Trip Tips: Using the Tokyo Metro (Smartly)

I was up in Tokyo this past weekend and, while waiting on the metro platform, decided that a quick tutorial of using the Tokyo metro system wouldn’t be out of place for my readers. I know that some of you, when you contact me for travel advice or itineraries, are concerned with how easy or difficult it will be to get around the cities. Well, thanks to Tokyo’s excellent bilingual signage in all major neighborhoods and train stations, I don’t find this city hard to navigate at all. But there are a number of tips that can help you quickly settle in and act like a pro.

If you’ll be in Tokyo for more than a day or two, I totally recommend purchasing a SUICA or PASMO card. This is a reusable train pass, meaning you can keep adding money to it as needed. Because Tokyo has at least three major train companies and each of them sells their own separate paper tickets, these cards a great idea because you just swipe it over the ticket machine – no matter what train line – and it debits your fare amount. It makes traveling around Tokyo very easy. The card costs ¥500 (though the tax hike on April 1st may have made this slightly higher) and then you can add yen in amounts of ¥1000. I recommend putting at least ¥1000 or ¥2000 on when you buy the card. As of 2013, you can also use the card in other Japanese cities, like Osaka, Fukuoka and even Sapporo. And when you leave Japan, you can either keep the card if you plan to return, or turn it back in. The stationmaster will refund you ANY money that is left on the card PLUS the bulk of the ¥500 deposit. What’s the difference between SUICA and PASMO? Nothing but the name and where you can buy them – SUICA is the JR train card and PASMO is the card sold by the metro system. They function exactly the same and any machine marked PASMO will accept a SUICA card (and vice versa).

Photo Source: The Japan Guy

When you swipe into the metro system, you’ll follow signs to the tracks for your desired line. Usually, you will see a sign above the staircase of escalator to tell you which side of the track to go to. Often, you will see only a few major train stations listed in each direction. It helps to know some of the major stops on your line.

How long will it take to get to your destination? If you don’t have the handy hyperdia webpage/app or even a phone handy, never fear. Find the sign below on the platform. It will tell you each stop on the line you are riding and how long it takes to get there from the station you are currently at. From where I took this picture (Ryogoku station), you can see that it will take 17 minutes to get to Daimon (a handy station for the Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Monorail to Haneda Airport).

Oedo line map
Oedo line map

Need to transfer lines? No problem. The picture above lets you know where certain other metro lines cross the one you are currently riding and at what stops. But you can take things even further by figuring out exactly what train car you should be riding in to easily transfer lines at your transfer station. Check out the picture below. It shows each station on the left and at least 8 numbered train cars. If you want to get off in six minutes at Ueno-Okachimachi (3 lines down from the blue box) and transfer to the Ginza line (marked with a gold circle), riding in Car 3 will put you right in front of the staircase or elevator you need to make a smooth transfer. Cars 1, 5, and 6 will put you right near the general exits for Ueno-Okachimachi station. Handy, isn’t it?

What cars to ride in for what exits
What cars to ride in for what exits

All of the train cars will list the destination in both kanji characters and English. Sometimes, the electronic board in the train itself will pause longer on the Japanese station name, leaving you wondering if you’re indeed in the right spot. A quick look on either the tunnel wall or the poles on the platform should turn up a sign like the one below to reassure you of what station you are in.

Metro sign
Metro sign

At your destination? Great! Now where to? Check out the yellow boards to find the right exit for the sight you want to visit. As some exits are split between opposite sides of the station (and some stations, like Ginza, have over 20 exits), this can be an extremely useful tool. You can see in this example, the Edo Tokyo Museum is out Exit A3 and A4. And the top of the picture on the right shows you that exit A3 is an elevator.

Yellow info boards help you figure out where to exit
Yellow info boards help you figure out where to exit

If you want an overview of where your exit will bring you up on street level (or just an overview of the general neighborhood), these maps are posted both down on the tracks and (more often) right outside the ticket gates.

And there you go! Lots of tools are available to help and if you DO get turned around, the station staff is there to help and so are bystanders. Look long enough at any one signboard and I almost guarantee someone will stop and ask if you need assistance. Happy (train) travels!

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