Packed like sardines in Yamanoteline


The Yamanote Line during rush hour is quite an experience. It’s hard to grasp the metaphor of being “packed like sardines,” especially when you’ve never seen sardines served uncut. (Me, neither)

At 8:30 in the morning, one benefit of boarding the train at Yoyogi Station is that after this station, the doors won’t open on left hand side again. From the point you squeeze yourself in the train onward, you’re left with less personal space than the width of your palm. The temperature outside is a pleasant 20 degrees, but the moment you squeeze into the carriage, the warmth generated by all the knitwear and sweaters tightly packed around you starts steaming up your face.

Your undershirt beneath your shirt is drenched, and the back of your neck feels like it’s been wrapped in a warm pack on a summer day. There’s no escaping it. I’m relieved I took off my coat earlier before I got on the train, but I wish I had known better because I should have also tied my hair in a ponytail, so they won’t be getting pinched by my backpack straps (Ouch!).


Every station adds a fresh layer of passengers from the opposite side of the carriage. Those entering from the right side press up against the carriage with their backs faced inside the existing crowds. Meanwhile, I was just shifting myself towards the left door, reaching out to the closed door to create a little space for myself to breathe. As new passengers board, I’m left with only the width of my palm between me and the door. A salaryman in a suit stands behind me, and a girl in a knit sweater has her entire arm pressed against mine. In five more minutes, I’m sure to steam out of this human sauna!

Unfortunately, this isn’t a sauna, and I had no choice. If I get off before my station, I’m sure that I won’t be able to return, at least before 9:30 am.

Soon later, the girl in knit sweater finally got off, replaced by a tall suited man with a leather briefcase. His broad shoulders block my view, and as the flow of passengers shifts at the station, I seize a rare moment to notice that a back attack is better than a chest attack. With each step back the suited man takes, the air I can breathe becomes scarcer. I raise my arms to protect my chest, and it’s getting hard to breathe. Bags and backs surround me on both sides, leaving no room to turn my body or even my neck anywhere. The crowd keeps pushing and the pressure is relentless.

Is this what it feels like to be packed like sardines? For real? Do sardines get squeezed to the point of suffocation like this?

I let out a quiet sigh of despair. The girl to my right finally notices me, and the pressure of pushing my body seems to ease a bit. But the tall suited man, still oblivious to my presence, remains firmly in place. I twist my upper body, turn my head, and take a deep breath, and the girl surrenders her hard-fought 5 centimeters of space, saving me.

By the time the arriving at the next station, I’ve learned my lesson. I stand with my back to the door, firmly planted and resisting the crowd. 5 centimeters are just 5 centimeters, as it should be; I can’t let anyone take over my territory any further. Sometimes, the best defense is a good offense, and self-preservation comes first.

But you know, sardines in a can really don’t have it that bad. (Sardines pasta with garlic, tomato and olive oil is the best!) No matter how tight it gets, they can still breathe. The Yamanote Line at 8:30 in the morning, however, is more like cramming kimchi into a glass jar. Every time I open a new package of kimchi, I stuff them in. Even if some kimchi stick out above the container, I can still close the lid by pressing them down. Next time I open it, the kimchi looks just fit in the jar.

That’s the Yamanote Line - the kimchi jar.

Or it could be that being “packed like sardines” refers to the claw marks I notice on my arm once I step off the Yamanote Line, which oddly look like sardines.

Leave a comment!

Contact me: