Onboard the trains, both private and those run by JR, there is a number of rules you should follow. These are not unwritten rules – on the contrary, there are posters in the stations and the trains telling you how to behave on the trains, and stickers to remind you to give up the “silver seats”, as the seats reserved for elderly, people with disabilities, and parents with babies are known.
Make sure your children sit still (and do not put their shoes on the seats). Running about is not only disturbing other passengers; since they do not understand Japanese, they will not understand announcements declaring that the train is stopping suddenly, or that the train is about to change tracks. Small children can fall and hurt themselves
The first rule of inconvenience
The first rule in Japan, as always, is not to inconvenience others. Babies screaming loudly and children playing around and making noises are inconveniences. At least make an effort to hush them. Make sure to take off their shoes before they put their feet on the seats, and make sure they do not bump into others. Talking loudly on the phone is another inconvenience for others – the Japanese invented the “manner mode”, the ringtone mute function, on phones so that it should be quiet on trains. Playing music that spills out from the headphones so others can hear it is another inconvenience you had better avoid.
So is pushing other people with your huge rucksack or bag. When the train is crowded, it is better to keep the backpack in front. Unless you are wearing your baby there. But bringing lots of luggage onto the train is going to make it hard for others to move around and finds seats, and so it is better to avoid.
Do not even try to pick it up
If you frop something on the track, do not risk your life trying to retrieve it. Even if it is your childs favorite toy and she is screaming blood murder. Get the staff and ask them to pick it up for you. They know the timing of the trains and they have a really long thing with a grip at the end that quickly gets whatever it is off the tracks. Japanese subways do not have a third rail (at least not in Tokyo) but the trains can not stop if someone is on the tracks, so do mot risk it. Especially not for a stuffed toy.
If you mslay something on the train, you can be certain that it will be in the lost-and-found office the next day. If you forgot something on the train that just left, the staff may be able to ask the staff at the next station to pick it up and hold it for you. Japanese service is like that.
Line up properly
Lining up in a proper line in front of the train doors, and letting people get off the train before you try to enter, is another positive behavior you will find advertised on posters around the stations. So is making sure to line up behind the yellow line. This line is often paved with studs for blind people to feel with their white canes, so try to stand behind it. If you have a toddler you may want to make sure they hold your hand, as they may run around or cross the line to see the oncoming trains. This can be quite dangerous if the station does not have platform doors, since stations are often passed by express trains on the track closest to the platform (there may only be one), and this can mean they are pulled along by the wind from the passing train. It can happen to strollers too, so make sure to have a good grip and stand it at an angle to the platform edge.
Yielding to children
Once you get on you may find people yield their seats to your children (but not to you). But in the morning and evening, the manners of tired commuters go out the window, and they may even grab the seat before you instead of giving it up. To say something would be to shame them publicly though and that is even more impolite. Instead, do like the Japanese do: Stand in front of the seat you want them to give up, and make your children make a show of how tired they are, without directly asking the person. This may seem strange to you, but in Japan it is perfectly normal, since once you are in the seat, it is yours until you give it up. Regardless of the rules. But if the need of the person in front of you is bigger, then Japanese will feel they have to comply.
Careful with smartphones
There are huge signs in the station warning you against walking and texting. Apart from people who are drunk on their way home from parties, this must be one of the biggest dangers on the crowded and narrow train and subway platforms. And in the trains it is a nuisance too, as in the picture above. Not bothering others is the golden rule when it comes to smartphone usage on Japanese trains, like everything else.
Careful with strollers
When you bring a stroller you can usually put it close to the seats, but be careful not to block the door for people getting on or off. And do not block the door between the cars for people who are going through. If your child is asleep, you can keep her in the stroller. If you take her up, try to keep her quiet, as being quiet onboard the train is one of the rules written on the signboards in the stations, and featured in (often humorous) posters declaring that you should not chat loudly, talk loudly on your mobile phone, or generally disturb other passengers.
Get the silver seats
When bringing a stroller, you should look for the sign at the step which says where the silver seats are. They are usually in the ends of each car, and the seats themselves are a different color. Chances are that if you bring children in a stroller, you will get a seat there. But you may also want to check if there is a wing sign (羽) since that means the air conditioning is weaker in that car. In summer, Japanese tend to turn the air conditioning up high, and while the air is no warmer than in other cars, you do not have to put your babies in a cold wind if you choose those (the character in this context does not mean wings, but weak).
There is one thing to remember about taking trains in Japan, and especially in the big cities, that is not written anywhere on the trains or stations. It is that you should not even try trying to take trains and subway during morning rush hour. This is when people try to squeeze on the trains and the staff attempt to make sure their limbs and luggage are not sticking out and blocking the doors so they can not close. Give the trains a miss between 7 AM and 9:30 AM on working days.
No eating but drinking is allowed
A rule that actually is unwritten is that you should not eat on the trains. Generally, eating in Japan is a much more disciplined activity than eating in many other countries, both because of the crowded circumstances and because of the Japanese attitude to eating, which involves eating only when you have your own private space. This does not apply to small children who are excempted from most rules anyway.
Drinking is allowed, including alcoholic drinks, but in moderation. And there are no toilets on the local trains if you drink too much. There may be some on the long-distance lines that cross Tokyo on their way to somewhere els, but unless you specifically boatded such a train, you have no guarantees.
Things to remember about taking the train
☐ Do not take the train between 7 AM and 9:30 AM during working days. It is too crowded to travel with children.
☐ Put your phone in “manner mode” (the ring signal on mute) and do not talk on the phone. And do not walk and text. It is even more dangerous than walking and talking.
☐ Always let passengers get off before you get on.
☐ Offer your seat to the elderly or infirm.
☐ Take off your backpack or wear it in front, so you do not bump into other passengers.
☐ Find the car with the weak airconditioning.
☐ Avoid bringing heavy luggage onto the train, do like the Japanese and send it ahead.
☐ Do not speak loudly to others in your party or on the mobile phone.
☐ Do not eat on the local trains. Drinking is OK. Small children are excempt from the rule.
☐ If your kids play on the seats, take off their shoes.
☐ If you drop something on the tracks, call the station staff.
☐ Try to keep your kids quiet. That babies scream is unavoidable, but try to make your toddlers be quiet.
This was one of several posts I have made about taking the train to get around Tokyo. I have written about the Japanese travel day, how to take a train in Tokyo, about the Shinkansen platform tickets, when you need a car in Japan, when flying makes sense over taking the train, what you need to think about when you take the Shinkansen, why Shinkansen is the best travel alternative, and what you should budget for your daily travel (kids under six travel free on Tokyo trains!).
Did you find this interesting? You have actually been reading a chapter from my upcoming book, Bring Your Babies To Tokyo, about how to navigate the Japanese capital with kids in a stroller - all based on our personal experiences from getting out and about in Tokyo with one twin jogging stroller and one umbrella stroller.
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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.