The transportation options in Tokyo are exceptional, but a bit complicated for the uninitiated.
With 13 distinct subway lines and the JR Yamanote rail line that all criss and cross and connect across the vast city over 285 stations, you catch yourself gazing at a map thinking “yeah, this should be easy!” But really, it can be quite easy when you get the hang of it.
First recommendation – get yourself a Suica or Pasmo transport card. We chose Suica. You can use either of these cards on any of the lines in Tokyo and Suica can be used on some other lines outside of Tokyo. It’s quite economical and fairly easy to set yourself up.
For Suica, seek out the black automated machine at any station. Choose the english button, and follow the instructions to select the amount you want to start the card with (we chose $4,000 yen = about $40 Canadian). This amount includes a 500 yen deposit that can be refunded at the end of your trip (and anything outstanding that remains on the card). The machines only take cash, so insert the amount and a card will print out with your name on it. You can use this throughout your trip.
It’s simple. Connect your card to the card reader pad as you enter a station line, and connect it again as you exit your destination station. The amount for your trip comes off your card, and you can look down as you exit to see how much remains on your card. Then, go to any automated Suica machine and top it up whenever you need to. We used about $40-$50 for our entire 12 day trip. Considering how far and wide we travelled using the subway and JR line, that’s really really cheap.
The subway and JR lines are quite daunting when you first use them, but here’s the trick. Instead of fixating on the line, look at the number associated with it (Oedo line = E) and find the number of the station you are starting at, and what station you are ending at. As you enter the station, check out the many maps to ensure you are in the right spot, and find the entrance for your line (letter) and make sure you are at the stop that is the right number. Do the same when you exit. When in doubt, as you are scratching your head, more often than not a Tokyoite will come up to you and ask if you need help. It’s pretty amazing how helpful and kind these people are.
Once you are on a train, you will notice maps that you can follow, and each train has a recorded announcement in english so you always know where you are at. And, you can always count the number of stops as well.
The part that is the most confusing about all this, is actually when you get out of a train and try and find your way above ground. Some of the stations are among the largest in the world, with hundreds of exits and platforms each. Finding the right exit to get you where you want to be above ground is not always easy and can cause a lot of extra walking and confusion. Eventually, Dave and I learned to stop as we got off the train, look at a map (that always has english), and figure out the exit number for where you want to be outside the station (for example, A7). Then, follow the signs to that exit.
Once you get the hang of it, you will marvel at the timeliness of the trains (always completely on time), the number of trains (we never had to wait more than 8-10 minutes for a train) and the orderliness of it all. It’s Japan. You can expect some packed cars, but it is incredibly quiet on the trains and boarding and exiting are very choreographed and respectful. You stand in a line to enter a car, move to the side to let people off first, and then you get on the train in an orderly fashion. No pushing or shoving ever. There are some women only cars at peak times, and there is always a section on cars for elderly or people with disabilities.
The Tokyo subway system is an absolute marvel, and a can’t miss experience! You will eventually be very proud of yourself and consider yourself a real pro.