Tips for Tokyo’s Tricky Trains

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Tokyo transportation can be intimidating—I mean, have you seen the map?!

tokyo subway map

Photo credit: Gina-Marie Gattone

Navigating a foreign country (or even a new city within your home country) can be overwhelming. With its massive size and so many uniquely Tokyo characteristics, Tokyo can be especially overwhelming. Our hope in today’s blog post is to make at least one thing—the train and subway system—a bit easier for you to navigate.

Tokyo has one of the most extensive mass transit systems in the world. Although clean, safe, and efficient, it is also quite confusing—about a dozen different companies operate train, subway, bus, and ferry lines around Tokyo. If you’d like to keep things simple, the train lines operated by JR East and the two subway lines are more than enough for navigating central Tokyo. Fun Fact: 40 million passengers use Tokyo’s rail system daily, a combination of subways and trains, and you have 503 (at last count!) stations to suit your needs.

Train vs. Subway
The JR East is Tokyo’s most extensive railway network. Its Yamanote Line (山手線) is its star player and runs a complete circle around the core of Tokyo. Many of Tokyo’s main hubs and points of interest can be reached through the Yamanote Line or within one transfer.

In addition to trains, an extensive subway network runs through underground Tokyo, operated by two companies: Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway. The two are inter-linked, so you will not have an issue transferring between them. Note: While the JR Yamanote Line is not a subway line, due to its importance as a major transportation artery in downtown Tokyo, it is usually featured on subway maps. Transferring between the JR Yamanote and the subway lines is simple and can be done at many stations—just follow the signs!

Fun fact: Tokyo is home to the busiest subway station in the world, Shinjuku Station. Although an average of 3.5 million people use the station each day, you would never guess it because it is so incredibly quiet. Anytime you’re riding a subway or train take a second to notice how quiet it it is. Check our Facebook page to watch a video we shot in the Shinjuku Station on a weekday morning.

Getting from Narita Airport to Tokyo
You have a few options. If you’re flying in from abroad, you’ll most likely be arriving at Narita Airport which means 45 miles still stand between you and central Tokyo. Don’t even consider a taxi—it will easily cost you a couple hundred hours and take over 90 minutes. Now you have to decided between bus or train. Although slightly more expensive than a train, a limousine bus (about ¥3,000) might be simpler as you don’t have to traverse stairs and escalators with your luggage. The bus picks up outside arrival lobbies and shuttles downtown to major hotels and stations. However, the quickest and cheapest option would be a train. You’ve got the Narita Express, about a 45-minute journey and  ¥1,500 (note: from Tokyo to Narita Airport, the fare jumps up to  ¥3,000), or the Keisei Narita Sky Access, about an hour journey and ¥1,300. Regardless of what you choose, all options are above ground, offering views of life outside of Tokyo.

Buying a Ticket
Once again, you have some options. You can buy a standard ticket, rail pass, or day pass. We suggest purchasing an Integrated Circuit Card (IC Card)—either a Suica or Pasmo card, which can be purchased at any station.

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An IC Card might as well as stand as “Incredibly Convenient.” It’s a rechargeable card that you can use for any type of public transportation in Tokyo, and throughout greater Japan. They can also be used at vending machines and convenience stores. All you have to do is lightly place your IC card on top of the reader on top of the ticket gates and (providing you have enough credit) you will be let through. If the price of your journey turned out to be more than the credit left on your card, you can use the fare adjustment machine located next to the ticket gates to re-charge your card.


Google Maps directions works great in Tokyo!




Tokyo transportation is incredibly timely (which could also be said about Japanese people—there’s no such thing as “running late.”) You can expect any schedule posted online or at a station to be accurate. Trains and subways run super frequently, and the most time you’ll ever wait for one in central Tokyo is 3-6 minutes. Warning: Trains and subways do not operate 24/7—depending on the line and the station, the last train happens at or just after midnight. Oh and forget the earlier statement that transportation is quiet—the later in the evening, the rowdier the train and stations.

While there are some smart phone apps like Tokyo Transport Map to help you plan navigation through the transportation system, we found Google Maps a simple and accurate option. However, remember to take into account the time it takes to climb down and up stations, often not calculated in transit times.

During certain rush hour times, there are cars designated for women passengers only.

















Happy travels to and around Tokyo!

P.S. You can’t leave the country of Japan without taking a ride on a shinkansen (新幹線), A.K.A. a bullet train. Just like the inner city rail systems, the shinkansens are known for being incredibly timely up to the second.