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Visiting Tokyo Metro's mysterious world of 'impossible' stations and trains to nowhere

A mockup of Tokyo Metro station gates is seen at the company's training center in the capital's Koto Ward. The sign suggests this is both Ueno Station on the Hibiya Line and Ochiai Station on the Tozai Line. (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

TOKYO -- I am standing in front of a frankly odd sign. It seems to claim that the Tokyo Metro station I am in goes by not just multiple names, but is on the Tozai Line, the Hibiya Line, the Ginza Line and the Yurakucho Line all at the same time, which is impossible. So exactly where the heck am I?

    The Tokyo Metro network carries about 5 million passengers per day, and I am at one of the places that enables this vast system to keep getting people reliably across the metropolis from point A to point B (and on to points C and D). Located in the capital's Shin-Kiba area at the top of Tokyo Bay, this is the subway company's main training base. So the station with the impossible signage is real, but not real. Trains come and go, but from nowhere to nowhere. It's a place where everything is familiar, but also slightly strange. And I am just getting on board.

    "Welcome!" says 53-year-old Satoru Okuma, an assistant department head at the training center, as he comes to meet me on my arrival. He is accompanied by Masanori Yamada, 55, another assistant department head and a train driving instructor. "Once you've dropped off your things, let's get right to the facility tour."

    We went immediately to the second floor of the training center, where I was confronted by one of those nonsensical places: the entrance gate to both Ueno Station on the Hibiya Line and, if the sign was to be believed, Ochiai Station on the Tozai Line. (For anyone unfamiliar with the Japanese capital's geography, in the real world these are on opposite sides of central Tokyo.) Further confusing the view was a sign next to that saying this was in fact the ticket check window for the Ginza Line's Ueno Station, plus Tatsumi Station on the Yurakucho Line. This place was, in its own way, a labyrinth.

    Signs in a mockup station at the Tokyo Metro training center in the capital's Koto Ward declare this is both Ueno Station on the Ginza Line and Tatsumi Station on the Yurakucho Line. (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

    Luckily, Okuma was there to dispel the confusion. "All the ticket gates and ticket machines here are the same as the ones used in real stations," he said. "This place was created to train (new employees) on the duties of station staff."

    The five-story center was completed in 2016, concentrating all skills training under one very big roof. It has mockups like this covering all in-station duties as well as subway train driving skills. For example, new sales department employees come to the center to learn the basics of work at a station. They are assembled here for about a month of hands-on training, from monitoring trains stopped at station platforms to dealing with customers.

    We go through the "entrance gate" and down to the "Training Line," as a sign tells me. The regular Tokyo Metro route guide shows nine lines. This, I'm told, is the 10th, though it appears on no public maps. Following my guides' directions down the stairs, I end up on a very convincing recreation of a subway platform, labeled "Central Station." (The other two stops on this line are East Station and West Station.)

    The stairs down to the platform of the Tokyo Metro training center's "Central Station" on the "Training Line." (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

    Sitting at track No. 1 is a very familiar subway train, and I can't help but wonder aloud if this, too, is another mockup. But one of my guides informs me, "No, this is a real train. It carries passengers on the Chiyoda Line, but it's stopped here for inspections." Central Station is a place where the real and the make-believe meet.

    Next, it's on to the "train car instruction room," which contains yet another in a string of surprising sights. It looks essentially like an office, except for the subway car sitting smack-dab in the middle of the room like a kind of shrine. This is a simulator for drivers, and here and there across the room I can see video monitors showing the view from the driving seat.

    "Do you want to go for a spin?" I'm asked, and so I sit in the driver's seat -- a near-perfect reproduction of the genuine article. I've played the popular "Densha de GO!!" train simulator video game once, but this was apparently insufficient training. I miss the stop point every time I come into a station, piling delay upon delay on the trains coming after me. Things do not go well, and I'm soon a nervous wreck.

    The platform at "Central Station," a mockup station at the Tokyo Metro training center in the capital's Koto Ward. (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

    Following Yamada's instructions, I move the "master controller" -- the train's accelerator -- and at the same time ease off the brakes, and the car is in simulated motion. The machine even makes the floor vibrate as it would on a real moving train. I push the master controller lever forward to increase speed, and the scenery shown in the monitor right in front of me passes by.

    But I'm already approaching the next station. I have to stop. I have to stop! I pull the master controller back to apply the brakes, and ...

    The simulator jerks to a violent halt, accompanied by an automated announcement: "Emergency stop." It seems that moving the master controller to its lowest notch triggers the emergency brakes. I wonder what would have happened if I was actually carrying passengers, and break into a cold sweat.

    A train driving simulator, background, is seen at the Tokyo Metro training center in the capital's Koto Ward. Aside from the train car, the driving instruction room looks like an office conference room. (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

    "But you've hit the stop point for the platform perfectly!" says Yamada, always the kind instructor, as the simulator door opens. A side monitor shows animated passengers getting on the train. My training is done.

    New drivers spend about three months at the center. If they pass the final exam, they join a veteran driver for on-the-job training on real subways.

    "You absolutely cannot make a mistake when you're driving an actual train, so that's all the more reason to make all your mistakes and get experience here," says Okuma.

    Masanori Yamada, a train driving instructor at the Tokyo Metro training center in the capital's Koto Ward, demonstrates how to operate the facility's simulator. (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

    Subways are all about running safely and on time. And the masterful mockups at the Tokyo Metro training center are the foundation for making that happen, right under the feet of millions of Tokyoites.

    (Japanese original by Kaho Kitayama, Photo Group)

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