Moving subway train at Tokyo Metro station

Photo:Taiyo FUJII

A Guide to Tokyo's Subway System

In Tokyo, travelling by train is the quickest and most convenient way to get around. Tokyo's systems are clean, punctual, and most lines run from stations every several minutes from the hours of 5am to around midnight. This article describes Tokyo's underground subway system further, including how the system works, how to navigate around using a map, and how to buy a ticket, all without having to speak any Japanese.

Using the Map

Photo : JarkkoS on Flickr

The map may look confusing, but with a little practise it can be easy to read. Open the source link in a new tab for a bigger picture. The different coloured lines represent different train lines, as indicated by the key at the bottom of the page. There are many lines that connect together in Tokyo. The main line is the Yamanote Line, which circles round the main larger stations, including Tokyo Central station, Shinjuku and Shibuya.

To make sense of the map, here's a step-by-step guide of getting from A to B. In this case, A will be Sendagi Station (the top-middle of the map, on the dark green Chiyoda line), and B will be Shinjuku Station (the big one on the left).

Sendagi only has the Chiyoda line running through it, as can be seen on the map. In that case, it's possible to get to Shinjuku by changing at a station that the Chiyoda line runs through, and getting onto a connecting train to Shinjuku. There are two ways to do this.

Firstly, the stop after Sendagi is Nishi-Nippori. Nishi-Nippori connects to the Yamanote line, which eventually runs to Shinjuku. The second way is by riding the Chiyoda line from Sendagi to Ōtemachi, and getting onto the Marunouchi Line (indicated in red) onward to Shinjuku. Usually, getting from one station to another either involves one change, or no changes. It's always good to prepare yourself for any possible changes.

Buying a Ticket

Photo : Rob Sinclair on Flickr

Now you know how to get around Tokyo, you'll need to buy yourself a ticket. There are plenty of ticket machines in the stations, and have an English option.

You choose where you want to go on the machine and pay in cash. Train ticket prices stay the same, so you're always guarenteed to pay the exact same amount coming back as you did to get to your destination.

To use your ticket, you must push it into the slot in the barrier, walk through, and pull out your ticket once you're on the other side. Hold onto your ticket, and use it again to get outside the station at your destination.

It's more convenient and faster to purchase a Suica card, which you can also buy from a ticket machine. Instead of inserting your ticket into the barrier and pulling it out again on the other side, you simply scan your card, and the barrier opens.

The card needs a 500 yen deposit plus the amount of money you want to add to it as credit, so that when you scan your card, the credit is automatically taken from the card, instead of you having to purchase a ticket each time. It's a handy method used by most people who ride the subway frequently.

What to do if you get lost

Tokyo subway empty corridor
Photo : SnippyHolloW on Flickr

Some stations in Tokyo are huge. Shinjuku has its own underground mall. It can be easy to get lost in the crowds of people, different lines and platforms in the subway station, but it's important not to panic. It's very easy to find your way around, and all the signs are in English as well as Japanese.

There are countless signs of where to go for certain lines. If you know which line you need, just follow these signs. The platforms are labelled with the lines that run through them, so you'll know which way to go. Additionally, trains in Tokyo leave every few minutes, so if you happen to miss one connection, you'll be usually waiting less than 15 minutes for your next one.

At each platform, on the wall opposite where you stand, the stations indicate which direction the train is going in. Conduct your map - if you were at Sendagi station, for example, the two stations either side of you would be Nezu and Nishi-Nippori. The sign opposite the platform tells you whether your train is going towards Nezu or towards Nishi-Nippori. Take care to keep an eye on these to ensure you're going in the right direction. Lines that circle round such as the Yamanote Line eventually reach all the stations (though doing a full circle takes over an hour), but some lines leave Tokyo altogether. So make sure you're going the right way.

A great thing about the Tokyo subway system is that if you do happen to go in the wrong direction, you can simply get off and board a train that's going the right way at no extra cost. As long as you don't actually leave the station, you won't be charged.

Station services

Concession stand with snacks and newspapers in middle of subway platform
Photo: Tim Adams on Flickr

A little about station services. Most of the bigger, main stations are extremely clean and well taken care of in Tokyo. Some will have cafes, shops and restaurants right near the platforms. Other, smaller stations will only have simple services like a tourist information box and some lavatories.

In conclusion, your life will be made easier navigating the Tokyo system if you have an English map (or Japanese if you prefer), a Suica or Pasmo card, and a clear indication of where you're going and how to get there. Riding the train in Tokyo is an amazing experience which you're sure to enjoy.


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