Congratulations! You made it to central Tokyo. You got everything done before leaving the airport, right?
Getting around Tokyo is easy and convenient. The only problem is the bigness of Tokyo, which can make train maps look like a bowl of noodles. But with a basic understanding of Tokyo’s general shape it’s easy to get from point A to point B.
Once we get the basics covered, we’ll throw in a few shortcuts from the expats that get you around quickly.
To get started, you need to know the three basic ways of getting around:
JR stands for Japan Rail, and it has most (but not all) of the above-ground train lines running around Tokyo. You’ll use this for long trips to major hubs around the city.
2. Tokyo Metro
As the word ‘Metro’ might suggest, this is the subway. It’s best used for short trips from one neighborhood to the next.
Taxis are expensive, but very convenient. They’ll get you from point A to point B with no transfers and even few stop lights. They’re best used when you’re too tired to stand up, when you have a lot of luggage, or when it’s late at night and the trains have stopped running.
Yes, the trains stop running between midnight and 6:00AM. Keep that in mind in case you go out late at night. We’ll discuss that later.
Now that you’ve been introduced to the transport you’ll be using, let’s give you an idea of which one’s the best to pick. It’s basically a matter of how far you’ll be going, so it’s time for a super-quick lesson in navigating Tokyo. You can boil down central Tokyo to three words:
It’s a clock. One of the JR lines, the Yamanote, is circular and is so integral to Tokyo that it’s often called just “the JR Line.” Almost every famous spot in Tokyo lies on the Yamanote, so let’s have a look around the clock:
1:00: Ueno (and Asakusa nearby)
4:00: Tokyo Station (and Ginza nearby)
8:00: Shibuya (and Roppongi nearby)
9:00: Shinjuku (and Yoyogi, Harajuku and Ichigaya nearby)
These are just the major stops. There are lots and lots of minor ones, too.
You need to know where you are (roughly) on the clock because the Yamanote Line runs both clockwise and counter-clockwise. Pick the train that’s headed in the direction you want on the clock. Train stations will have separate platforms for Yamanote trains headed in opposite directions, and the platforms will be labeled according to the next major stop on the clock.
Switching to subways
Plenty of subway lines stop at the places on the clock, so from these major hubs you can branch off into smaller neighborhoods by way of subways. Hotels are commonly at smaller stations one or two subway stops away from the hubs on the clock.
For example, my favorite cheap hotel is near a subway station called Inaricho. To get there, I take the JR trains to Ueno, then switch to the subway (still at Ueno) and go out one stop from the clock.
Switching to taxis
If you’re going to a new place (like a hotel) and have the address for the place (you wrote it down, right?), you can go to the nearest stop on the clock and from there take a taxi to the place. If you’re just leaving a train station, you’ll probably find a line of idle taxis waiting to pick someone up. Take the one at the front of the line.
Don’t take a taxi across town. It’s expensive. It can cost upwards of $70 to get across Tokyo in normal traffic, and it’ll cost more if traffic is bad.
Making trains convenient
Get a Suica card before you ride your first train, JR or Metro. It’s a pre-paid fare card that’s rechargeable, and it makes riding any train easy and cheap. You can buy a card at any JR station from blue ticket machines.
Once you have your Suica card, just walk through the turnstile and touch the Suica card to the shiny spot with the Suica logo. You’ll do that on the way to and on the way from your train.
Based on where you enter and where you leave, it charges you the cheapest fare possible. Recharge your card at any green electronic ticket machine.
Shortcuts in the train station
A train station in Tokyo might seem like a confusing place that’s moving at a million miles an hour, but there are a few helpful resources inside the station that can make your life much easier:
1. Train station staff
Virtually any train station staff person can tell you what to do next in the train-riding process (like “OK, you need a ticket,” or “Go over there to swipe your Suica and exit”). They can also help you navigate, and they’re good at making it easy. Shibuya? “Track number 12.” Ueno? “Track number 3.” They wear uniforms and are easy to spot. You’ll find them on platforms and near ticket counters.
2. The manned turnstile booth
You’ll mostly use your Suica to swipe in and out of train stations, but if you have problems you can talk to the guy in the booth at the end of the row of turnstiles. If you enter a train station and decide not to go anywhere, you’ll need him to clear your Suica and let you back out. Try not to ask him navigational questions – he’s one of the busiest people in the station.
3. The ticket office
The ticket office has everything that can’t be done anywhere else in the station. If you’re out of cash and need to buy tickets with a credit card, or if you have problems buying your own Suica, it’s best to go here. They could answer your navigational questions, but you’d have to stand in a long line.
4. Information counter
The information counter is good for everything you need to do above, but they’re especially good at helping you with things outside the station. The staff there tend to speak more English and are good at directing you to places like hotels and post offices. If your station has an information counter, it’ll be marked with the universal “?” sign. If the station doesn’t have an information counter, don’t worry. The places above will get the job done.
Notice that all of the shortcuts involve human interaction. The train station staff that you come across will speak enough English to get you where you need to go.
Advanced train lines
The Yamanote Line should be your transportation bread-and-butter, but there are a few expat-favorite routes that will save you time. Be careful using these, as it’s easier to go the wrong way. Here are a few of my favorite shortcuts from my time in Tokyo:
- The left side of the clock (8:00-10:00): Try the subway Fukutoshin (F) Line. On JR, try the Shonan-Shinjuku Line or the Saikyo/Kawagoe/Rinkai Line. All those JR lines usually stop at the same platforms.
- The right side of the clock (1:00-6:00): Try the subway Ginza (G) Line. On JR, try the Keihin-Tohoku Line.
- Crossing the clock: The JR Chuo Line goes from Tokyo Station (4:00) to Shinjuku (9:00).
When taking a shortcut train, check the time estimates on the thin vertical signboards attached to the pillars. If your stop has a time estimate, then you’re facing the right train. If not, turn around and try the other side. Also, some shortcut trains land at platforms that serve other lines. Double-check the name of the line you want with the line marked on the train that comes. You may be waiting for the next one.
Shortcuts on foot
Are you near someplace (say, your hotel) but just can’t find it? Ask an idle taxi driver! Taxi drivers navigate very well and commonly give out directions (for free!) to natives and fluent expats. The downside is that most taxi drivers don’t speak English very well.
Not near a taxi? Try a convenience store. This doesn’t work as well as taxi drivers, but in a pinch it’s worth trying.
Now you’re ready to go. Your Tokyo navigational bootcamp was a bit long, but you need to be well-prepared to take on such a big city. We’re starting to get into the fun part, and in the next chapter we’ll cover all kinds of delicious food and where to get it.
But we’ll start with the most important thing: cash.