There are so many more people in Tokyo than in New York, but it’s pristine. It’s so organized, and yet the address system is in complete chaos.” ―Nick Wooster
As of the year 2017, there exists 180 metro systems across the globe, spanning 56 countries and more than 170 cities. While it may not be the largest or the busiest, the Tokyo subway system is one of the most complex metro systems in the world. Aside from the system’s 13 different subway lines extending all throughout the city, there are multiple companies which operate subway and bullet train lines throughout the country.
While it may appear intimidating to a first-time traveler, the Tokyo subway system is actually quite well laid out and fairly simple to use once you get the hang of it!
1. Reading subway maps and signs
Like most of the signage found throughout Tokyo, the subway system maps and signs are offered in both Kanji and English. All stations have city-wide maps displayed on the walls for passengers to refer to, as well as line-specific maps including the individual and number of each station. Stations are labelled with both letters and numbers, the letter identifying the area of the city the station is found in, and the number identifying its location. Additionally, each line is color coded to simplify differentiating one from another.
For example, the Ginza line services the Ginza commercial district in Tokyo. The line is identified by the letter G and the color orange, with 19 stations numbered 1 through 19. Therefore, if you were trying to get from one end of the Ginza line to another, you would simply get on the G train at stop G1 and ride the train 19 stops until you reached stop G19. While it may sound confusing, the color and number identification simplifies traveling throughout the system.
2. Getting a SUICA card
If you plan on staying Tokyo for more than a couple days, or plan on using the subway a lot, investing in a SUICA card will definitely be worth your time. For a deposit of 500 yen, the card enables you to tap through all subway (and most other train) stations. The card can be reloaded at SUICA machines found at each subway station, and the machines provide step by step instructions on how to purchase and load the cards, available in multiple languages. Additionally, SUICA cards can be used not only in Tokyo, but for subway systems all across the country, including the Kyoto and Osaka city subways.
One of the greatest things about SUICA extends beyond the subway. SUICA cards can be used to purchase drinks and snacks from vending machines, of which there are more than 5 million across the country. Yes, that number is correct, there are enough vending machines in Japan to have 1 machine per every 23 people, and some even offer alcohol. The versatility offered by SUICA cards makes them completely worth it for every solo traveler!
Check out this step-by-step guide to purchasing your SUICA card upon arrival in Japan!
3. Maneuvering the multiple companies
Unlike most subway systems which are operated by one single company funded but the municipal government, Tokyo has three main subway companies which operate throughout the country. Some tickets are universal and can be used across multiple lines, while other lines require separate tickets to ride. This is another instance where having a SUICA card simplifies things, as you can simply tap the cards across the multiple subway systems without worrying about purchasing separate tickets.
The two most common systems within Tokyo are the Tokyo Metro subway and the JR Rail systems. While the Tokyo Metro subway is mainly located in Tokyo proper, JR Rail trains operate across the entire country. JR Rail tickets tend to be more expensive, and therefore you should plan your subway travels well in advance in order to avoid paying more for the JR Rail when you could have reached the same destination for less on the Tokyo Metro subway.
4. The famous Japanese bullet trains
While Tokyo may be recognized for its extensive subway system, the country’s bullet train system, referred to in Japan as the Shinkansen, is globally recognized as one of the fastest train systems in the world. Bullet trains run all across the country, and many people travelling from Tokyo to other cities and regions in Japan use the bullet train to do so. While the bullet train can be fairly pricey, costing well over $50 per ticket depending on the distance being traveled, tourists are able to purchase advanced bullet train tickets at a discounted rate. For travelers wishing to visit Kyoto from Tokyo, a one-way trip on the bullet train takes around 2-and-a-half hours, versus a 5-and-a-half-hour drive by car.
Bullet trains in Japan offer two types of tickets: reserved and non-reserved. Although they are less costly than the reserved tickets, non-reserved tickets do not guarantee a seat on the train, and therefore you may find yourself standing for the entirety of your journey. On the other hand, reserved tickets cost more but afford you the comfort of knowing you’re guaranteed a seat for a more comfortable journey. Additionally, many bullet trains have smoking cars which allow passengers to smoke cigarettes during the ride, so if you don’t enjoy the smell of cigarette smoke, make sure to avoid reserving seats in these cars before booking.
Check out this extensive guide on maneuvering the Japan Rail system.
Check out my blog post on why Tokyo is the ideal city for solo travelers!
Do you have any tips for navigating public transportation in Japan? If so leave a comment down below, and share your travel stories!
Happy Travels! – Taylor