Before visiting Japan, the thought of navigating and travelling on Tokyo’s crazy busy subway system can be pretty intimidating, but this doesn’t have to be the case.
With 38 Million people in Tokyo, and its underground network having 285 stations, 13 lines and 8 Million daily travellers it is defiantly an experience
I have been to Tokyo several times and with these top tips and first-hand knowledge, you can arrive in Japan and get around the huge metropolis of Tokyo with no drama or stress and have more time to enjoy the things you want to do.
- Get Yourself a Suica Card
First things first, getting yourself one of these magic cards with the penguin on the front. This card will change your life.
For just 500Y deposit you can get this card from major JR East stations at the ticket office and it can be topped up at the ticket vending machines you will find at all stations. These machines are easy to use and have English language options.
Without this card you have to work out the cost of each of your many subway journeys and pay for an individual ticket which is very time consuming and can be quite stressful in the small stations where there is not much English language around.
If you are staying around Tokyo a while, I recommend topping up at least 5000Yen to start with and then try not to let your balance drop below 500Yen. You can see your balance every time you go through the ticket gate and then also the cost of the journey when you exit the station at destination.
- Google Maps
Google Maps will soon become your best friends when taking on the subway system, if used correctly you cannot go wrong.
As long as you know where you are wanting to go and you have data or portable WiFi Google Maps will tell you time of the trains, best carriage for quick exit, which platform you need to be on, any delays on the lines as well as how many stops to your destination and which exit you need to take.
Sometimes the information when walking around the larger stations can get a bit hit and miss as the signal can be weak but as long as you know where you want to go the signage around can help alongside the technology. The next point will help with this problem.
- Try and Plan your Journey Ahead of Time
To save your phone data and battery and the chance that your signal might drop out plan ahead and use Google Maps at your accommodation using the Wifi and enter your destination and screenshot the journey page by page so you have all the information ready to look at. I found that the Google Maps app is very battery unfriendly and uses up quite a chunk of data, so this idea is a great help.
You don’t want to miss out on photo opportunities or get lost because your battery has been drained plus you also have the journey saved for easy glance, even though the times might not be correct, the trains are so regular it shouldn’t make too much difference.
- Go with the Flow
This tip is especially important for a stress-free experience. With people moving in all directions walking at fast pace as far as your eyes can see it can get overwhelming at times but don’t worry you can go at your own pace and whatever direction you want just go with the flow.
It might seem like absolute chaos but there is a system in place. Try and stay in lane as such and move in the same direction as everyone else going your way. Try and stick to the left and do not feel like you have to power walk with the salary men.
When using stairs or escalators if you want to rest stay left as the right side is for people who want to walk up the escalators. Do not stand in the middle of corridors if you need to stop do so by the wall or by a pillar so everyone can get around you.
- Avoid Rush Hour When Possible
Rush hour on Tokyo’s train system is definitely an experience you should try at least once, but not recommended for every day. It is best to avoid these rush hour times as in doing so you will save a lot of time a stress. Just go and chill with a coffee and some breakfast before you head out or go out early.
Rush hour is generally speaking 7:30 – 9:00am and between 5:30 – 7:30pm but bear in mind a lot of Japanese work overtime or go out after work for food or drink so these times are not set in stone.
Rush hour is madness especially at the major stations with everyone trying to squeeze into spaces where there is no space, but they manage somehow, expect to be pushed into impossible gaps and be nudged and barged about during these times and fighting your way through a fully blocked crowed to exit when you arrive at your destination. Definitely Don’t attempt this with big luggage or pushchairs.
- Train Etiquette
There are many unwritten rules when riding the subway in Japan, following these rules will make you realise how it all flows so well without fights and arguments between passengers.
When boarding the train make sure you stand to the side of the doors and let everyone exit the train, this can be one or two people or an army but doing this keeps the trains on time, as soon as people exit you should rush on and try find a seat if possible or position yourself in a spot where it will make it easier for you to get off the train when required with least amount of disruption as possible to other passengers, make sure you don’t take the priority seats unless its quiet and always move for a person who needs it.
Make sure you don’t speak on the phone, listen to music to loud or make too much noise as people will be sleeping and resting. Also, if you have baggage wear it on your front or put it against the side of the train or between your legs.
Also don’t eat food or drink that will make a mess or smell the train out too much.
When you finally arrive at your station make your way to the nearest train door, you will sometimes have to fight your way to the door but be polite and say ‘Sumimasen’ (excuse me) and people will do their best to make a path for you.
There are markings on the station platforms which show you which carriages are best for quick exit from the train and for priority seating.
- Don’t Stress if you Miss Your Train
Runs like clockwork, this is 100% correct when it comes to the trains in Tokyo. Sometimes the journey between stations or platforms may take a little longer than you expect with getting lost or distracted, so you might miss your train, but don’t worry you wont have long to wait for your next train, usually under 15 minutes or if your confident with Google Maps you can re plan the route with the next train.
Missing one train will never really put you back too much, sometimes during busy times you will not get on first time anyway so just be patient.
- Don’t Be Caught Out and Miss the Last Train Home
Train’s in Tokyo only run up until around midnight so be wary of this if you have travelled away from your accommodation for a night out, especially if you are drinking as it is very easy to lose track of time. You will find there is another mini rush hour of people getting on these last trains home and you can usually see some messy people and people sleeping past their station.
Most people in Japan leave early or pull an all-nighter until the trains start up again around 5am, either staying at a late night izakaya or café or nightclub. Tokyo is a late-night city so you will always find somewhere to go.
- Trains are HOT
Whether it is Summer or winter the train is going be toasty hot, unbearable at times especially when it is a crowded carriage.
In summer, the heat in Tokyo is pretty unbearable but when on the train body heat as well as the sun beaming through the window you are sure to get a sweat on.
In Winter it is not much better as they have the heating on full blast, which would be nice but as everyone is wearing layers and layers of clothing and big coats it does not take too long to start feeling uncomfortable.
Wear clothing that is easy to take off while travelling to feel more comfortable, a good tip is to buy a hot drink from the vending machines on the platform to keep your hands warm while waiting
- There is plenty to do in around the major stations so enjoy!
The subway systems main stations such as Tokyo and Shinjuku are full of shops and restaurants where you can purchase so much tasty food and drinks for your journey, to take home at the end of your day or to relax in.
There are many restaurants such as ramen, BBQ and sushi located within the shopping areas and lanes of the station. You will also find souvenirs and small versions of your favourite stores as well as some of the best bento boxes available,
There are also many convenience stores for your essentials.
Also, the area around the outside the station is normally full of so much choice of places to eat and to grab a cold beer.
This is especially good if you use these places near the end of your evening so you don’t have to travel too far to catch your train home or to waste some time before you have to catch your train or meet people. So, the final tip is to take your time and enjoy in and around the stations as you never know what you will find.