The Fine Art of Japanese Train Riding

Catching a quick nap while train riding (photo credit: Alicia Adams)

I fully expected snoring. Maybe even a little drool. And most certainly, slumping forward to the point of falling over.

To my surprise, I did not witness any of those events. As I sat with my husband on a mid-day train headed to Ikebukuro, Tokyo, I watched as the majority of passengers fell asleep. And remain asleep. Quietly.

A young woman was seated next to me. She was impeccably dressed in a dark business suit, long coat, and scarf. On her lap sat a large designer label purse, a soft black leather item with plenty of room for her laptop, the usual purse necessities, and apparently, her head. I watched, fascinated as she pulled her scarf up over most of her face, tucked her chin up against her purse and closed her eyes.

Seriously, she is not about to take a nap on a public train, I thought. Only old people did that. And she is a woman traveling alone. Doesn’t that leave her somewhat vulnerable?

I looked around. There were no looks of curiosity from the other train passengers. Actually, they weren’t looking about all. About half of the men, women, and teenagers had all settled in and found a shoulder, a corner or a backpack to rest their head upon. Their eyes were closed. The ones that remained awake were reading or had headphones in while they scanned their phones.

Even as the train rolled into stations, stopped and then sometimes lurched out again as it took off, no one startled awake with a snort. No one toppled over with that relaxed looseness that comes with a deep sleep. And more importantly, no one seemed to miss their stop.

Social etiquette run deep in the Japanese culture. Saying ‘no’ directly is frowned upon. Blowing your nose is public is tantamount to a mortal sin. And eating and drinking while walking down the street is considered blatantly rude. Having to self-regulate your own behavior must condition not only the conscious part of your brain, but the unconscious part as well. How else to explain how the Japanese slip so easily into a peculiarly polite sleep that prevents snoring?

Impressed, I thought I would give it a try. We had about half an hour to go before reaching our station, and I was still dogged by jet lag from the previous day’s thirteen hour flight. This will be simple, I thought as I leaned against my husband’s shoulder. I will just lightly doze and listen for the Ikebukuro announcement.

Seemingly seconds later, my husband nudged me. I awoke with a snort, startled. “This our stop,” he said, trying not to laugh. He got up and moved toward the door.

I stood up, still a little groggy. I felt something in the corner of my mouth as I tottered toward the exit. Wiping it away, I realized it was drool. As I stepped out of the train and onto the platform crowded with alert, non-drooling people, one thing became clear to me - riding the Japanese trains is definitely an acquired fine art form.