commuters who can't wait three to four minutes for the next train, but no one growls in irritation. It's typically forgiven with a little nod, a gesture of apology.
Morning commuters are quiet and are requested not to talk on cellphones, though there are ample announcements of station names, connecting train lines and safety precautions on the train. Fatigued office workers in business suits can catch up on their sleep, and travelers jet-legged from long flights can nap with peace of mind. If you miss your station, you will return 28 stations later, or you can get off at any stop and catch a train traveling around the loop in the opposite direction.
Eating on the train is not recommended. For a much better option, get off at Shinagawa Station and join other riders at a noodle shop right on the platform for an authentic bowl of soba or udon, all priced under 500 yen ($5). It's Japan's answer to fast food for busy passengers. Quick eaters may even be able to hop on the next train, but remember: no credit cards and no chairs are available.
With AP news story, AP PHOTOS: In the loop: Tokyo seen from commuter train line
Photos and Text by Jae. C. Hong