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 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.

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!

9 Comments

    • 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.

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