Tokyo Subway and Train Survival Guide

A definitive guide to the Tokyo subway and train system - including subway map, JR map, line breakdowns and generally useful tips for navigating Tokyo by rail.

Photo Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson via Flickr cc

When you first set eyes on the Tokyo subway map, it is typical to be filled with twin feelings of anxiety and awe. Coloured lines in all directions dazzle the eye, an effect only matched by expressionist paintings or a den of exotic snakes. But do not let your initial impressions fool you, the Tokyo subway system is in reality very easy to master, even on a short trip. In fact, the city has one of the world’s premier networks of trains, in terms of usability, reliability and cost. This guide will act as a primer for all those new to the Tokyo subway and train system, including a detailed line guide, maps, advice on buying tickets and handy tips to ensure your riding of the rails runs as smoothly as the trains themselves. 

Tokyo Subway, JR and Private Lines

When trying to get around Tokyo it’s highly likely you will need to use a mixture of subway, Japan Rail East (JR) and private trains. In central Tokyo (within the confines of the Yamanote Line) the subway is king, the crisscrossing lines making passage throughout this area very simple. Venture further out of the city though and JR or private lines are your best option, with tracks spreading out for vast distances in all directions. Though this may seem like a fairly confusing system, it’s easy to pick up, with all the information you really need being the line name and desired station. Trains are by far the most popular mode of transport in Tokyo, with services running from 5am to around midnight daily, thus unless you’re planning to stay out late, the trains have you covered. 

Tokyo Subway Line Breakdown: 

The Tokyo subway system is split between two service providers: Toei Subways and Tokyo Metro, together operating 13 lines running through 285 stations. Be aware that some subway lines merge onto the tracks of different operators when nearing the city centre’s boundry. For example, Fukotoshin Line trains begin to run on the Tokyu Toyoko Line at Shibuya Station and the Chiyoda Line is linked to the Odakyu Line which runs out to the south-west of the city.

Photo Credit: JarkkoS via Flickr

Photo Credit: JarkkoS via Flickr cc

Open the image link above to view the map in closer detail. As you can see the subway lines are colour coded and there is a useful key in the bottom right corner. Some of the main, most useful lines include:

The Tokyo Metro Ginza Line: The Ginza Line runs from Shibuya in the west of the city to Asakusa in the east, passing through the popular areas of Ueno, Ginza and Shimbashi along it’s route. This was also the city’s first line, opened in 1927. Colour code: orange.

The Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line: This U shaped line begins in the west of the city, takes in the bustling business and entertainment areas surrounding Shinjuku and Tokyo stations, before circling back round to Ikebukuro. Colour code: red. 

The Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line: A useful line for taking in the upmarket areas of Naka-Meguro, Ebisu and Roppongi, as well as the famed Tsukiji fish market and the home of Japanese anime and electronics – Akihabara. Colour code: silver. 

Tokyo JR Line Breakdown:

Photo Credit: JarkkoS via Flickr

Photo Credit: JarkkoS via Flickr cc

JR trains generally run like clockwork, an essential quality given the systems main use – commuting. Keep in mind that many of the lines run different services along the same tracks. For example, the Chūō Line runs local (stops at every station), rapid (only stops at selected stations), limited express (selected stations) and special rapid (selected stations) services. To be certain your train stops at the correct station, there are easy to decipher diagrams located on station platforms showing which trains stop at which stations. Alternatively, ask one of the many station attendants, who will, more often than not, be able to understand your query even if they speak little English. Also note that to access JR trains you first need to pass through the special JR gates in stations that run multiple lines, just look for the ubiquitous green JR logo to find your way. Here’s a rundown of some of the most useful JR lines for visitors: 

The Yamanote Line: The circular Yamanote Line is likely the most useful in all of Tokyo, especially for a tourist. The line stops at all of the city’s main stations (Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Tokyo etc) and allows passengers to circumvent Tokyo without the need to change trains. What’s more, with trains running as often as every 3 minutes, you never have to wait long to hop aboard. Colour code: green. 

The Chūō Line: A great line for checking out some of Tokyo’s quieter but very cool neighborhoods, including Koenji, Kichijoji  and Tachikawa. The Chūō runs for a massive 53km between Tokyo Station and Takao, taking in a lot of stops along the way. Colour code: orange. 

Shinkansen: The Shinkansen (or bullet trains), operated by JR, connect all of Japan’s major cities. These high-speed trains are like stepping into the future for many foreigners used to the dilapidated train services of their home countries. From Tokyo, catch the Tohoku, Joetsu, Hokuriku and Tokaido Shinkansen lines which take passengers out of the megalopolis in all directions. 

Tokyo Private Lines:

As a tourist in Tokyo it is unlikely you’ll find much use for the various private train lines that link the city with it’s extensive suburbs and neighboring prefectures. However, it may be useful to have a cursory knowledge of the system in case you fancy an adventure into the hinterlands. These lines are commonly run in tandem with the big department stores and begin their services at one of the major train stations. 

Seibu Railway: Beginning at Ikebukuro Station servicing Saitama and the Tama region. 

Tokyu Railway: Beginning at Shibuya Station servicing the south-west and Yokohama.

Tobu Railway: Beginning at Asakusa Station servicing Saitama, Gunma and Tochigi Prefectures.

Odakyu Railway: Beginning at Shinjuku Station servicing Kanagawa prefecture and acts as the gateway to Hakone.

Keisei Railway: Beginning at Ueno Station and servicing Narita Airport.

Keikyu Railway: Beginning at Shinagawa Station and servicing Haneda Airport. 

Tsukuba Express: Beginning at Akihabara Station and servicing Ibaraki Prefecture. 

How to Buy Tickets:

Photo Credit: Bradley Eldridge via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Bradley Eldridge via Flickr cc

Buying train tickets is a breeze. The easiest way to go about it is to use one of the many automated ticket machines (see above), usually located close to the station gates. Simply select the English language option in the top-right-hand corner of the screen and follow the instructions. These machines accept bills and coins but no credit or debit cards, but they will give you change for anything up to a 10,000 yen note. 

Train fares are calculated according to the length of your journey. On the ticket machine screen you will be presented with different options (starting from around 170 yen for the cheapest fare), to figure out which fare you need to select, consult one of the bilingual fare charts or maps above the machines. The maps indicate what station you are in and give a fare price for every other station in the city – they can be a little confusing at first so take your time to consult the map before queuing up to take the stress out of the situation. If all else fails, buy the cheapest ticket and use one of the ‘fare readjustment’ machines at your destination station to make up the cost.

IC Cards:

Photo Credit: mroach via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: mroach via Flickr cc

If you’re staying in the city for more than a day or two, it is advised you purchase an electronic IC card to ease your transit. There are various varieties available (Suica, Pasmo etc) and can again be bought through a machine. Commonly, a deposit of around 500 yen is given for the card itself and then users are free to charge the card with as little or as much money as they wish. IC cards can be used on trains and buses with a simple swipe of the card reader.   

Day-Passes:

Photo Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson via Flickr cc

For short-term visitors, rather than buy a ticket before each journey, a day-pass is a good option. These passes need to be bought at the service windows of the lines they correspond to, so make sure you know what lines you are going to be using and buy the relevant pass. 

Tokyo Metro 1-Day Open Ticket: allows for unlimited 1 day travel on Tokyo Metro lines. Adult ticket: 710 yen, child ticket: 360 yen. 

Common 1-Day Ticket: allows for unlimted 1 day travel on both the Tokyo Metro and Toei Subways lines. Adult ticket: 1000 yen, child ticket: 500 yen. 

Tokyo Combination Ticket: allows for unlimited 1 day travel on all JR, Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway lines as well as Toei buses. Adult ticket: 1580 yen, child ticket: 790 yen.  

JR Pass:

Photo Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson via Flickr cc

For tourists in Japan, purchasing a JR Pass can often be the most economical way of using the train network. The JR Pass is only available to those with a visa status of ‘temporary visitor’, whether this be for 15 or 3o days, so if you’re planning to stay in the country longer, on a working-holiday visa for example, you are excluded from purchasing the pass. Also, as the name suggests, the pass is only valid for JR trains, meaning it will be of no use for travel on the subway or private lines. 

There are numerous types of pass, including those allowing nationwide travel (7 days for 29,110 yen ) and regional travel (prices vary, check the official JR website for more details). For the Tokyo area, a 3 day pass will set you back 10,000 yen. As mentioned, purchasing a pass can be very good value, but before buying consider how much travelling on JR trains you plan to do during your stay to be sure you’re making the right choice.

 General Advice for Train Travel: 

Photo Credit: Bit Boy via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Bit Boy via Flickr cc

Trains are at their busiest during commuter hours (around 8am-10am and 6pm-8pm) so do your best to avoid riding the rails at these times. If this is impossible or you fancy experiencing train-travel at it’s most cramped, be prepared for extreme close proximity to strangers, seeing platform attendants literally pushing people into the doors and marvel at the stony-faced resolve of experienced Tokyoite commuters. 

Most train carriages have special disabled and elderly priority seats. Sitting on these seats will be met with disapproving looks so it is best to avoid them, even with weary legs after a long day of sightseeing.

Photo Credit: buyalex via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: buyalex via Flickr cc

Women-only carriages operate from the first morning trains until around 9:30am depending on the line. Such carriages are marked on the platform with pink markers in English. Young children are also allowed to use these carriages. 

Photo Credit: Paul Pichota via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Paul Pichota via Flickr cc

As opposed to many areas of the world, in Japan queues are well respected. Train platform markers designate where to line up from. 

Talking loudly, eating and drinking are generally frowned upon (especially during day-time hours), so do your best to respect these customs.

If you are going to be routinely without internet access during your stay, when you do have access (whether in your hotel, hostel or at one of the city’s wifi hotspots) use your time wisely and plan your travel routes. See below for some tips on useful resources. 

Useful Apps and Resources:

Google Maps is generally a reliable way of navigating – giving you train, bus and walking instructions.

TrainRouteFinder by Jorudan (http://world.jorudan.co.jp/norikae/cgi-bin/engkeyin.cgi) is also a good way of planning your journeys ahead of time. Jorudan allows you to set your preferred arrival or departure time for when time is of the essence. 

Various free and paid apps are available, of which Tokyo Rail Map Lite comes recommended for it’s usability offline. However, this app only for the subway and thus is unhelpful for JR or private line transit. 

Jack Heslehurst

Jack Heslehurst

Tokyo-based writer and editor, originally from the UK, with a special interest in politics, history and travel.



Related travel categories

# Tokyo Travel Tips # Japan Travel Tips

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