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Mastering the Tokyo Subway

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When you first arrive in the city it won’t be too long before you need to use the Tokyo subway.  It’s the most efficient way to get to from A to B within the city in super quick time. You just have to master the lines and how they interact first.  The network of subway lines and stations beneath Tokyo is 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 concierge desks and the 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 within the Tokyo subway 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 interchangeably across the Japanese Subway in various cities and many other forms of public transport including most train companies and many buses.

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

Another alternative that can work out costs effective if you are staying in Tokyo and planning to spend the day (or multiple days) exploring the various parts of the city is an unlimited day pass. This is useful if you plan to be on and off the subway and Toei lines frequently visiting various parts of the city. There is a lot to see in the city and it’s very spread out but the subway makes it fast to get around. When your time is limited you may want to go across the city multiple times throughout the day.  You can purchase these 1,2 or 3 day passes for unlimited use on the Tokyo subway system online, they are convenient and could save you some cash too.

2.     You don’t need to speak Japanese

The good news is that the Tokyo Subway is bi-lingual.  If you speak and read English you’ll have no problems with a language barrier getting around.  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 spaghetti of train lines on your phone.  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.

You won’t need to use this map to figure out the train to catch unless you want to, I have apps for that below that have started to work very well as a better solution in the last couple of years but it’s worth understanding the main lines and where they go

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. In the morning peak hour you can be in the queue but just don’t fit on the train and need to wait for the next one.

The exception to be aware of is 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 your night out.  Our experience has been that the Tokyo subway system runs until around midnight. If you are planning on the last train then it pays to ask or check an app to be sure of the time for that particular station.

6.     Train Timetables and online apps

If leaving the timing to chance isn’t comfortable for you then the website Hyperdia can be useful.  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. They do have a phone app but you need to be in Japan to download it and although I have, their website search is optimised for mobile and works well.

In the last 2-years, the Google Maps app has become user-friendly in Japanese cities and is now one of the best options for finding your way around. When you input where you are going it will give you full instructions including the station and line details right down to the platform and incorporates the train timetable to make it all very accurate when working out your time to get to a destination.

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, the line in the opposite direction is usually just across the platform so wait a few seconds and jump on the next train. In a few cases, The Ginza line in Akasaka-Mitsuke station is one that comes to mind, you need to go up the escalators to the next level but that is rare and still only takes a couple of minutes.

It’s easy to get turned around when you’re underground and rushing 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 notice 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 shouldn’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

Morning peak times on the Japanese subway from 7.30 am until 9.00 am. If you don’t need to travel in peak hour just avoid it and definitely don’t try to move your luggage around on the subway. In Tokyo peak hour seems to be literally 90 minutes, at 9.10 am it’s someone waved a magic wand and everything frees up again.  The evening peak is from 5.30 until around 7.30 but while it’s busy it’s not such a condensed mass as the morning.

For some visitors, 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. This is everyday life for the locals on their way to work and school so unless I really need to be somewhere in that window I try to work around those times.

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 they’re not used on the subways themselves you might also want to 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!

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