Friday, March 14, 2008

Osaka: Cracking the Subway System

It is bewildering at first – the numerous exits, the route maps, ticket vending machines, turnstiles and the platforms. But with some help from maps & strangers it’s great way to see the city.

Japan Railways (JR) operates the core “Osaka Loop”, a bisecting Chuo Line, as well as links to other cities in the Kansai area (Kobe, Kyoto, Nara, etc.). Apart from the JR lines, the city has eight private lines crisscrossing the city, a monorail network and some new tram lines.

The private lines seem swankier, more packed with advts., and more expensive than the JR lines. The elevated Monorail lines are perhaps the most expensive option short of hiring cabs.

At any large junction, there are three hurdles for the uninitiated – (a) locating your destination on the map for the exact fare and the color code, (b) finding the right set of ticket vending machines and (c) the right platform.

Thankfully, there are plenty of signage’s and friendly assistance is just a request away - from either co-passengers or from the ubiquitous, smartly uniformed railway personnel. It is easiest for find the railway guys near the turnstiles.

So, if you were to cut across the city to travel from, say, Ibaraki to the Kaiyukan (aquarium), you would first get to the Loop (Osaka-Umeda), travel the Loop to Bentencho; change here to the green Chuo Line for Osakako. Three different networks - but the whole system is so efficient, it would take you less than 30 mts to cover this distance (assuming, of course, that you don’t waste time gaping at maps and searching for the right platforms like I did!).

Some ticket vending machines accept only IC-chip cards (Pasmo / Suica) and none of them take denominations less than Y10 or more than Y1000. Most have touch screens that come alive after the fist coin is dropped in; a few are button operated. Even after using it hundreds of times, I was still surprised by the alacrity with which they grab your notes and cough out loose change, along with the tickets and pre-recorded messages of sincere gratitude.

If you’re in a big hurry and don’t have the time to buy the correct fare, you could just buy the base-fare (Yen 130-160) and at the destination, go to the “Fare Adjustment Machines” located before the exit turnstiles. These networked machines will take your ticket and tell you how much more you need to pay. If you have a higher value ticket, it will return the extra fare.

Osaka metro system may seem complicated but you realize later that it’s a lot simpler than Tokyo where all the lines deliberately avoid the central Imperial Palace & Gardens, resulting in a much more complex system.

I started out with the monorail (aka Skyrail) line from Handai-Byouin-Mae to Kadoma-shi, under the able guidance of Rina Saito. We traveled this private line, changed to the JR line for going to a Healthcare centre in Miyagawa-shi on the outskirts of Osaka. After one such trip, you can be on your own.

At the end of the day’s exploring, there is nothing more reassuring to lost foreigners than the sight of the Japanese themselves peering at a subway maps to get their bearings right!

End Notes:

Escalator Etiquette – People in a hurry like to run up or down escalators. To facilitate this, people of Osaka stand to the left side of escalators and, in Tokyo, everybody stands on the right side. Wonder why...

Yubi-sashi-kakunin - “finger-pointing-confirmation”: Every subway train has at least three uniformed employees on board – two in the driver’s cabin and one in the tail end guard cabin. At regular intervals you see them raise their gloved hand to point their index fingers upwards. At the stations, the guard steps out and does the same thing - drawing an imaginary line along the length of the train.
I was told later that this ritual was a visual confirmation for the benefit of the observation cameras. It tells the control centre, “I’ve noted the signal at this point”, or “The platform is clear for departure”.

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