When you first arrive in Tokyo it won’t be long before you need to use the subway. It’s the most efficient way to get to from A to B in super quick time; you just have to master the lines and how they interact first. It’s a major feat of engineering and makes daily life flow for millions of people in Tokyo but it can be a bit overwhelming when you first encounter it. You’re not going to be able to avoid it for long though so you might as well jump right in. Here are my dozen tips to keep you sane and get you to your destination on the Tokyo Subway.
1. Stored Value Cards
Unless you’re only in the country for a day or two you’ll really benefit from grabbing a stored value card. It’ll make getting on and off the trains so much quicker than using the ticket machines all the time. You can buy a PASMO card from a machine or the station office and then just top it up when you need to. If you already have another Japanese card like the Suica or ICOCA they will work fine too.
2. You don’t need to speak Japanese
The good news is that Tokyo Subway is bi-lingual. If you speak and read English you’ll have no problems with a language barrier. The signs, ticket machines, maps and announcements all have English versions.
3. Tokyo Subway Maps
Pick up a subway map when you arrive. I’ve included a picture below to get a feel for it but a hard copy is going to be easier for a beginner than trying to read the multi-coloured spagetti of train lines on your iPhone. Each line has both a name and a colour. Ask at your accommodation for the name of the nearest station and you’ll quickly learn the connection stations along that route. It sounded terrible to me at first having to switch lines on a trip but it’s much easier and faster than it sounds.
The Tokyo Subway site has a printable map in English.
The location signs are located on the wall of the platform opposite where you stand (across the track) they show the direction of travel for the train and the name of the next station with an English translation. You can read signs on platforms from within the train and there’s also an electronic board in many trains showing you the station you’re at and how many stops until your destination.
When you arrive on the platform in time to see your train pulling out don’t worry, the subway is so frequent that I usually don’t even check the timetable. It’s inevitable that sometimes you’ll time it perfectly and others you’ll just miss. The next train will be along in a few minutes.
6. Train Timetables
If leaving the timing to chance isn’t comfortable for you then the website Hyperdia is what you need. This site will find you all the options, times and combinations of travel between one place and another. This site will work for you whether you want the next subway stop or the other end of the country.
7. When it all goes wrong
If you suddenly realise you’re passing stations going the wrong direction – don’t panic, get off at the next stop, cross the platform, wait a few seconds and jump on the train that stops. It’s easy to get turned around when you’re underground and rush from an arriving train. I think we’ve all done this at least once. It’s far more embarrassing to admit that I’ve managed to do it in Kyoto and they only have two subway lines! There’s also no additional cost from your original route as you don’t need to exit through the gate until your destination.
8. Rubbish bins
You will noticed that the trains and station are SUPER clean. You will also notice that there are virtually no rubbish bins in any public places in Japan including stations. If you’ve walked with your Starbucks cup or have any other rubbish you are going to have to keep hold of it for a while. Please don’t litter. I think there are a variety of reasons but while it is quite normal in the west to walk with your coffee and in some places even eating, this is bad manners in Japan. If you’re obviously a tourist it’s unlikely anyone will correct you or be totally grossed out but generally it’s good to avoid it if you can, which also avoids the rubbish bin issue.
9. Subway rules
Which brings me to the subway rules. They have kawaii (cute) posters to remind you of the rules in many trains but most are fairly obvious. You can’t eat and drink on the subway or local trains. Don’t talk on your phone while in the train, on the platform is OK. Keep your feet and bags off the seats. Make room for others as much as possible.
10. Getting off a crowded train
Remember ‘sumi-masen’. It means excuse me or sorry depending on the circumstance. You’ll likely need it to get peoples attention so you can move through a crowded train at your exit without upsetting anyone.
11. Station exits
Some stations are huge, have multiple exits and even multiple lines passing through the same station on different levels. Shinjuku and Tokyo station have to be seen to be believed. It can be a bit confusing when you use a different exit and end up somewhere you don’t recognise at all. Subway signage is universally good not only on the platforms but on which exit to use to get to different locations. If you’re really feeling lost you can always backtrack, just don’t go through the ticket gate again, that will just get you back onto the platform.
12. The Tokyo Subway in Peak hour
If you don’t need to travel in peak hour just avoid it and definitely don’t try to move your luggage around between 8-9am. In Tokyo peak hour seems to be literally one hour, at 9.10am it’s like everyone disappeared. For some people though the Tokyo experience isn’t complete without a polite but firm shove from the morning train pusher. In case it’s not clear that’s an actual job in Japan not just a rude commuter, it comes with a uniform and gloves and everything. Personally I’ll give it a miss but I’ve heard a few tourists head out in the peak just so they can experience it.
If you have any Tokyo subway tales to tell please share them in the comments below. If you can add any tips and insights to the Tokyo transport system for first time travellers they’d be appreciated too!