Whether you plan to take the train a couple of stations, or if you are thinking about a day trip to places like Kamakura, Nikko, or Hakone, you will need to plan ahead. You may think that your day would be a pleasant outing, but spend the first two hours squeezed so tightly that people frequently break their ribs in the throng, and you will not enjoy it any more.
You have seen the pictures of people being squeezed into the train by attendants in white gloves. You may have read different things into them, but there are two things you should know: Japanese people wear this type of gloves when they do rough work; and if the attendant can not make it in time, people squeeze themselves onto the train.
Once you go to Japan, and experience it yourself, you find out that your preconceptions go out the window. One thing you discover is that the attendants are not there to push as many people onto the train, as you might have believed (and as would be the case in other countries); they are there to help people keep their briefcases, purses, umbrellas, arms and legs (and sometimes heads) into the trains before the train leaves.
Daddy works late
Japanese are known as hard workers, and this is not just a label reserved for the “salarymen”, the breadwinners of families slaving away in the bellies of Japanese megacorporations. Everyone works hard, and they enjoy it. But it also means families do not see more than glimpses of their fathers during the weeks, as he leaves home early for a long commute, and comes back late. Mothers, according to the traditional view, should be at home with the children, although in modern Japanese families it is rare to find more than one child.
Mommy works too
Today, mothers work too, which means more children go to daycare. The mothers contribute to the crowds of people squeezing into the trains between 0730 and 1000 AM. Most offices open officially at 10, which means you have to be at work on or before that time. If you have a long commute, it means starting it earlier. As trains get closer to the destinations of the travelers, catching the trains becomes more important if you do not want to be late in the office. Children in private schools typically do not travel more than four or five stations, and as they start their school day at 08:30, they will contribute to filling up the trains early. The real pressure starts with the salarymen coming after them. This is when they start squeezing themselves onto the train, and people try to accommodate them. Train staff will push any limbs or luggage sticking out into the train so the doors can be closed.
For visitors, it means that during the working week, it is useless to try to get on the train before 10:00 AM. Especially if you are bringing a stroller. The commuters who have to be in the office will not care that someone brought their children on the train, even if they could see it.
The disappearing morning crowd
As stores open and the office hours start, the crowd magically disperses. Trains which were crowded to the point of bursting suddenly have seats for all. This is a much better time to travel, but it means you will be sleeping late every day. Grocery stores, especially smaller ones, will often open earlier, and convenience stores are open all day round.
Japanese people normally eat lunch around 12, so restaurants will be really busy at that time. Since they open at 11, and lunch service closes at 14 in most restaurants, it is better to be early or late to escape the rush. Popular restaurants have a line of chairs where you are supposed to sit and wait, and a list where you write your name and the number of persons in your party. If you are more than two, it can take a while to get seated.
Resting places with coffee
Crowds disappear again from stores and cafes as the lunchtime ends, and around 3 PM it is possible to get a seat in most Starbucks. Even if your children do not drink coffee Starbucks is a good place for a snack (especially if you brought it yourself) or feeding your children while you relax with a cup of coffee. Different from many other Japanese restaurants all stores in the chain are smoke-free (most other cafes either have a smoking room, or do not care that people smoke). While the govenor of Tokyo has promised to make all restaurants in the Japanese capital smoke-free by the Tokyo olympic games, nobody believes that particular promise more than any other promise by a politician.
School day also ends at 3 PM, which means streets fill up with school children going home – or to cram school. Most children in Japan go to some kind of cram school, not because education is bad but because they want an edge and want to pass the entrance exams to the most prestigeous universities. Restaurant workers also start to prepare for the night.
Housewives ferrying meals
The housewives, still a big part of Japanese everyday life, and their retired counterparts (an even bigger part of Japanese life) normally shop for the days dinner between 2 and 4, filling the supermarkets and ferrying home the produce and other necessities they bought for the meal. Preparing meals is still the domain of the housewife, and she will also prepare a snack for her child, if the grandmother (who may be living with her children, a common arrangement) does not do it. Construction workers, a very visible part of Tokyo daily life in a city which continues to reconstruct itself, go home around 5 PM, followed by store clerks, and gradually, dripping out of the office from 6'ish onwards, the office workers slowly making their way home. There is no rush hour in the evening, although from 5 PM to about 7, the trains are much more full than during the day.
Family dinner at 8
Families have dinner at 8, if they do have dinner. In most families, the mother and children eat on their own, and leave food for the father to take when he gets home, which may be when the children have gone to bed. Many people go out for dinner or drinks, or only drinks, during the week so restaurants may be full of customers already from 7 PM. And then, the restaurants close already at 10 PM, although there are many drinking places open later.
Premium Friday happy hour
Recently, the governement designated the last Friday every month as “Premium Friday”. So far the takeup has been limited, because the idea is that companies should close already at 3 PM, enabling fathers to spend time with their families, couples to date, and other social activities which might increase the public health among Japanese, famous for being overworked and stressed out. Mostly, Premium Friday has become a way for restaurants to extend their happy hours. But it will affect your ability to have dinner with your kids, so make sure to take note of when it happens.
Weekends see a different rhythm, when families try to spend time together. Saturday is normally when the father tries to do activities with his children, like ball games or the ever-popular insect catching in summer. And mothers go to the hairdresser. Sundays is the outing day, when families go to museums, or aquariums, or other places. But mostly, weekends is when families try to do things, which means places that were empty during the week fill up. Something to leverage as a visitor, and do activities which families do not do during weekends.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Tokyo to Sendai, previously of Bangkong and Honolulu. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning seven - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.