If we’re going to give up cars, we’re going to need more hand towels

Five unexpected things that explain why 21 million Tokyo dwellers choose the train every day, instead of their cars

Tokyo subway train leaving station

If you want to convince everyone to use public transportation—rich, poor, young, old—it goes without saying that it needs to be faster, cheaper, more convenient and more reliable than using a car. And it’s not wrong for any government focus first on obvious design decisions like (for example) trains not getting stuck in traffic, so people can count on them getting where they need to be on time.

But how does Tokyo get 57% of residents to use trains instead of cars every day?

Commuters at rush hour at Shibuya station
That’s over 21 million people every day, if you’re the kind of person who likes numbers.


All restaurants give you a little wet hand towel to clean your hands before eating

O-shibori hand towel at a Japanese restaurant

Nobody wants to dive right into their food with dirty hands after riding public transport, so even the cheapest restaurants provide little warm hand towels to wipe off the grime before digging in.


There are coin lockers at every train station, so you don’t have to lug your shopping around with you

Coin lockers at Shibuya Station

If you’re out checking off your to-do list, you can stow anything from a new pair of shoes to a suitcase in a train station locker for a few hundred yen.

Refrigerated coin lockers at Mitsukoshi Ginza
There are even refrigerated lockers for groceries!


If you buy something too big or heavy to carry around, you can have it messengered for cheap

Takubin form for delivering luggage to airport

Whether you just bought a new rug or a weeks worth of groceries, Japan’s takyubin services got you covered. You can get stuff delivered from any store—not just supermarkets—for a few hundred yen (less than ten US dollars) and you can even ship your luggage to the airport instead of schlepping it yourself.


Cheap umbrellas on every corner

Dead umbrella collection truck

If it starts to rain, you can save your expensive blowout and dry-clean-only suit for five bucks at any convenience store.


Nobody eats or drinks on the train.

If you want people to ride the train to fancy parties and weddings, you’d better make sure there’s no chance they’ll end up with someone’s spilled latte all over their formalwear.

Abandoned coffee cup on subway
This used cup was such an anomaly that station after station went by with nobody sitting in that prime corner seat. Nobody on the train dared pick it up and take it away, for fear that oncoming passengers would think they were the barbarian who brought it on board…
Taped-up recycling bins
…and because there are next to zero public trash cans in Tokyo, no one wanted to get stuck carting it all the way home.

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Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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