Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world, with over 31 million people, and with a population density above 6,000 persons per square kilometer, it is also one of the most dense urban areas within developed countries. Needless to say, driving a car in Tokyo is not such a great way to get from A to B.
The train system in Tokyo is a living network of multiple lines owned by multiple companies, enthusiastic station attendants and dedicated conductors that operate on complex schedule where being late is not an option, and of course, the lifeblood of Tokyo; the seemingly endless sea of people.
Although complex and busy (over 40 million people use the trains every day!), this tightly woven web is surprisingly simple and very convenient. If coming from a city where using trains for your daily commute is not the norm, you may find Tokyo’s trains and subways to be extremely confusing. However, you will soon discover the simplicity of this system, and grow to love it like a true Tokyoite!
Overview of the Tokyo Metro
The Tokyo train system is actually a mixture of both public and privately operated rail companies, with the Toei subway line and Tokyo Metro owned directly by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and National Government. Although there are many railway companies, they are interconnected, and do not impede any travel.
This map highlights the different lines which are operated by different operators, which are extremely numerous.
The two major operators are JR East and Tokyo Metro.
Tokyo Metro is one of the main rail systems in Tokyo, and connects all major areas within the central urban wards. Also called chikatetsu (literally “underground iron”), it is a hive of subway lines that are focused in the center of the Tokyo Metropolitan area, which branches out to outer wards to allow for suburban commuters. Although not the most used lines in Tokyo, the Tokyo Metro still sees over 6.5 million users daily.
The Tokyo Metro also has much history; it is not only the original rail system in Tokyo, but operates the first subway line in Asia, with the first line connecting Ueno and Asakusa in 1927, which is now a part of the Ginza Line.
JR East, officially the East Japan Railway Company, carries the most amount of passengers in the entirety of Tokyo; over 15 million riders use the JR East railway daily. JR East connects much of Tokyo proper with the surrounding suburbs, with two main lines; Yamanote, that encircles Tokyo, and Chuo main line, which essentially divides Tokyo in half.
Riding Tokyo Trains
Utilizing the Tokyo rail system can be a hassle at first, but everything about the process is clearly labeled in both English and Japanese and is easy to navigate, even for first-timers. If forgoing the many convenient apps available to plan a trip, below is a step by step guide on using the rail system like a pro.
1. Find the Fare
Inside the station by the ticket machines, there is a fare map that will look like this:
The fares on this map are relative to the location of the current station, so they will always display the exact fare needed to get to your destination. Please note that they only have information for the operator’s stations only; if transferring to a station serviced by another rail company, then simply buy a ticket to the transfer station.
Also, keep in mind that the desired destination may not be on these station maps. There are many train systems in Tokyo, and not all of them share the same train stations. If the desired destination is not on the map, check the other map belonging to another train system, it may be there.
Alternatively, a ticket to the nearest station on the line can be purchased, and then when arriving to the desired station, a fare adjustment machine can be utilized to level the balance.
2. Purchase the fare
Once the cost is calculated, the nearby ticket machines are used to purchase the fare. There are many things that can be done with these automated machines, including purchasing a single ticket, one day passes, or obtaining\charging IC cards.
These machines are available both English and Japanese:
The ticket then gets inserted into the turnstile and is spit out on the opposite end (or simply scan the IC card on the blue pad).
Make sure to grab the ticket that gets ejected on the inside of the gates because it is required to exit.
Ticket fares change in value depending on the distance traveled, so it is required to insert your ticket while entering the ticket gate as well as insert it when leaving the station.
Helpful Tips and Other Information
Types of Trains in Japan
There are several different types of trains which have different stopping arrangements, and understanding this is crucial to success in the Tokyo rail system.
Local Train – Stops at every station on the route
Express – Consisting of many different variations (Rapid, Commuter, etc), these trains generally only stop at stations which intersect, requiring a local train to gain access.
Limited Express – Stops at few stations, and is typical for travel between cities in Japan
IC Card: PASMO and Suica
PASMO and Suica are both IC cards, or rechargeable cards that use an integrated-circuit chip to conveniently pay for public transportation within both the Tokyo metropolitan area and other large cities. They make traveling by train much easier, as you don’t have calculate your exact fare, worry about grabbing your ticket when you go through the ticket gate, and can pass through the ticket gate much quicker.
To use an IC card, simply touch the card reader as you walk though the ticket gates. The best part? The card doesn’t even need to be out; many keep it in a wallet or phone case and swipe the reader with the item.
IC cards can also be used at many other places to quickly pay for items using the balance. Most convenience stores accept payment by IC card, as well as a growing number of vending machines.
There are several options for single day unlimited passes, which are especially helpful when there is a lot of traveling around Tokyo involved. There are some drawbacks, however; the price is a little steep, and certain day-passes are only accepted by the Tokyo Metro lines, and others are only accepted by JR lines.
These tickets can be purchased at most ticket vending machines, as well as most Tokyo Metro pass offices.
Tokyo Metro 1-Day Open Ticket – Adult: 600 yen | Child: 300 yen
Valid for one day of unlimited rides on all Tokyo Metro lines. It can be purchased on the day of use or in advance.
Common One-day Ticket – Adult: 1,000 yen | Child: 500 yen
Valid for one day of unlimited rides on all Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway lines.
Tokyo Combination Ticket – Adult: 1,590 yen | Child: 800 yen
A ticket allowing unlimited rides on Tokyo Metro, Toei Subway, Toei Streetcar (Toden), Toei Bus (except for buses with fixed seats, etc.), all sections of Nippori-Toneri Liner as well as all JR lines within the Tokyo metropolitan area for one day as stated on the ticket.
Apps and Other Tools
Of course there are many apps released to help you find the exact amount you need! Because public wifi is so rare, it’s recommended to use Trains.jp. You can look up train routes and prices quite easily without wifi!
For those with wifi, which is available in Tokyo Metro stations within the Yamanote line, an app called Hyperpedia is an excellent option. This is a real-time Tokyo Train application that is extremely useful when it comes to checking the time for last, first, or delayed trains.
Where to stand
On the Platform
There are marks at the edge of the platform where the train doors will open. It is expected that people will line up in two ranks at the mark, and then when the train arrives and after the passengers have all gotten off, both lines enter the train at the same time; the left line goes in the left side of the door, and the right line goes in the right side of the door.
On the Train
Although not a formal rule, it is good to try and stand in between the door of the train and the closest bench barrier. This creates a small pocket where there is some personal space if the train gets busy.
Although it is a bit exaggerated at times, Tokyo trains are busy; during rush hour, there is no sense of personal space. A best practice in this situation is to hurry and get comfortable (get those hands and feet close!) because when people start pushing, bags will be pulled and lifted, arms will be pinned, and feet will be so tangled that one quick stop sends nearly half the train car reeling.
Women-only Train Cars
Luckily for the women of Tokyo, there are designated cars for only women. The train cars for women are available during both in the morning for the commute, and often times before the last train.
In addition to women, primary school-aged children, the infirm, and seniors are usually permitted inside.
Make Sure to Find the Right Exit!
Stations in Tokyo can be huge, and often have multiple exits. Looking at the station map saves much wasted time and frustration from walking out of an exit that’s nearly a kilometer away from correct exit.
Depending on the station, exits may be labeled by East, West, South, Central, or North. In addition, there may also be numbered exit such as 1-10+ or 1A, 1B, 2A, or 2B.
If you have questions, comments, or stories, please let us know!
Enjoy your Tokyo Adventure!