Demystifying Tokyo’s Train and Subway System

Yamanote City
JR Yamanote Line in Tokyo (SNA)

By Tom Benner, Sneha Bhavaraju, and Todd Crowell

SNA Travel (Tokyo) — So you’re coming to Tokyo, and you’ll need be able to get around. Tokyo is amazing as it is, but there is, literally, a lot below the surface. Below the streets are hundreds of subway stations, and routes snaking across the city, connecting the world’s largest metropolis.

Take one look at the transit map, and it seems like it is beyond comprehension, a spaghetti bowl of colors and Japanese words. It is a map of one of the most complicated and extensive railway systems in the world.

You’ve seen the pictures of transit workers literally pushing people into subway cars. You may have heard of the horror of the morning rush hour in Tokyo. You’ve heard that many signs are in Japanese only.

Relax. Once you figure it out, you’ll find that Tokyo is not only possible but surprisingly easy to navigate.

First, there is a difference between surface rail lines and subways – and there are different stations for each. One station can be served by both a surface line and a subway line, with the stations being about 300 to 400 meters apart. These also have separate fares, but both can be used with a subway card.

How to Buy a Train Pass

The first step is to buy a ticket or a card. There are two kinds: a Pasmo or a Suica. Either will work, and there are no major differences between them. The initial deposit is 500 yen, and the card can be topped up at any ticket counter. There are various charging options—1000 yen at a time, or, for frequent travelers, even 10,000 yen.

All you need to do is know where you want to go and find it on the map above the ticket counter. The price will be written right above or below the station name.

Railway maps can look confusing, but there is no need to panic. Just buy the cheapest ticket and, on exiting, put it in the “fare adjustment” machine. It will show you how much extra you need to pay. Or if that’s too confusing, show it to the uniformed guy near the ticket gate ticket, and he’ll tell you how much more you need to pay (but curiously won’t give change if you overpaid your stop).

For more long-term options, you can buy a monthly pass for a designated route. Most people use this for when they need to commute to work or school. With a student discount, you end up paying half of the fare for that route. You can purchase a monthly, three-month, or six-month pass, depending on how long you will be using the route. This saves an incredible amount of money in the long run, as you can go to all stations on that route for free as well. This is only worth it if you break even, however.

You can even purchase daily passes. If you know you will be going back and forth on trains all day, you can buy a Tokyo Combination Ticket for 1,590 yen (Again, only worth it if you break even). There are also passes for certain lines (The Tokyo Metro All Day Pass is 710 yen, for example). For more information, and for tourist discount tickets, visit The next step is getting to where you want to go.

How to Read the Rail and Subway Map

The rail and subway map may seem intimidating at first, but is actually quite simple. Each line is designated by a different color and each station is consecutively color coded.

The train system of Tokyo consists of both surface lines and subway lines.

The great circular track in the middle is the famous JR Yamanote Line that connects many of Tokyo’s major stations and can be thought of as being the heart of the train system.

Tokyo’s train lines are privately owned—there are JR lines, Tokyo Metro Lines, Toei lines, and other smaller lines. Because of this, the fare changes when you switch between certain lines. The minimum fare for Tokyo Metro and Toei lines starts at 170 yen, and for JR lines, it is 140 yen. Because of this, certain routes are often cheaper than others, despite having the same start and end points. To minimize costs, minimize the amount of transfers between kinds of lines.

For a website that lets you input stations to figure out your route, go to This website is incredibly useful—you can use it to determine which train to take, where to transfer if needed, how much it will cost, and even how much time it will take.

Now that you’re on the train and on your way, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Train Etiquette

Remember to behave—signs and announcements ask you to turn off cellphones or keep them in silent mode. It is rude to talk too loudly on the train. Try not to take up too much space on a crowded trains by putting belongings on the seat next to you. And although it is cramped, avoid stretching your legs out too far, in case you trip someone. There are certain seats reserved for elderly passengers, expecting mothers, those who are injured and those with small children called “Priority Seats.” In a full train, people do sit there, but they get up if they see a passenger in one of those categories board the car.

There are elevators at the end of every platform for people who are disabled, which also comes in handy when you have a lot of luggage. Also, whenever a passenger in a wheelchair needs to board a train, the conductor goes over to him with a special ramp, and makes sure to help the person on, and then off the train when he or she needs to get off. A discreet and efficiently monitored surveillance system helps them to do this.

Fear not: The public transit network is great and people should use it—it is the easiest and most fuss-free way of getting around the city, not to mention cost efficient and eco-friendly. The train system is also very clean and well maintained, considering that it’s public transport in a big city.

The train system may also be the reason why obesity rates are so low in Tokyo. Transferring from one line to another can be quite a long walk, and sometimes even an entirely different part of the station. For example, the JR Shinjuku Station is different from the Seibu Shinjuku Station, though both are gateways to the vast Shinjuku Station. There are also “secret entrances” in buildings and department stores. It’s easy to get lost while searching for a subway station! But, nevertheless, it is a good workout.

Need a Ride?

Of course, sometimes you may find yourself needing to go somewhere by road.

Taxis in Japan are definitely not cheap but sometimes necessary. The minimum fare is 710 yen just to go down a block. The taxis have a light on the dashboard indicating if it is empty or not. This isn’t exactly foreigner friendly because the sign is in Japanese kanji. For those that don’t read kanji, a red light means its empty and no light means it’s occupied.

Taxi drivers don’t usually speak English, but if you have the address written down or memorized, he will input it into his GPS navigator. If you have a map on hand, that will work just as well. Many taxis have a board in the pocket behind the driver’s seat with English words and phrases that non-Japanese speakers can point to (sort of like a language Ouija board) to communicate with the driver, in an effort to make the city more foreign friendly.

And if you want to go beyond the borders of the city into other parts of Japan.

Faster than a speeding… Bullet Train

Japan’s famous bullet trains, or shinkansen, connect various parts of the country. Major stations such as Tokyo, Ueno and Shinagawa also are access stations for the bullet train. Bullet train rides aren’t cheap, but they are a convenient and quick way to get across the country.

Other Facts about Trains in Tokyo

1. The sheer size of the Tokyo train and subway system is awesome. There are about twenty rail lines in the greater Tokyo area moving millions of people every day.

2. The trains are famously overcrowded. Often during rush hour they are 200% over rated capacity. The station attendant pushing last minute travelers onto the car has been a stock image of Tokyo for years. You don’t see many “pushers” these days, but the trains are crowded.

3. The large, anonymous crowd of passengers sometime attract gropers, which is why the first three cars on many lines are reserved for women-only during rush hours. Crowded trains are probably good for pickpockets too, although you don’t hear much about them.

4. If you leave a coat or other personal possessions behind, there is a good chance they can be recovered through the rail service’s efficient lost and found service.

5. The trains do not run 24 hours a day. Midnight is the witching hour, and there is an unholy scramble to catch the last train home. The hours to 2 am are the golden hours for taxi drivers. The last train departs Tokyo station at 12:18 am and comes to rest at Takao at 1:37 am, then it is quiet until 4:29 am when the first train pulls out of Takao and the whole madness begins again.

6. Tokyo train cars are considerably smaller than those in other cities like London or New York. The typical car is 50 square meters compared with 75 meters in London.

7. The Yamanote and Chuo lines are run by the privatized former Japan Railways. Newer lines are mostly built by private concerns. Often they also own department stores, and it is not a coincidence that their trains terminate in one of their big stores.

8. Suicide is common in the system. As many as one person a day kills himself by jumping in front of a train in the vast system. The euphemism is jinshin jiko—“human accident”—but since the announcements are only in Japanese, you won’t know what’s going on until you notice that the train is stopped for a long time and people are getting off. The system is putting up barriers, but progress is slow.

Tom Benner is a US-born freelance journalist living in Singapore and blogs at Sneha Bhavaraju is a recent graduate of Temple University Japan, where she studied Communications and Business. Todd Crowell is a veteran journalist, writer, and editor, focusing on Asian politics and business. They are all currently participating in the Dateline Tokyo journalism program co-hosted by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *