Tokyo is one of the easiest cities in the world for a foreigner with no Japanese to navigate. This is not because of its layout, which is arcane to all out-of-towners, even Japanese ones, but simply because the city authorities and transport companies work together to make it so.
The co-operation is by no means perfect (next time you have a couple of hours to kill, get a Tokyo resident started on the subject of public transport,) but it works pretty well in the small ways that make life easier. Trains run late and start early. There are restrooms and water fountains on every station, all clean and in good working order. There are bilingual signs, and in most places you can find bilingual instructions and maps. Staff are visible. To a Londoner, the Tokyo subway is fantasy made solid.
The only downside for most tourists is that many of the staff you are likely to encounter on the platform aren’t bilingual. So if you lose your camera or backpack, or can’t work out the connections to get from your location to wherever, or feel unwell, communicating the precise nature of the problem could be, well, a problem.
Don’t worry, they’ve got it covered. The jewel in the crown of Japanese public transport information, as far as this British traveller is concerned, is the Eidan Point and Communicate Subway Guide. This truly idiot-proof document ought to be copied by every public transport provider in the world.
It has pictures of places or situations a Tokyo visitor is likely to need, and a list of questions and answers in several languages including English and Japanese. You point to the question that relates to your problem in your own language. The subway staff member reads it in Japanese, points to the answer in Japanese, and you read the answer in your own language. It’s basic, but it works for most immediate needs. I’ve given copies of this handy little guide to hordes of first-time visitors to Tokyo, and had nothing back but rave reviews.
A recent book for non-Japanese speakers from the Japan Times expands on the concept in some very useful ways. Konnichwa, Nihongo! (Hello, Japanese!) lists 131 useful phrases, with variations, in English, Chinese, Japanese and Korean, accompanied by pictures. This extends the point-and-communicate idea beyond public transport situations, allowing non-linguists to communicate, while beginners can expand their vocabulary and practice changing phrases according to context. There’s also a section for recording personal details like school or office address, medical details and other facts you might need to hand in a crisis.
At present it’s only available from Amazon Japan. The Eidan Point and Communicate Subway Guide is also only available in Tokyo. Given the simplicity and utility of the concept, worldwide sales seem assured.
Eidan was recently renamed Tokyo Metro. You can download a travel guide in four languages from the Tokyo Metro English website, which also offers a PDF of the subway route map in eight languages alongside clear English guides to using the subway, ticketing, lost property and ‘subway manners’.
I hope Mayor Boris Johnson is taking notes on how to make a global city’s public transport user-friendly.