Navigating the Insanity of Tokyo Public Transit

Navigating the Insanity of Tokyo Public Transit

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If you’ve read my last post, you’ll know that I got into Tokyo late, and got on the wrong train. Even before my trip, I remembered looking at a map of Tokyo’s public transit and having a slight panic attack. My plan of action was to let future Alouise deal with figuring out how to navigate Tokyo’s public transit. That was a bad decision.

What Makes Tokyo’s Subway System So Confusing?

The Size

The metropolitan area of Tokyo has over 37 million people, which means Tokyo needs a massive public transit system to account for its massive population. There are buses, and subways, and also commuter trains. There are electric rail lines. There are specific trains to/from the airports (Haneda and Narita). There’s a monorail. There are trains going from Tokyo to other cities/towns in Japan, and that includes the Shinkansen (the bullet train). There are probably other forms of public transit in Tokyo as well. It’s a lot.

One of the many trains running in Tokyo.

Multiple Transit Companies

In most cities, public transit is managed by one company, but Tokyo has several companies that operate the public transit (which starts to make sense when you consider the city’s massive size). Tokyo Metro and Toei are the two primary companies that run the subway lines. There’s East Japan Railway Company (JR East) that operates passenger railway, including some of the Shinkansen lines and Tokyo’s largest commuter network like the circular Yamanote line. Plus there are other private companies that operate public transit in Tokyo.

Limited English

There isn’t always English on Tokyo’s public transit. There is some English in major subway and rail stations, and most of the station names are in English, but announcements are usually in Japanese. If you are taking a bus or a getting away from the major subway/train stations, English will be limited.

The Pricing Structure

This took me a little while to understand, but when you go from a subway/train on a line operated by one company to one in the same station operated by another company you’ll pay a higher fee. If you can stick with the same company (Toei or Tokyo Metro or JR East) for one trip, you’ll save some money. Of course, there were times when I just needed to get somewhere, and even though I knew it would cost a bit more saving some time was worth it.

What Makes Tokyo’s Subway System Great

It Will Get You Anywhere

Yes, it’s confusing to navigate and understand, but because the public transit system is so encompassing (there are over 4000km of subway/rail track in Tokyo) you can get pretty much anywhere you need to go in Tokyo on public transit. Both airports have connections to public transit as well.

I could have walked to Roppongi from Asakusa, but that would have been insane. Taking the subway was a better decision.

The Passes

There are two types of transit passes to use in Tokyo, Suica (sold by JR East) and Passmo (sold by the private train lines and subway companies Toei and Tokyo Metro). Both passes can be used on various trains and subways, although not all subway and train lines will accept each pass. Both can be used like cash at many stores (like 7-Eleven), to pay for cab fare (that was very handy a few times), and even to pay for products from some vending machines. You pay a ¥500 deposit and use a computer kiosk to load either pass with funds, then you just tap the card at the subway gate (or on the bus), and you’re ready to go. It’s great not having to fumble around to find change or worry about losing tickets. I got a Passmo card because that’s the first kiosk I saw at the airport train station. A couple of times I had to buy individual tickets for Jr East lines, but for the most part, the Passmo  card was what I used.

The Efficiency

Transit is Tokyo runs on time. If trains are going to be late, there seems to be an announcement about it (at least that’s what I gathered). While I was in Tokyo I didn’t experience any transit delays.

The Order

Even when it is busy, and the train cars are packed full of people (I never did see the subway guards with the white gloves push people into the train cars), there is a civil order to the transit in Tokyo. I didn’t see people get upset when there were small (a minute) delays, or when the train car was full of people. Everyone was polite and pleasant, and it always felt very safe (even late at night).

Lockers inside a subway station. You can use your subway pass to pay for one. Japan is awesome.


Even though I didn’t know much Japanese outside the basics of hello (Konnichiwa), excuse me/sorry (Sumimasen), and thank you (Arigatou Gozaimasu) when I needed help (like when I went through the wrong turnstile to the wrong subway line) the staff were helpful.

My Tips

Plan Your Route

At least plan how you’ll get to your hotel the first day/night you’re in Tokyo. Having a smartphone is great, but make sure to save your route and maps offline so you can use them even if you don’t have the Internet. Tokyo Subway Navigation is a great app to use that works offline.

Pick a Pass

Depending on where you’re staying and what you want to do you should decide if it will make more sense to get a Suica Pass (taking Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway) or a Passmo (JR East) Pass. My hotel was closest to the Minami-Senju Station on the Hibiya Line, so I got the Passmo card because I mostly travelled on Tokyo Metro and Toei lines.

Treat Your Suica or Passmo Card Like Cash

It basically is cash. Don’t lose it, and make sure to have some Yen on hand in case you need to buy an individual ticket on another line, or you need to top up your card because reloading stations only take cash. As a bonus, you can use your pass for things other than public transit, like it can be accepted as payment for taxis, and at some stores, restaurants, and vending machines.

Learn The Lines and Station Information

I travelled on Tokyo Metro the most, so that’s the subway I got familiar with. Every line has a different colour and letter associated with it, and each station has a number. I’d make sure to note the number assigned station I was leaving from and the number of the one I was going to and count each time the subway made a stop. Toei works similarly. I didn’t use JR East lines enough to figure them out.

Station guide for the Hibiya Line, which I took quite a bit. Here you can see I’m at the Tsukiji Station (in red).

Be Prepared to Walk and Take the Stairs

There are escalators and elevators in some stations, but not all, and you will likely reach a point where you’ll need to walk up the stairs. Be prepared to carry your luggage with you. Some of the train stations here are huge, and transferring to another line might require quite a bit of walking.

You might have to walk a bit inside the subway stations, but sometimes you’ll see cool art like this.

Don’t Eat or Drink

Eating and drinking on public transit isn’t a thing here (that’s nice because everything is clean on Tokyo’s public transportation). Don’t worry, there will be a vending machine at the train/subway station, and some of the larger stations may also have restaurants and cafes in them as well. You will not starve in Tokyo (unless you hate food).

Bring a Scarf or Towel and Hand Sanitizer or Soap

The bathrooms in the train/subway stations are clean and usually have a western toilet (though not a fancy one with bidet functions and heated seats). For some reason, the bathrooms at the train stations never had a hand towel or soap. I used my scarf as a towel and always had hand sanitizer with me.

Consider Time

Travelling on the train/subway can take a while depending on where you’re going and where you’re coming from. I made a mistake on my last morning in Tokyo and tried to go to the Meiji Jingu shrine in Harajuku from Asakusa. I spent more time on the train getting there than I did at the site itself.

Final Thoughts

Know you’ll probably make a mistake and get on the wrong train. You’ll probably pay more money than you need to because you transferred to another company line. You might get completely lost trying to find a subway station and walk in the opposite direction to a station that’s several kilometres away from where you need to be. It will drive you crazy at some points, but you’ll look back at it and think, “wow I did it. I navigated through Tokyo and made it home,” and that will feel pretty amazing.

Things To Know
I highly recommend downloading the Tokyo Subway Navigation app on your phone. It works offline if you don’t have data or if your Wi-Fi device doesn’t work (which can happen in the underground stations). I got a Passmo card as that was the first ticket machine I came across. If you know you’ll be using JR lines more you may want to get a Suica card. Either way, get a transit pass and treat that thing like gold cause it’s also good for taxis, at convenience stores, vending machines, and more. Japan is the future.
While in Tokyo I stayed at the Asakusa Hotel Fukudaya. This is a great budget hotel (more like a guest house). I was in a single private Japanese-style room (with tatami mats) and a mini-fridge. There is a shared bathroom, private showers, a male-only onsen, and a female-only onsen. At the time of my stay, I paid about $26US/night for my room. The hotel is in a quiet local neighbourhood, but is within a short walk of the Minami Senju Station. I paid for my own stay and would recommend this hotel if you want a private and affordable room in Tokyo. If you are not on a budget there are plenty of other hotels you can book in Tokyo.

Where have you gotten lost?

1 thought on “Navigating the Insanity of Tokyo Public Transit”

  1. I love taking public transit in new cities, but I definitely get much more wary when I’m abroad and can’t understand the language. I would have gotten lost there too!

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