Getting Around: Untangling the Tokyo Train System

By Taryn Siegel on 22 Feb 2017

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Metropolitan Tokyo stretches out over a landmass so extensive it’s second only to New York as the largest city in the world by area. But unlike New York (my proud hometown), it connects its massive urbanscape through a fast and unbelievably efficient system of public transportation. You definitely pay for the convenience, though. Whereas in New York a one-trip MetroCard fare of $2.75 could get you all the way from downtown Manhattan to JFK Airport, the Tokyo system charges based on distance travelled, so it’s not inconceivable that a single one-way trip could run you ¥1000 (~$10). Still, after the Japan trains I guarantee you’ll find all other public transport systems slow and frustrating.


When you first arrive to Tokyo, though, the system’s expertly crafted efficiency is probably not what you notice. If you were looking at a map of the entire Tokyo Subway system (if such a comprehensive map even existed) and cupped your hands around one corner, that section alone would have as many different lines as the entire London Underground. Even after living in Tokyo for two and a half years I still find it confusing, and I don’t think any Tokyo resident would disagree. But with a few basic tips and tricks you can navigate its web of a metro system smoothly and virtually problem-free.


First things first: Get an IC card


The first thing you’ll need to do before boarding any Tokyo trains or buses is buy an IC card. You should do this immediately—in the airport. You actually don’t need to buy a card, and could instead buy a single trip ticket priced based on how far you intend to go. But that means looking at the station map above your head at the ticket machines and figuring out what the exact fare will be to get to your destination station. Often that map is only in Japanese, and if you need to change lines during your trip it gets increasingly complicated. So just save yourself a headache and buy an IC card right away. It’s a ¥500 refundable deposit for the card plus however much you want to charge it with initially. I would say that, conservatively, you should expect to pay around ¥2000 on transport per day if you’re doing a lot of Tokyo exploring. So if you’re staying in Tokyo for at least a few days, maybe load your IC card up with ¥4000 to start—you can always recharge it later. You can buy an IC card at the automated vending machines outside the ticket gates—they accept both coins and bills but (generally) no credit cards.


There are actually two different IC cards you can purchase: a Pasmo card or a Suica card. They look like this:

The Suica card is associated with the public railway (JR or Japan Railway), and the Pasmo card is associated with the private railways (more on that later). But you can use either card for all lines and buses, so it makes no difference which one you purchase.


JR vs. Private Railways


One thing that’s a bit odd about Japan’s transport system is the fact that there isn’t just one government-funded transport system. Rather, there are several competing operators. The public railway (JR) owns two of the most convenient lines: the lime green Yamanote line that runs in a loop around central Tokyo, hitting major hubs like Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Harajuku; and the orange Chuo line (meaning “central” in Japanese) which runs all the way from Mt. Takao in the extreme west of Tokyo to Chiba, the prefecture that borders Tokyo to the east. Both of these lines are above ground. The 13 different Tokyo subway lines are operated by Tokyo Metro and Toei. And beyond this, there are several private operators, like Keio, Seibu, and Keikyu. This means that if you’re changing between operators you’ll need to exit the ticket gate of one operator to enter the ticket gate of the next one. But the respective gates are usually pretty close to one another. And if they’re not (like in the really massive stations of Shinjuku or Shibuya), it’s pretty easy to find your way between them with plenty of guidance signs in English. Which brings me to my next point…


English Guidance

With increasingly few exceptions, you can expect English guidance in all Tokyo train stations and on all train lines. If you’re in the airport, of course, you should have no hesitation in asking for directions from train personnel in English. When you leave the airport stations, the odds of the train personnel understanding you decrease significantly, but in major tourist hubs like Shibuya or Shinjuku you can try. The train personnel are generally friendly and helpful, so if you just say the station name or train line you’re looking for slowly, they’ll do what they can to guide you.


You need a Smartphone (and Wi-Fi)


Though I pride myself on knowing a few lines in Tokyo incredibly well now, there isn’t a single time I ride without using my iPhone to guide me. I personally prefer using the Google Maps app. Since there’s so many possible train line combinations for any one trip, the Google Maps app can show you the fastest, cheapest route, with train departure/arrival times that are actually exactly accurate thanks to Japan’s impeccable punctuality. Of course, for visitors to Tokyo, this means you need Wi-Fi.

I don’t recommend traveling Japan, even Tokyo alone, without pocket Wi-Fi. Free Wi-Fi is incredibly hard to find outside of Starbucks. Fortunately, rental pocket Wi-Fi is pretty easy to come by in Japan these days. Here are a few different services you can choose from: CD Japan, Rental Wifi, Japan Wireless. These companies offer various price plans for various speeds and data coverage. I recommend getting as much data as possible. But be wary of plans that promise “unlimited data” but with the catch that if you use more than 3GB over 3 days (for example) speeds with be reduced for 24 hours. For all of these, you can apply for your pocket router online (in English) and they’ll deliver it to your arrival airport/hotel/etc. either for free or for a nominal fee like ¥500.


For navigating Tokyo trains, I think Google Maps is the way to go. But for travel outside of Tokyo, I also use Hyperdia. Hyperdia (available in a browser window or app) is a Japan train timetable database with a lot more flexibility than Google Maps. For those travelling on a budget, you can filter out routes that include the prohibitively expensive bullet trains or other expensive express trains. If you’re using the JR Pass (more on that below), you can filter out all non-JR lines. Just click on “More options” in the search condition window. You can also run a search for Highway buses.


Getting to Tokyo from Haneda/Narita Airports


Of course the first transport challenge you’ll face when you land in Tokyo is getting to your hostel/hotel/airbnb apartment from the airport. If at all possible, I recommend trying to fly into Haneda Airport. Haneda is much closer to central Tokyo than Narita. For comparison, getting to Shibuya from Haneda takes 30 min and costs ¥580; getting to Shibuya from Narita takes over an hour and costs ¥2670-¥2990. That huge jump in price comes from the reserve-seat express trains you’ll need to take (unless you want the trip to take over 2 hours).


Since, as I’ve said, I recommend using Google Maps to find the right route for you, I won’t go into too many details here on train lines, but I will offer a few tips that the Google Maps app won’t be able to tell you.


Getting out of Haneda is quite easy. Like I said before, you should buy yourself an IC card right at the airport and hop onto whichever train Google tells you to take (there’s actually only two lines to choose from anyway: the Keikyu line or the Tokyo monorail).


Narita is a bit more complicated, though, since you’ll want to take a reserve-seat express train. There are two express trains from Narita: the Keisei Skyliner and the Narita Express. I personally prefer the Skyliner because it’s a bit cheaper and faster for where in Tokyo I live. But for first-timers the Narita Express is easier to use—it takes you directly to major stations like Shibuya without any transfer necessary. Before you can board, you’ll need to go to the Narita Express ticket counter and ask (in English) for a ticket to whichever station you want to get off at. The trains all go in the same direction, but you need to say ahead of time which station you plan to get off at so they can charge you the appropriate fare. They’ll give you two paper tickets—your fare ticket and your seat reservation ticket. Lay them on top of each other and insert BOTH into the ticket gate. And remember this part if you ever ride another reserve-seat train later on in your Japan journey—you need to insert both slips into the machine together. Note that you do NOT need an IC card for this part. So you could either go ahead and buy an IC card at Narita and just pocket it away for later, or wait and buy one when you reach your destination station.


On your seat reservation ticket will be listed your car number and seat number. When you get to the platform, if the train hasn’t arrived yet, you’ll need to line up to board according to your car number, which will be indicated painted on the ground and on signs overhead. Actually all Japan train platforms have this—arrows and signs on the platform ground indicating where to stand to board the train. This is part of what makes the train system so swift and efficient, so you should fall in and line up with the rest of the passengers.


Finally, make sure you hold onto your tickets. When you arrive at your destination station, you’ll have to insert the fare ticket into the ticket gate again to exit.


Shihatsu/Shuden: First Train/Last Train


One annoying thing about Tokyo trains is that they don’t run 24 hours. This seems like a huge oversight considering how many commuters use the trains on a daily basis, not to mention the fact that Japanese “salarymen” often work until the middle of the night. Trains generally stop running around midnight, but it depends on where you’re going. I had a friend who lived way out in the boonies whose last train from central Tokyo (in order to make all the necessary transfers) was 10pm. Again, rely on Google Maps. You can find your “last train” time by clicking on the departure time (defaulted to current time) and clicking on “Last trip.” I use this function every single time I go out, usually looking it up around 11:30pm to be safe. If you’re unlucky enough to miss your last train your options are: all-night karaoke booth, all-night Internet café, an extremely expensive cab ride (I mean potentially $100 depending on how far you need to go—prices surge after last train), or walking. Tokyo is super safe, so walking at night is not a problem, but it’s also very spread out—getting to my neighborhood from Shibuya is a 15-minute train ride or a 3-hour walk.


JR Pass


If you plan on doing a fair amount of travel around Japan I highly recommend the Japan Rail Pass. A 7-day pass costs ¥29,110 and allows you to travel on any JR trains (including the super expensive bullet trains). You’ll need to purchase this before you arrive in Japan, and it’s only available to temporary visitors. Also, be careful that this doesn’t include Tokyo subways and private railways, so if you’re only visiting Tokyo you’re better off with a normal IC Card. But if you plan to explore Japan it really is an excellent deal—traveling the country is awfully expensive otherwise. Even if you travel by night bus—the very cheapest way to go between major Japanese cities—it costs at least $120 round trip. You can read all the pass details and restrictions here on the JR website. And, incidentally, their site mentions that there’s free Wi-Fi near most JR stations. I personally wouldn’t rely on that—the signals cut out as you go between stations and can be hard to connect to. Pocket Wi-Fi is really the way to go.


Train Etiquette


Something unique about Japanese culture is that there are rules and procedures to govern almost every aspect of daily life. You’ll feel the pros and cons of this pretty quickly—it makes life more orderly and predictable, even more comfortable, but, especially to an outsider, it can also feel restrictive and infringing. As a foreigner, you’ll never be held to the same standards or expectations as a Japanese native, so you can ignore some rules if you choose, but there are some that you should probably make an effort to observe. One of those is riding the train etiquette. Some things you shouldn’t do on Japanese trains are: talk loudly, eat, put on makeup, or wear a backpack. Talking loudly is probably the most important one on this list. Even the wall-to-wall packed rush hour Tokyo trains will often be completely silent. This doesn’t mean you have to be silent too—it’s not a movie theater—but be aware that you’ll probably be the only people having a conversation, so you should try to talk a bit softly. The eating restriction I personally break all the time, but I always feel awkward about it and generally cast my eyes down to avoid the imagined glares from other passengers.


The Tokyo train system can be a bit daunting at first, but with these basics under your belt (plus a smartphone, pocket Wi-Fi, and the navigation app of your choice), you should be able to navigate Tokyo quite easily, and faster than you could’ve imagined.


Taryn Siegel

Taryn Siegel

Hi there! I'm a freelance writer, part-time Physics tutor, and amateur musician living in Tokyo, Japan. I'm originally from New York, but have also lived in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Scotland. My interests are nearly equal parts reading, writing, travel, guitar, coffee, and Physics. When I'm not trekking around glorious Japan, I'm likely biking around Tokyo, reading in cafes, or at a live show of one of my greatly more musically talented friends.

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