Tokyo Metro Offers Free Noodles to Help Thin Out Rush Hour Crowds

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For a limited time,Tokyo Metro is offering a noodle-based incentive to woo commuters away from the morning rush. (Photo: Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images)

It's an offer that Tokyo Metro is hoping its customers can't refuse ...

To help make things a little less hellish on the city's most chronically overcrowded subway line, transit authorities are now offering customers a unique incentive to leave the house and begin their commutes a wee bit earlier than normal, just before the peak morning rush begins: free soba noodles and tempura veggies.

Tokyo Metro obviously won't be doling out bowls of hot buckwheat noodles right there on the spot on train platforms — that could get real messy. Rather, they'll email commuters vouchers for the free grub after they've swiped their fare cards before rush hour — 7:50 a.m. to 8:50 a.m. — over a span of 10 consecutive weekdays.

As AFP reports, if 2,000 commuters happen to take up the offer over the now-in-progress two-week run of Tokyo Metro's so-called "challenge," they'll receive a voucher for free tempura. If 2,500 customers heed the call, they'll all get free soba. And if more than 3,000 schedule-tweaking subway riders swipe their cards at certain stations earlier than they normally do, they'll be rewarded with a tempura-soba combo.

Per the Japan Times, the vouchers can be redeemed at Metro An, a noodle shop chain affiliated with Tokyo Metro and found throughout numerous stations along the nine-line rapid transit network. (Tokyo Metro is the larger and busier of Tokyo's two subway systems, the other being Toei Subway. Combined, they comprise the busiest metro system in the world, beating out Moscow, Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul.)

soba noodles
Tokyo Metro is offering customers a hot deal on hot soba at in-station noodle shops. (Photo: Takashi Nishimura/Flickr)

As Cizuka Seki, a native of Nagasaki, Japan, who now co-owns a Japanese pub fare eatery in Washington, D.C., explains to NPR, a bowl of hot soba (kake-soba) accompanied by a fried vegetable fritter (kakiage) generally sells for about 400 yen — a little less than $4 — at typical noodle shops located within metro stations.

"It's a lot of effort for a bowl of free soba, but people in Japan love coupons and free stuff," she says. "It brings people a lot of joy."

A citywide push for greater flexibility

While commuters experience the joy of free food, Tokyo Metro hopes to experience the joy of reduced rush hour congestion.

As the Japan Times explains, from 7:50 a.m. to 8:50 a.m. an average of 76,616 commuters rode the overstuffed Tozai Line in 2017 — a figure that's more than just a bit over the intended capacity:

Twenty-seven trains, each consisting of 10 cars, ran between those times. In total, the 27 trains were classified as capable of carrying a total of 38,448 passengers. The figures show that, in fact, almost twice that number of people on those services, giving a load factor of an eye-popping 199 percent.

Such overcrowding is, of course, unpleasant for the poor souls forced into becoming amateur contortionists every morning before school or work. Transit officials, however, make it clear that trains operating at such high capacity aren't unsafe.

Crowded subway car, Japan
Tokyo Metro hopes commuters will accept free noodles for missing out on this claustrophobic scene. (Photo: dat'/Flickr)

"We hope the campaign will contribute to reducing congestion during peak hours as more people take trains at different times," Tokyo Metro spokesman Takahiro Yamaguchi tells the Japan Times. "We are aware that the Tozai Line is chronically overcrowded, which has caused passengers trouble."

Established in 1964, the 23-station Tozai Line runs east-west, linking Tokyo's eastern suburbs and a handful of cities in the Chiba prefecture with the city's sprawling urban core. Tokyo Metro introduced women-only cars during the morning and evening rush hours in 2006 in an effort to combat groping.

Tokyo Metro's efforts to reduce morning subway congestion on the Tozai LIne with complimentary comestibles are part of a larger campaign launched by the city government with the cooperation of various private companies. The aim is to make taking the train in the morning less of a sardine can-esque ordeal by encouraging more flexible work schedules that would permit employees to arrive a bit earlier — or earlier — or work remotely from home.

AFP notes that 1,000 companies are participating in the campaign and allowing workers to switch things up in terms of when exactly they head out the door for work.

To secure the noodle coupons, commuters must, as Seki mentions, put in some effort.

First, Tokyo Metro customers are required to sign-up for the campaign and register their prepaid metro cards, IC Cards, in order to reap any rewards. They must use their card at the ticket gate before a certain time, which is dependent on the station from which they're embarking. And, as mentioned, participants need to do this for 10 weekdays straight.

Robert Puentes of the Eno Center for Transportation tells NPR that although numerous subway systems in the U.S. experience lamentable overcrowding during rush hour (hello, New York City) none offer perks like food vouchers to commuters who are willing to hop on the train a bit earlier or hold off and go a bit later. Some systems including Washington D.C.'s Metro do, however, have lower fare rates during off-peak travel hours.

If a major American subway system did theoretically decide to follow Tokyo Metro's lead and start offering food vouchers to flexible commuters, it's curious to think about what exactly the vouchers would be for. Imagine ... free buttered rolls for early bird New York City straphangers. Just like that, a near-entire citywide workforce would habitually start rolling in way too early.