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First Timer’s Guide to Tokyo Transit

First Timer's Guide to Tokyo Transit

Note: Information current as of November 29, 2017

I get it. Using the Tokyo transit system is confusing. Most cities are typically run by one company with a handful of lines, with a few exceptions. Not the case at all with Tokyo, Japan. It has a public transit system befitting the world’s largest metropolis. It’s massive, confusing and busy. I often say that the Tokyo subway map looks like someone just threw spaghetti at a wall and called it a day. It doesn’t help that there are at least three companies in the mix and that’s only talking trains.

If you’re planning your first trip to Tokyo, don’t let this discourage you because I’m going to give you a quick ‘n dirty rundown of what you need to know to make your way around the city. Well, as quick as I can make it. Since trains will get you to pretty much all the places you’d want to visit on your first trip I’m going to ignore the bus system. When it comes to public transit in Japan, trains rule.

Arriving at Narita

If you’re making your first appearance in Japan, you’ll soon learn that Narita International Airport is way the frig outside of Tokyo proper. Don’t even think about getting a cab from the airport. Just don’t. Unless you have bags of money. A fare from Narita to Shibuya Station, for example, will cost almost ¥23,000. That’s over $250! Instead, take the train.

N’EX vs. Skyliner

There are two popular and fast options: the N’EX run by JR East and the Skyliner run by Keisei. A one-way fare from Narita to Tokyo Station on the N’EX will cost ¥3,020 and will take approximately 53 minutes with no transfers (return tickets available for ¥4,000). A one-way fare on the Skyliner will cost ¥2,200 (discounted) and will take approximately 47 minutes with one transfer. I chose the N’EX as I was staying in Shinjuku and didn’t want to have to deal with transfers.

Discount Skyliner tickets may be purchased online up to 20 days in advance. The N’EX return ticket cannot be purchased in advance and is only available at Narita Airport.

You could also take the Keisei Narita Sky Access or Keisei Main Line to Nippori station as it’s half the price but it’s a slower travel time with more stops.

Figuring out the Tokyo Subway Map

Ok, so now you’re at one of the main Tokyo train stations. What next? If you’re a trip planning geek like I am you may have already plotted the places you want to visit on a map. If so, great – this means you probably have an idea of where to even start looking on a map for the closest stations. My suggestion? Find a copy of the Tokyo subway map, print it, study it. You’ll thank me later. Alternately, get a data plan for your phone and use Google Maps to direct you from station to station.

When planning your route, keep in mind that transfers between lines can sometimes take awhile as you may have to walk 1/3 km or more between platforms. There’s a reason so many people in Tokyo look fit. Give yourself lots of time to get where you’re going. In my opinion, it’s better to pick a route with more stops but fewer transfers.

Also, if you can plan your day around it, try to avoid the subways during the morning and evening rush hours unless you like imitating a sardine. Head’s up: some trains have women only cars during rush hours. When trains get as packed as Tokyo’s do there can be a problem with groping and female only cars is one effort to curb bad behaviour.

Signage through the stations should be available in English, as well, all stops are colour coded and numbered to help you out even more. You’ll know right away if you’ve gotten on a train headed in the wrong direction.

I generally never had trouble finding my way from one train to the next but if the station is particularly large or attached to a shopping mall (like Shinjuku) you may have trouble eventually reaching the outdoors. A few times I resorted to circumnavigating the building to the right entrance rather than try to figure out the indoor layout.

Tokyo Subway

Photo: ctsnow

Fares – Unlimited Passes vs. Pay As You Go

When visiting Tokyo, it really helps to plan out the areas you want to visit. This should help you figure out whether an unlimited pass would be worth it. It will also help you figure out if you need access to the JR Yamanote Line, Tokyo Metro and the Toei subways lines or just a subset of those. Personally, I wanted to avoid spending time using the ticket vending machines in the subway stations so I was really happy to be able to just tap and go with my Suica card.

Suica/PASMO

Suica is a rechargeable contactless smart card sold by JR East that you can use to pay for fare on virtually any train or bus in the city. You can also use the card in places like convenience stores, vending machines, and more.

In Tokyo, the PASMO card is pretty much interchangeable with a Suica card. You simply place the card near the electronic gate on your way into the station and then again on your way out and the fare is automatically calculated and deducted from your balance. Easy peasy. Most trips will cost under ¥200 one-way.

When your card balance gets low you can recharge at the ticket vending machines in ¥1,000 increments.

Important Note: You can only use cash (yen) to buy and top up your Suica or PASMO card. Credit cards cannot be used.

At the end of your trip, return your Suica card to the JR East ticket office and you’ll get back your ¥500 deposit plus whatever balance is left on your card minus a ¥220 fee. If you have a PASMO card, return your card to a PASMO retailer and you’ll get back your ¥500 deposit plus your remaining balance.

If you prefer an unlimited pass you need to figure out which lines you’ll want access to. But first, sushi break:

Breakfast at the Tsukiji Fish Market | SuitcaseandHeels.com

Figuring out Tokyo transit can work up a hunger.

JR East

The Yamanote Line is a loop that connects most of Tokyo’s major stations, operated by JR East. All but two of its 29 stations connect to other railway or subway lines. For ¥750 you can get a one-day unlimited pass for all JR East trains in the 23 special wards of Tokyo.

Tokyo Metro

Tokyo Metro consists of 9 subway lines: Ginza, Marunouchi, Hibiya, Tōzai, Chiyoda, Yūrakuchō, Hanzōmon, Namboku, and Fukutoshin. These lines are useful for visiting Shibuya Crossing, Meji Shrine, and Takeshita Dori.

Toei Subway

The Toei subway systems consists of 4 subway lines: Asakusa Line, Mita Line, Shinjuku Line, Oedo Line. These lines are useful for visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo Skytree, and Senso-ji Temple.

All Three – Tokyo Combination Pass

There are passes available as well which will give one-day, unlimited access to all three systems for ¥1,590 (each company calls it something different).

You Can Do It

Mastering the Tokyo transit system definitely takes more work than other cities but after a few trips you’ll be whizzing through gates and navigating stations like a pro. For absolute simplicity go with a Suica or PASMO card and put a relatively high balance on it so you don’t have to worry about reloading. For travelling Tokyo on a budget, use the Keisei Main Line to get to/from the airport and then get a multi-day combined subway pass.

Either way, it’s worth it for all the amazing things you can do in Tokyo. And remember, there’s no shame in carrying around a printed system map. ;)

Tokyo Transit Pass Comparison Chart

Pass NamePriceTokyo MetroToei SubwayJR EastAirport Transit

Skyliner – return

¥ 4,300

X

N’EX – return

¥ 4,000

X

Keisei Narita SKY ACCESS Line – one way to Skytree

¥ 1,170

X

Keisei Main Line – one way to Skytree

¥ 980

X

Skyliner return w/ Tokyo Subway Pass – 24h

¥ 4,700

X

X

X

Skyliner return w/ Tokyo Subway Pass – 48h

¥ 5,100

X

X

X

Skyliner return w/ Tokyo Subway Pass – 72h

¥ 5,400

XXX
JR East Tokyo 1 Day Ticket

¥ 1,590

X

X

X

Tokyo Combination Ticket

¥ 1,590

X

X

X

Tokyo Subway Ticket (for tourists only) – 24h

¥ 800

X

X

Tokyo Subway Ticket (for tourists only) – 48h

¥ 1,200

X

X

Tokyo Subway Ticket (for tourists only) – 72h

¥ 1,500

X

X

Common One-day Ticket for Toei Subway & Tokyo Metro

¥ 900

X

X

JR East Tokyo Metropolitan District Pass (Tokunai Pass)

¥ 750

X

Tokyo Metro 1-Day Open Ticket

¥ 600

X

Toei One-day Pass (Toei Marugoto Kippu)

¥ 700

X

Suica

X

X

X

PASMO

X

X

X

Do you have any tips for first timers using the Tokyo transit system?

At the time of writing, 1 CAD = 87 JPY

Guide to Tokyo Transit

16 responses to “First Timer’s Guide to Tokyo Transit”

  1. Sheryll says:

    Really, really, REALLY great tips. Thank you so much! I’m going to Tokyo in 3 days and I was struggling to find an easy and concise guide to the Metro system. Lifesaver!

    • I’m glad you found it helpful. :) My single biggest tip would be, if you want to keep things as simple as possible and aren’t pinching pennies, get the Suica card so you don’t have to worry about companies and tickets. Then just choose either the N’EX or the Skyliner from/to Narita.

      Have a good trip!

  2. Thanks for the useful tips – great stuff. One thing. The link you provided for the Suica Card indicates it is no longer available – weird translated message saying it was not available as of April 1st.

    Thanks Again

  3. TylerDurden says:

    It appears the “Suica + N’Ex” ticket deal was discontinued from 1 April 2014. SUICA cards will continue to be sold separately.

    The replacement seems to be a cheap one-way ticket on the Narita Express – Y1,500 one way from Narita to any JR East station within a designated area (which includes the greater Tokyo area). This makes it quite competitive with the Keisei Skyliner. However the return trip would be at full price. Also note that if you get out of the JR system and go to another non-JR station (et on the subway), you will need another ticket.

    http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/nex_oneway.html

    I would suggest that if you buy the N’Ex one way deal you also buy a SUICA card at that time.

  4. silvia junaidi says:

    thank you for the very useful tips. whether Suica can be used up to 11 days? and can not be used in another city?

  5. Tita says:

    Can u explain to me the different between tokyo tour ticket, 1day free ticket and tokyo combination ticket?
    In JR East website i read about tokunai pass (The Tokyo Metropolitan District Pass allows unlimited rides on local and rapid JR East trains (excluding reserved seats) within the 23 Special Wards of Tokyo. What a convenient way to travel around Tokyo for shopping, eating and even business.) What the different with tokyo tour ticket?

    Thanks so much

    • They’re essentially the same ticket but each of the three companies that offer it (JR East, Tokyo Metro, and Toei) have a different name for it. It’s a one day, unlimited pass for all three transportation options.

      As for the Tokyo Tour Ticket vs. Tokunai Pass – the latter gives you access to JR East trains, while the former also gives you subways, the Nippori-Toneri Liner, Tokyo Toei streetcars and the Toei Bus system.

  6. Tjon says:

    How much is a “relatively high balance”? This is the perfect article for me as I’ll be staying there for about this length of stay.

    • I was estimate about ¥200 / one-way subway trip. For three days of sightseeing I’d want to put at least ¥2400-¥3000 on a Suica card. Since you can get back what you didn’t use I’d err on the high side if I were to visit again.

  7. Angela says:

    Nice write up! Very helpful!

    What pass can you suggest for me to use? I will be in Japan for 8 days.
    June 1, 2015 afternoon – Arrive in Haneda
    June 2, 2015 – Tokyo
    June 3, 2015 – Tokyo, go to Kyoto
    June 4, 2015 – Kyoto
    June 5, 2015 – Kyoto
    June 6, 2015 – Kyoto, go to Osaka
    June 7, 2015 – Osaka
    June 8, 2015 – Flight home

    Thank you!

  8. Jenna says:

    Loved this post! I’ve been to Tokyo twice now and headed there in a few weeks again. This is the first time I’ve heard of all these great combo deals. Thank you!

    http://www.blissfulandblonde.com

  9. Mohit says:

    Such a detailed guide to travel around…i am sure no one will encounter after this…the card system is definitely best and time saving

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