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Mastering the Tokyo Subway

Tips for using the Tokyo subway system in Japan

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.

Known as the Tōkyō chikatetsu, in English it can be translated and referred to as the Tokyo Metro, subway or even the Tokyo Underground depending on who you are talking to but hotel conceirge desks and locals we spoke to generally referred to it as the subway so we mostly stuck with that to avoid confusion.

1.    Stored Value & Discount 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 transport card like the Suica or ICOCA they will work fine too.  You can now use the cards interchangably across the Japanese Subway in various cities and many other forms of public transport.

Read more about these cards and other general transport tips for travel in Japan.

Alternatively if you are staying in Tokyo and planning to spend the day (or multiple days) exploring the various parts of the city you will likely be on and off the subway and Toei lines extensively because there is so much to see and it’s all very spread out.  You can purchase these 1,2 or 3 day passes for unlimited use on the Tokyo subway sytem online, they are convenient and could save you some cash 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 Map in English

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.

Tokyo subway

4.    Tokyo Subway Signs

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.

5.    Tokyo Metro Operating Hours & Frequency

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.

The exception to be aware of it that the subway system in Tokyo isn’t 24/7 so it pays to check your line to make sure you aren’t stuck with a very expensive taxi fare at the end of the night.  Our experience has been that the Tokyo subway system runs

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.     Japan train ettiquette

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 loudly or on your phone while in the train.  It does seem to be OK to use the phone on the platform but generally it is considered rude to talk loudly and be disruptive.
  • Keep your feet and bags off the seats.
  • Make room for others as much as possible.

10.    Getting off a crowded train

Trains can be very busy at any time of day and you’ll need to be decisive to make your way off the train.  I always try to sit as near to the exit as possible and you’ll want to 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.

Tokyo Subway | 2 Aussie Travellers
Tokyo public signage is prolific, specific and almost always has an English translation 

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 know a few tourists head out in the peak just so they can experience it.

What I did find interesting is that you don’t really seem to have the same tight peak period in the afternoon, presumably because of the Japanese work ethic where many have an extremely long working day.  It’s also very common to stop and eat on the way home from work which would spread the crowd, these salaryman restaurants are often located in or near train and subway stations and offer great value for tourists too.  That’s not to say trains aren’t crowded in the evening, it’s just not such a focused peak period.

 

Still have questions about getting around in Japan?  See our related articles on Top tips for transport in Japan and while not used on the subways themselves read Everything you need to know about the Japan Rail Pass to work out if it could be a budget saver for your trip.

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!

32 Comments

  • Hi!

    This blog is literally planning my trip to Japan for me!
    We’re flying into Tokyo, staying one night, then training it to Nagoya – Train to Kyoto – Train to Kobe – Train to Osaka (day trip to Nara whilst there) – Train back to Tokyo, and then 5 nights there.
    Is the JR Pass the most cost effective pass to get?
    Can I travel the Tokyo subway with this pass?
    (We’d probably only do Disney Land/Sea and day trip to Harajuku whilst in Tokyo)

    • Hi Triss, you can’t use the JR Pass on the subway or local trains in any of the cities, only on Japan Rail company (JR) trains, you will use it on both the long distance ones like the Shinkansen or if convenient, local ones such as out to Maihama station for Disney. How many days is it between when you leave Tokyo for Nagoya until you return to Tokyo? If that is 7-days or less then those trips would make the 7-day JR Pass cost effective for the shinkansen to each city and would be used on the Nara day trip.

  • Hi there,
    I would really appreciate it if you could guide/help me on this one. Which rail pass would you recommend if our travel plans are the following..
    1/1/19 Arrive at Narita airport Tokyo, we need to get to Shibuya, we have booked an apartment on air bnb. We ( 2 Adults & @ children ) will stay and sight see in and around Shibuya.. On the 6/1/19 we will leave Tokyo and travel to Hakuba, we would like to the Shinkansen to Nagano and then the local bus to our hotel ( Springs Hotel) in Hakuba. On the 12/1/19 we will leave Hakuba and travel back to Tokyo and stay one more night there and fly back to Australia on the 13/1/19..

    Any help/tips on mastering the Tokyo rail network would be so helpful..

    Thank you

    • Hi Luke, there is a pass called the JR East Pass Nagano and Niigata area. Be careful when you buy it as there are 2 JR East Pass options and this is not the usual JR Pass most travellers talk about. It should cost Y18,000 for an adult ticket to buy in Japan (slightly less if you buy before you go) and you can use it for 5 days of travel in a 14 day window. You would use it for the days you arrive and depart for the NEX to the airport which stops in Shibuya. You’d also use it for the days you travel to and from Nagano. It would leave you another day if you wanted to do another day trip during your Tokyo time although even if you don’t use the 5th day it should give you a good saving as those 4 trips would be around Y22,000 in individual tickets. Arriving on New Years some things will be closed in Tokyo but the train system should all be working as normal. Have a great trip

    • If you plan to stay in Tokyo itself most of the trip and the only longer distance travel is to and from Nagano city you would purchase individual tickets for that and I would buy a SUICA or PASMO card for Tokyo that you can swipe on and off the various trains and subways for convenient travel. They don’t provide a discount just make it quick and easy. If you have days you will be using the subway a lot then there are discount passes for that but it really does depend how much you expect to use them.

    • You could buy a JR East pass. You can buy one that gives you any 5 days in a 14 day period. You need to work out for yourself when you will need to travel and not activate the pass until the day you start. For example, we went skiing in Hakubah. When we arrived in Japan we had two days before we went up to Hakubah, so we activated it the morning we went to Hakubah – Day 1, we stayed there 5 days, and then we used day 2 on the way back. We stayed in Tokyo for 10 days. We went down to Kamakura on a day trip which was great – Day3. We also went up to Nikko on a day trip which was fantastic as well – Day 4. We then went down to Nagoya and back and used day 5. So we did a lot of travelling around Tokyo for a very reasonable price via the Shinkansen. When we went home, we just caught the Narita Express (NEX) out to Narita airport, (takes about an hour assuming you leave from Narita) and you can catch it from Tokyo Station or Shinjuku Station for 3000Yen. After having been to Japan 5 times, I feel that it is better to cut it into chunks rather than to try to see the whole Country at one visit. If you don’t want to do it that way, if you arrive at Narita, either stay overnight there and fly down to Hiroshima. Get a 7 day Japan Pass and go back to Tokyo visiting the cities on the Main Sanyo Shinkansen line, like Fukuyama, The Black Castle at Okayama, The newly renovated Himeji Castle (some say the most beautiful Castle in Japan), Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and others. You will never tire of Japan.

  • Hi – we are a group of 8 arriving at Yokohama port in April and we want to use the 72 hour rail pass – I have been doing some research and it seems that you need to purchase it before you arrive in Japan and also that you have to pick it up at an airport. i did however see that you could pick one up at Harajuka Tourist information centre so i went on their website and they mention that they provide train passes – my question is can we buy the 72 hr metro train pass at the Tourist information or do we need to purchase it it through klook and then pick it up from the Tourist Information centre? Also we are staying at the Sheraton Miyako hotel – is that far from the Harajuka Tourist information centre and do you know the best way to get there? Thank you for your help .

    • Hi Diana, The Miyako is a bit out of the centre but the Shirokanedai Toei station is walking distance giving access to the Namboko and Mita lines, you’ll likely need to do a bit of hopping between lines to get to the central and popular tourist destinations. These passes aren’t always cost effective but because you’ll need to cross between Toei and Metro company lines in your case it’s likely to be a better saving. For example to Meiji-jingu station (Harajuku) is just under half an hour with a change at Hibiya and costs Y320 a similar trip fully on metro lines is only Y170.

      I don’t know whether those tickets are available to purchase locally but they are only for sale to foreign visitors so if you are going to try buying locally you would need to have your passport with you.

  • Hi there ,

    Appreciate if you could guide me on this .Which Pass do i need to purchase if my travelling plan are as below :

    15/3 Haneda Airport to Lagent Hotel in Urayasu- Chiba (by limo-ETA 22:40)

    16/3 Disney Sea (Free Shuttle by hotel to Maihama Station)

    17/3 Urayasu – Ueno -Akihabara – Asakusa(Tokyo Cruise to -Odaiba Kaihinkoen (Joypolis Segacity)- Tokyo – Urayasu.

    18/3 Urayasu – Tokyo – Echigo~Yuzawa (Iwappara Ski Resort)

    22/3 Echigo~Yuzawa – Tokyo – Haneda Itnl Airport.

    3 adults + 3 children ( 11yrs; 3yrs ; 1yr 4m)

    Thank You so much .

  • Hello !
    Thanks for the tips, I will be travelling with my 12 years old daughter next March
    I’m a confused about the transportation in fact I’m a little panicked …I can’t understand the difference between subway trains and fast trains…all of them depart from the same stations?
    Actually I wanted to know if I can use the Suica card to go to Disney park from central Tokyo or I have to buy a JR pass or ticket
    I read a lot of advices to buy the Suica card ,and I know you have to buy the card the first time for something like 500yen,but nobody says how much to add to the card…? I will be in Tokyo for 10 days,how much should I charge it,I need to buy another card for my daughter or can both of us use the same card?
    I will really appreciate any answer
    Best regards
    Valeria

    • Hi Valeria, you’ll be fine, it can seem a bit confusing at first though. The subway (also sometimes called metro) run underground only within major cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. The above ground trains are run by a variety of companies but Japan Rail is the main one, broadly there are commuter trains within the city and long distance trains across the country. JR also run the fast trains called shinkansen or bullet trains. Sometimes subways and the various trains all use one hub station such as Tokyo station but there not always, there are many more subway stations in a city like Tokyo. Also not all subway stations have all the subway lines, where we stayed in Tokyo in December we had 2 very close subway stations but different lines ran through them giving us access to many parts of the city, some subway lines are more useful than others for tourist destinations. Once you know were you are staying you can find the closest station, let me know if you want any help with that once you decide. Suica is a stored value card (you can also use Pasmo or Icoca they all do the same thing all over the country). They are useful because you can use them on many types of transport including subway, trains, some buses etc, even at some corner stores and drink machines. You load in denominations of Y1000 (approx $10) and how much you need depends on how long you are there and how much you want to use it. You won’t need a JR pass if you are only going to Tokyo, the Suica will be ideal. For Disney the train station is Maihama then there is the Disney line into the parks. How you get to Maihama depends where you stay in Tokyo, train, subway, monorail and express bus are all options, it’s under 30 minutes from Tokyo station on the JR Keiyo Line.

      That does sound a bit overwhelming but overall it will all seem much more straightforward when you are there and even once you plan where you will base yourself you can identify the main stations you will use to get around and it narrows it down to a much more manageable number of options.

    • Sorry I missed the last questions. You need a card each, for the child card I think you need to buy it from the manned window not the machine from memory. I would probably load it with Y2000 initially, half that on a child card and you can top it up quickly at a machine if you need to later in your trip as it’s so variable based on your usage. Also the machines are on both sides of the gates so even if you realise you don’t have enough on your card during your trip you can just do the top up before tapping off at the gate at your destination.

  • Hello! Going to Japan soon. Wondering if there’s a subway from Narita Airport to Tokyo? Looking for the most inexpensive way to travel. Love your article by the way! You made me laugh when you mentioned the train pushers! I have seen videos and it’s unbelievable! Anyway, thank you for the information you post! Excellent!

    • Thanks Sandra. The subway only operates in the city itself and Narita Airport is quite a way out. The two main options are the Ne’x (Narita express train) or the Airport Limousine Bus. Which one is better value to get to your accommodation will depend on where you are staying, the N’ex special ticket is cheaper at face value but if you need to take additional train transfers or a taxi to your accommodation because it’s not close to the station then it’s worth also considering the Limousine Bus as it stops directly at many hotels on it’s route, they also deal with the luggage loading and unloading from storage.

  • Hi I am arriving at Narita around 7pm with two teenage children and am wondering what is the most efficient way to get from Narita (terminal 3) to Ikebukuro for 4 weary travellers. I have looked at a number of options including the JR train or the Sun limousine bus but they are both 20 minute walk to our Air BNB accomodation….I am not sure if taxi for the last little bit is an option, but if you could offer any suggestions I would be very grateful. Thakns
    Sam

    • Hi Samantha. It would depend on your budget but I would either use the Narita Express or Limousine Bus to the nearest station then a taxi to the accommodation if it’s more than a short walk with your luggage or you aren’t sure exactly where you are going. Taxi’s for those short hops in the city aren’t excessively expensive, not really different to Australia so we use them for that sort of distance. There are options to book private transfers but they are generally pretty expensive and you wouldn’t take a taxi all the way from Narita, it’s in the prefecture next to Tokyo so it would be very expensive. I have a link somewhere from a transfer option that was recommended to me, let me know if you want me to look it up for you to check out the prices but I haven’t actually used them. If you are going to use the taxi to the accommodation make sure they give you the address and preferably a map showing it in Japanese in advance, addresses in Tokyo are really complex even for the taxi drivers and an AirBNB probably won’t be known to them as a hotel might.

  • My sister and I are travelling to Japan Feb 2018. Have worked out some of out trip but where would you suggest we do for day trips in Tokyo, we will be there for 5 days then back to Osaka so fly home. Already decided to see the snow monkeys

    • Hi Anne, are you looking at what to do in Tokyo or day trips out of Tokyo? We’ve done Nikko, Hakone, Enoshima, Kamakura and Nagano for the snow monkeys which were all great and we have several new ones on my list when we head over at the end of the week. Do you have a preference on what you like? Maybe history, nature, shopping, hiking, onsen, cuisine or a bit of everything like us?

  • Hi, loved your article, we are staying at Citadines Shinjuku and have to get to Hamamatsuto Bus Station on a Monday morning in that peak hour! , to catch a tour we are leaving on. I am already worried as we will have our suitcases as well, and I think we will have to change lines also. Which line should we take? Or would it be better to try to get to a closer hotel like Keio Plaza and leave from there?

    • Do you possibly mean the Hamamatsucho bus station in Tokyo? You might want to check with your tour operator to see if they have any suggestions, some tours such as Hato run a pickup bus service around Tokyo to Hamamatsucho terminal in time for the 9am tour departure and they do a Shinjuku pickup. Rather than the subway the JR Yamanote line will get you there from Shinjuku and the Hamamatsucho JR station and bus station are loacted together. I don’t know what to suggest regarding timing and crowds other than I would aim to go early and fill in the time having breakfast at the other end. As you suggest a closer hotel for the night before is an option although that means an extra move which takes up your time exploring the city, also I think Keio Plaza is also in Shinjuku, I don’t know of a second one down the Minato end of town but there might be.

    • Hi Vickie, we did see a couple of people travelling with strollers on the Tokyo subway although they are much less common in general than in Western countries, people seem to carry babies more. One Sunday we even saw a woman on the subway with an enclosed pram for her cats. I’d pick your timing and not try peak hours as that crush would be really scary for a kid I’d imagine but it can be done.

    • Hi Bob, it is definitely busier in the early evening but there isn’t a peak as such as most corporate workers seem to work quite extended hours in the cities which does spread the volume out a lot more than the morning from what we saw.

  • Hi there. We are just about to brave the Tokyo transport network as first time visitors next week. Do you reckon that taking the Shinjuku-Gyoenmae (Marunouchi line) > Akasaka (Ginza line) >Asakusa trip with luggage between 7am and 8am is do-able, or plainly madness? Trying to get to Nikko, but not keen on having to leave at 5:30 or 6am due to jetlag etc.

    • Hi Sophie, thanks for visiting. I’ve not had the chance to try Beijing yet but definitely want to get there! Hopefully Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo will have prepared me for the mass transport aspect at least 🙂

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