While Americans are carving pumpkins and buying candy for trick-or-treaters, the Japanese are preparing for Halloween a little differently. Horror-lovers are paying to get chased by pirate- and clown-zombies in Osaka. And folks over in Tokyo‘s Shibuya Crossing are prepping for a celebration akin to New Year’s Eve in Times Square, only with bloody nurses and Power Rangers. The country truly goes all out for the holiday—but that wasn’t always the case. Just 25 years ago, Japanese Halloween celebrations were mysterious, borderline illegal, and could only be found in one very unexpected place: the subway.
It was the late 1980s, and the closest thing to Halloween in Japan was a spooky season of festivals honoring the dead during August. No one celebrated the candy- and costumed-filled holiday in October except for foreigners living in the country, who suffered from a lack of themed bar nights and parties to go to. So a group of young expats took matters into their own hands, which essentially consisted of them taking over Tokyo’s subway for an hour around Halloween. The strange, boozy, underground costume party soon became known as the “Yamanote Halloween Train” and gained notoriety by the early ’90s as the most disorderly Halloween bash around. The organizers were always unknown.
The event was anything but consistent, but the basic idea was for attendees to board the Yamanote Line and ride its entire loop around the edge of Tokyo (about one hour), hopping from car to car between each of the 29 stops. Judging from videos of the 1994 ride, it seemed to be a mix between NYC’s Santa Con and a nightclub Stefan would pitch on SNL’s Weekend Update. (It. Has. Everything.) People dressed as ’90s TV characters cram onto subway cars with open containers of booze, spray each other with silly string, and crawl up onto the train’s luggage racks. Partiers shout the station names as the train makes each stop, which is the only discernible sound punctuating the steady stream of cheers.
Not all the local commuters took kindly to the disruptive spectacle. And things only grew rowdier with each annual ride, reaching levels of near-unmanageability by the early 2000s.
Here’s some videos from those early days:
Sadly, it appears the festivities became overrun by douche-bags and turned into a really ugly party by foreigners. It has gone through years where there were angry responses by locals – which I think was well deserved after watching footage of what seems to be now just an annoying, drunken bro-fest on commuter trains of people just trying to get home. So, again, maybe it’s time to read up on ‘How to not be an ugly traveler‘ tips.
It now appears that the train parties have been replaced with massive street parties in Shibuya. However, sadly, it also turns into quite a trash-fest. But in true Japanese style, volunteers are the ones who come to clean up the mess.