Tokyo Train Guide

With a little homework, getting around Tokyo can be easy

07 May, 2012 by

Few people would disagree that Japan has the most sophisticated transport network in the world and no where is it more complicated than in Tokyo. With 30 different operators, 882 stations and 102 different rail lines just in the city alone, it’s no surprise that many first time visitors are overwhelmed by the train system in Tokyo. Even the locals get confused. But with a little bit of homework, traveling on Tokyo’s trains can be every bit as convenient and enjoyable as they were made to be.

Traveling by train in Tokyo is convenient, but can also be complicated, even to locals.

While it dabs upon some of the other companies, this guide focuses mostly on the two main players in Tokyo’s train network; the privately run JR East and the government owned subways.

For tourists, it is often possible to reach 90% of popular sights around Tokyo through just JR alone (if there is a nearby station) it is also the cheaper of the two. However, this is only true if you’re staying somewhere central. Otherwise, the Tokyo Metro can sometimes provide a more direct route toward your destination that can save you some time. Do take note of that when choosing an accommodation that it would be best to have at least a JR, Metro or both companies’ stations nearby.

JR, Metro & Toei

At the most basic level, you’ll need to be able to at least identify the 3 different carriers. It’ll help save a lot of trouble later on.

Tokyo's JR East Network. For reference only. Expand for larger.

JR East

Japan Railways is the simplest, since it can be easily identified by its JR logo. For JR East, the company color is green and so is its most used train line, the Yamanote Loop (and stations along the loop) but it has different colors to represent each of its different lines.

JR trains run on land and thus almost all of their stations are outdoors. Personally, it’s a lot more enjoyable to travel by JR since you’d be able to see the sights along the way. The disadvantage is that you tend to require more transfers if you want to get anywhere efficiently with JR. But again, it is a lot easier to make transfers when traveling with JR East as many lines run parallel or meet at many points.

JR Station signage.

Tokyo Metro
Apart from being the front image of Tokyo’s subways, Tokyo Metro is better known for its active PR campaigns and silly public service messages. Since a public image change in 2004, it is now easily identified by a blue and white M logo. Individual lines are marked by a colored ring, with the first letter of the line name inside. For example, the Tokyo Metro Ginza line is marked by an orange ring with the letter G within.

As a subway, the Tokyo Metro runs underground, sometimes as far as 10 stories down. This comes with the benefit of lines being laid out sometimes more efficiently allowing you to get from far ends of Tokyo quicker. There is also at least one touristy destination, Asakusa, that has a Metro station but no JR equivalent.

Metro stations can be identified from the blue M logo or colored rings for individual lines.

The main disadvantage of traveling by Tokyo Metro (and Toei) is the higher ticket prices. Expect to pay 30-40 yen more per trip when buying individual tickets. This can be gotten around with some special passes (see below).

Otherwise the only other disadvantage is that transferring trains on the Metro is a more complicated affair, there is less redundancy so lines meet only at specific stations.

Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway Map. Again for reference only. Expand for larger.

Toei Subway
While the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation is not as major a player in public transport, it is mentioned here primarily due to its affiliation with Tokyo Metro and to avoid some possible frustration.

Both the Tokyo Metro and Toei are government run subways. Take note that while the two companies do collaborate in part and share some common train stations, it is important to note that the two are very much separate entities. Further confusion arises from the fact that Toei labels its lines in an identical way and worst yet, both Toei and Metro show train maps with both companies’ lines together.

However, know that should you ever transfer between Tokyo Metro and Toei lines you will be charged for both. You will be alerted to a Toei transfer by another ticketing gate inside the subway. The price is slightly subsidized if you had come from a Metro line, but still a lot more than if you were to take a single carrier. Transport by Toei, in general is also more expensive than even Tokyo Metro.

Toei Subway can be identified by its fan icon (usually green). Both Toei and Metro also use a blue and white train logo to denote subways. Toei runs just 4 lines: Asakusa (Rose, A), Mito (Blue, I), Shinjuku (Leaf Green, S) and Oedo (Ruby, E). Avoid whenever possible.

Toei Stations have a fan sign.

IC Cards

IC Cards are prepaid smart cards that can be used to pay for your fare. If you’re from Singapore, you should be pretty familiar with using one already. Up until 2009, Singapore’s EZ-Link cards were identical to those used in Japan.

While it is theoretically possible to purchased paper tickets to travel, having to do so is infinitely more complicated and troublesome. Without one you’d need to calculate the exact fares for each trip and purchase extra tickets every time you transfer. As such, it is pretty much necessary that you get one as soon as you step down into Japan. In the previous transport guide, I mentioned an amazing Narita Express and Smart Card bundle that foreign tourists are able to purchase at Narita Airport.

Both JR and Metro have their own different IC Cards. JR East using “Suica” which is a Japanese pun on so many levels while the Tokyo subways have the “PASMO”.

The cost for Suica is 2,000 yen and contains a 1,500 yen value and 500 yen deposit. PASMO has a 500 yen deposit too but a minimum value of 1,000 yen. You can refund any remaining value and your deposit at the ticketing machines at any of the respective companies’ stations.

Suica. An indispensable tool while in Tokyo.

These days, both cards can be used interchangeably within Tokyo. Still, I’d recommend getting the Suica over the PASMO if you are traveling outside of Tokyo as well as it can be used on JR lines nationwide. Chances are if you’re traveling to say Osaka in Kansai, you’d still need to get their local equivalent (the ICOCA) to travel on non-JR networks but it’s always good to have a backup. Further good news is that starting next year, you will be able to use the Suica outside of Tokyo on non-JR lines too.

Other than on transport, the card is also accepted as a form of payment at all convenience stores and some departmental stores around the region, being interchangeable with 7-Eleven’s nanaco for example. So you don’t have to be too worried about having too much money in your card. In fact, I would recommend paying for stuff through an IC Card as much as possible, since dealing with Japanese coins is especially irritating.

Tickets and IC cards can be purchased at these machines.

For both Suica and PASMO, there is the option of purchasing a special registered version instead. They can be purchased in the same way through normal ticketing machines but you will be prompted to enter some personal identification information (your Name/Birthdate/Gender). Enter your name here as it appears on your Passport.

Should you lose a registered Suica or PASMO, you can get them replaced (for 500 yen or 210 yen respectively) and still get back your original card’s balance. Pretty neat.

Special Passes

Almost all railway companies around Japan offer a variety of different discount tickets for commuters, the most basic of which are 1-day unlimited travel passes (often called Free Tickets or Free Passes) that allow you to take as many trains from any particular network as many times as you wish in a single day. These are especially useful especially for tourists who tend to hit up a whole bunch of different destinations each day.

For JR, this is called the Tokunai Pass and costs 730 yen. It covers all JR buses and trains in the 23 wards of central Tokyo. Due to the already low price of JR tickets, a Tokunai Pass isn’t always a must get. As a rule of thumb, you’ll need to make at least 4 trips in a day to make it worthwhile. Though this isn’t that difficult if you’re touring.

If you had preplanned the day’s activities or foresee yourself doing a lot of shopping or station hopping, then it might be a good idea to purchase one in the morning before you make your first trip.

Both Metro and JR companies offer one day unlimited travel passes.

For Metro, there are 1-day and 2-day Open Tickets which cost 600 yen and 980 yen respectively. Considering how much Tokyo Metro tickets usually cost, these are a godsend. If your hotel happens to be located on a convenient Metro Station, get one. Just 3 rides is all it takes to make a 1-day ticket worthwhile. You might end up spending even less than if you traveled by JR if you keep to just Metro lines with a 1-day pass. And with a 2-day pass, you will just need to take a 2-way trip each day to cover the cost.

Both of these tickets will allow you to save quite a bit of money in the long run, and with proper use Tokyo’s transport which is thought of as being expensive ends up being cheaper even than if you were to make the same number of trips in Singapore.

Tokyo Metro also offers a combination pass with Toei Subway, that allows for unlimited travel on both companies’ trains. But given the high price of 1,000 yen, I wouldn’t recommend getting one. If you find yourself spending enough on transport to make the pass worthwhile, you are most probably doing something wrong.

In the end, don’t feel compelled that you have to stick to either carrier just to save few yen. You’ll lose much of the convenience and bring about unnecessary worry. But if you happen to know that you’ll be doing a lot of bouncing between stations or just want the luxury of not having to walk even for nearby destinations, both the JR and Metro day passes will suit you well.

Traveling By Train

Planning Your Journey

There is no stressing the importance of planning a train ride before you get on board. You can generally figure out what trains to take if you have an idea of where it is located geographically, but for new visitors it is best to plan ahead to save any future hassle.

Unfortunately, not even Google Maps does a good job of understanding Tokyo’s transport system. It is still useful to find out where places are located but the most recommended transport tool is instead Hyperdia. Key in any two stations and it will churn out the routes and trains to take.

Routes are organized by total cost and time taken, so it doesn’t necessarily always give you the smartest means of transport but it will make sure you get to your destination and on time, since it factors in train timings accurately even. It is up to you to make the best decision. Hyperdia is available in English and Japanese, since not even Tokyoites can claim to be familiar with all of the transport in Tokyo.

If you happen to have data connection in Japan, keep in bookmarked.

Some important things to pay attention to when taking down your itinerary is to not only take note of the stations but also the train lines that you will be using since there is often more than one line at each station. With that, it’s as easy as just finding the correct track for your route.

Just one of the many train networks in Tokyo.

Chances are though, you might not have an 3G connection in Japan. And it wouldn’t be very fun if you had a static plan for each day of your trip. In such cases, my advise is to have your route planned out at the station before passing through the gantry. You can’t rely on stations having a route map inside the station and many trains only show the stops for the route they are traveling on.

Still, not all stations have maps of other operators, so you won’t be able to plan out transfers between different companies easily.

Track numbers are labeled by number at each station and identified by color throughout.

It is only expected that each line runs in two directions, so make sure the train is headed in the right direction. You’d think that they’d just be at opposite sides, but because of the interconnected nature, trains on the same line traveling in opposite directions can sometimes be a few tracks away. The same can be said when transferring between trains, every station is different so keep a look out for signs.

Signs show the adjacent stops at each station.

Thankfully, signage at each track clearly show all the essential information. At JR Stations, these small little diagrams that can be found on the track’s pillars are precious. They show the stops that the trains on that track run through, as well as how long it takes.

Train maps on each platform show the exact time taken for the journey.

Train stations in Tokyo usually have an LED sign board that show you the direction the train is headed as well as the exact timing for the train. If you’re supposed to take the 7:30 train, be sure to take the 7:30 train and not the 7:29 or 7:31 train. At peak hours, the interval between trains can be as short as 90 seconds but if a train in Japan is said to come at a certain time, you can be sure it will be there on the dot, aligned perfectly to the tracks (else someone will be in trouble).

The reason why this is a concern, is because it is not uncommon for different trains to use the same platform in Japan.

Some platforms have different trains running on the same tracks.

When traveling on local lines, the most encountered alternate train on the same platform are “Rapid” (Kaisoku) trains.

These are identical to normal local trains (Futsu) but skip alternate stops to save time. If your destination is one of the missed stations, be sure not to board a Rapid train. Often, Rapid trains use a different color than normal trains. There is also usually a small sign on the train and the LED signboards along the boarding platform will also indicate if a train is Rapid. In the previous photographs, trains on the same track of the Chuo-Sobu (one of the most frequented) lines are colored Yellow and Orange for local and rapid trains respectively.

On certain tracks, there may also be “Express”, or “Limited Express” trains. These are trains that skip even more stations. As covered in the previous article, Limited Express trains are actually the faster of the two as they stop at a more “limited” number of stations.

Getting To The Destination

When transferring between trains or leaving the station for your destination, simply heading to the nearest exit is a great way to get lost.

This is especially true for expansive stations like Shinjuku where your track is just one of many dozen, or better yet the 200 different exits to choose from. As such getting out the correct exit is top priority. The wrong one could be quite a distance away and completely throw off your bearing.

Exiting through the correct exit is of top importance.

Thankfully, signs throughout the station will point you in the right direction.

Boarding platforms can have multiple exits too and it is especially important to pay attention to them when making transfers. Signs located along, beside or above an exit show the correct exit to take for transfers. There is often no way around this except to take the correct one. The sign above points passengers to the exit for those transferring to the Tokyo Metro’s Marunouchi Line.

Exits are either labeled by direction or numbered when there are simply too many.

Usually, exits are labeled by direction (e.g. North Exit, South Exit) but when they are simply too many, they will be numbered instead. Every train station in central Tokyo should have a map of the station, as well as of the surrounding area beside the control station. JR Stations may also have boards on the platforms itself that show the correct exit to take for a list of nearby landmarks.

Note that maps in Japan are almost always oriented by facing so it can be confusing sometimes, even when you know where you’re going. It’s handy to have a compass on hand just in case. Thankfully, Smartphones should have one built in. Though I have had trouble with the accuracy of the iPhone’s.

When meeting someone at a station in Japan, be sure to determine not only the time and station, but also which of the many exits you’d be waiting at.

There will be a detailed map at each station of the surrounding area.


If all else fails, do not be shy about asking for help. Popular stations have counters dedicated just for this with staff that are happy to help. You can also ask the ticketing conductors at every other station, and though they might not be as friendly about it, are obliged to help too.

The Japanese are usually rather forgiving if you make it clear that you are a tourist and can refund wrongly purchased tickets, or Smart Card credit should you enter the wrong terminal. In the end, do not be afraid to get lost or to make mistakes. It is surely part of the fun when traveling for the first time.

Share with us your tips and experiences for traveling in Tokyo!

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Supermerlion's Webmaster and Editor-in-Chief. Singaporean Nikkeijin with over 12 years of experience in the media industry. Producer at a Japanese entertainment company. Former Web Developer, Graphic Designer, Multimedia Programmer, Manager and Consultant. Shoots with a Canon 5Dmk2 and Sony RX100-2.