How to ride the trains in and around Tokyo

Make sense of the world’s greatest public transport system with our quick guide
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Tokyo boasts world-class cuisine, an endlessly vibrant culture and more places to explore than you can manage in a lifetime. But our dear capital also stands out in one rather more practical way: it’s got the best train and subway system of any major world city. Sure, rush hour is hell and unlike all those breathless travelogues suggest, trains actually do get delayed. But considering Tokyo’s scale, its public transport system is almost impossibly convenient.

That’s once you get used to it, though. With 13 subway lines, well over 100 train lines and a dozen or so different transport companies in the metropolitan region, learning to navigate Tokyo’s trains is almost like learning a new language. Read up on the basics below, get out there and start studying…

Tickets

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Buying tickets

You’ll need either a paper ticket or an IC travel card (see below) to ride. Tickets can be bought at station ticket machines (English-language guidance available) or ticketing windows. You can figure out the price of your ticket by looking at the route and fare boards found above most ticket machines. Just find the station you’re going to on the map, note the price listed next to the station name and buy a ticket of that value from the machine.

There are also several apps and websites you can use to find routes and ticket prices. One of the longest-running ones is Japan Transit Planner, while HyperDia is available in both app and browser formats. Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway also have a free app called Tokyo Subway Navigation for Tourists.

Once you have a ticket, stick it into the slot in the ticket gate (turnstiles) to pass through. Make sure to retrieve your ticket once it comes out at the other end of the gate, as you’ll need it to pass through the gate at your destination.

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IC cards

If you’re staying in Tokyo for longer than a couple days, we strongly recommend getting a prepaid IC (integrated circuit) card like Suica or Pasmo. Letting you avoid the hassle of buying individual tickets, these can be used on all trains as well as on most buses, but what really sets them apart is how they hint at a cashless future – most convenience stores and many vending machines are already IC-compatible.

You can get a card at any ticket machine or ticketing window: just pay the ¥500 deposit (refunded when you turn your card back in) and top up your card with any amount of your choice (at least ¥500).

See more details for JR East’s Suica here, while details for the subway- and bus-centred Pasmo can be found here.

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Get a discount

The tourists-only Tokyo Subway Ticket offers decent value if you plan on travelling around the city by subway. It’s valid on all Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway lines for either 24, 48 or 72 hours and can be bought at tourist information desks at both Narita and Haneda airports. You’ll need to flash a non-Japanese passport upon purchase.

24h: ¥800, children ¥400
48h: ¥1,200/¥600
72h: ¥1,500/¥750

Stations

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Gates and exits

Getting lost inside the station may sound funny at first, but Tokyo’s major transport hubs can be very difficult to navigate. One thing you need to know is that ‘gate’ and ‘exit’ mean different things. Gates are where the turnstiles are, while exits are passageways connected to places outside of the station itself. Coming from a train, you’d hence need to pass through a gate to get to an exit. Something to keep in mind when you’re deciding on a meeting place…

Large stations have multiple gates and exits, so look up the one you need online beforehand, check one of the maps on the wall or ask station staff before exiting. Knowing the right exit will help you save time and even access certain destinations (including Shibuya’s 109 and Hikarie, Isetan in Shinjuku and Kitte at Tokyo Station), without having to step outside (perfect on a rainy day or during the summer heat). The power of preparation, eh?

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Useful signs at stations

Ran out of money on your IC card, or perhaps you need to buy a shinkansen ticket but don’t know how to use the machine? Look for one of these signs:

Fare adjustment – Follow this sign to find machines for re-charging your IC card or adding value to your paper ticket. Fare adjustment machines are found inside the ticket gates.

Ticket Office (Midori no Madoguchi) – If you’re not comfortable with ticket machines, head to one of these offices (found at most JR stations) to buy a shinkansen, express train or any other ticket from a real person.

JR East Travel Service Center – Essentially a powered-up Midori no Madoguchi, these are found at Tokyo, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro stations as well as at Narita and Haneda airports. In addition to selling tickets, they provide tourist information and sell package trips, offer currency exchange and are equipped with ATMs.

Shinkansen and express trains

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If you’re travelling outside of Tokyo, consider getting on a shinkansen (bullet train) or an express train. A useful guide to buying tickets for these (with pictures) can be found here.

Tickets can be purchased at the JR Ticket Office (Midori no Madoguchi) in most JR stations. Don’t be surprised if you’re given two tickets. One is the Basic Fare Ticket, the fee for the distance itself, and the other is the Express Reserved/Unreserved Seat Ticket, which is essentially a seating ticket.

Sometimes the two tickets are combined into one, but if not, remember to put both tickets into the turnstile when passing through the ticket gates. Consult the station staff if you have a ticket that doesn’t work with the automated gates.   

Both ‘reserved seat’ and ‘non-reserved seat’ tickets are sold for shinkansen and express trains. The former are slightly more expensive but guarantee you a numbered seat on a specific train (e.g. the 12.50pm Nozomi Shinkansen from Tokyo to Hiroshima), while the latter only entitle you to find a seat in one of the cars marked ‘non-reserved’ on the train of your choosing, on the specified date.

You can buy shinkansen and express tickets on the day of your trip, but we recommend picking one up in advance – especially if you’re travelling on a weekend or holiday. Tickets can be purchased from up to one month before your trip.

Ready for the next step?

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