In Tokyo – Lost In the Subway; But Not Lost in Translation

Last week I was in Tokyo covering the IOC Evaluation Commission’s inspection of the city’s 2020 Olympic bid. It was my first visit to Japan.

After a late dinner and amid some confusion, I missed my ride back to the hotel that I was staying in. Tokyo, a city of over 13 million people, is not simple to navigate. Surrounded by massive skyscrapers and the glowing lights of an upscale district, I was disoriented and could not likely identify my place on a map if given the opportunity. I wouldn’t be able to identify the location of my hotel either.

I knew I was a 30-minute car ride from my hotel, but without phone or Internet access and equipped with only a few yen and my room key card that fortunately listed the hotel’s address, I was left with few choices – and one opportunity.

I spotted an entrance to Tokyo’s subway system.

Earlier in the day I had attended a press conference featuring the city’s transportation planning expert who presented to the IOC evaluators that morning. He assured press from countries all around the world that Tokyo’s subway system was probably not like most others, it was designed so that young children could easily and safely use it.

So what could go wrong?

While investigating bids in the past, I’ve experienced mass underground transit in cities such as New York, London and Paris. Now it was time to experience Tokyo’s, however unprepared I was.

Tokyo Metro Subway Map - English Version (Provided by Tokyo Metro)

Tokyo Metro Subway Map – English Version (Provided by Tokyo Metro)

As I passed through the entrance, it crossed my mind that Tokyo is the largest metropolitan city in the world by population and Japan has one of highest population densities in the world. Creating an efficient public transit system must have been quite a challenge for city planners.

After descending a few flights of stairs to track level, I found a map on the wall. It was written entirely in Japanese. It was so abstract and intricate that I stared at it for minutes as though I was admiring a Georges Seurat painting. But it was of no help.

The subway system has 13 lines and 274 stations that accommodate 8.7 million passengers each day.

I would have approached someone for directions, or at least try to track someone down who spoke English – but I didn’t know what to ask.

Then there was a tap on my shoulder and before I could turn around, an English language version of the map was put into my hands by an official-looking transit employee. How thoughtful was that? How pathetic I must have looked.

I took the street name from the address on my key card and scanned for it on the map as a station name, keeping my fingers crossed. I found it! Of course, it was only my guess that this was the correct station. But now, since this was a mobile map, there was no “you are here” indicator. I was lost.

During dinner earlier, I had discussed commuting in Tokyo with some residents of the city. It seems many people in Tokyo choose the subway for their commute to work due to the high cost of vehicle ownership in the city. I was not going to give up on this subway trip.

I tracked down the nice map lady from earlier. Her English was extremely limited (and my Japanese non-existent) so I pointed to the address on the key card – and she seemed lost too. She walked away for a moment then returned and started circling things on the map. She circled three stations that intuitively looked like my current station, a transfer point and a final destination. Then she escorted me to the fare payment machine and guided me through the “self-serve” ticketing. What service! Arigato!

After she pointed me in a direction with my English map in hand, the rest became clear. Stations and lines were coded with colors, English letters and numbers, so it was easy to follow signs from that point forward. The trains were clean and efficient – and it was still pretty busy as the clock approached midnight.

I was also comforted by the many station attendants who were available, if necessary, at various points along the way – even at the late hour. I was quite confident and felt safe throughout the trip even though I was just a bit out of my element.

When I finally made it to my destination station, I needed to navigate the streets to find my hotel – I had no clue where to go. While in the dark, with skyscrapers rising everywhere to more-or-less the same height, it was difficult to identify recognizable landmarks. Luckily, at the subway exit I found an English-language map of the immediate area that identified the exit I was at.

With the help of the map and a street construction worker and police officer along the way, both who didn’t speak any English, I was able to complete the 10-minute walk to my hotel.

My impromptu adventure clarified what I already knew – Tokyo has the necessary infrastructure, and Tokyo residents have the required patience and understanding to support an Olympic Games. With just a little additional preparation prior to Games time, the subway system would be an effective network for visitors to navigate the city and visit sport venues and tourist attractions throughout the city.

About Robert Livingstone

A senior producer and award-winning journalist covering Olympic bid business as founder of as well as providing freelance support for print and Web publications around the world. Robert Livingstone is a member of the Olympic Journalists Association and the International Society of Olympic Historians.