What may look like an electric circuit diagram or sewing pattern turns out to be Tokyo´s metro network. Confusing at first, tiring at least, and at 300% of its capacity during Rush Hour – but at the same time highly effective and just upmost fascinating.
Hard to believe, but in fact it works smoothly and well. Delays are very rare, and the tight schedule doesn´t offer much space for it anyways. The only exceptions are natural disasters. Where earthquakes do statistically happen over 1000 times per year, typhoons hit the islands in spring and fall, nature is still an unpredictable factor. In this case, trains and Shinkansen may temporarily stop, depending on the amount of rain, some stations may also be closed down and sealed until the rainfalls are over.
If you are visiting Tokyo as a tourist, you may be travelling a lot on the JR Yamanote circle line. This will cover many sightseeing places, from Shinjuku, Akihabara to Ikebukuro and the Shinkansen hubs Tokyo Station and Ueno.
Besides, there are several private metro / subway lines, such as the Ginza Line. The blue metro signs (see below) may sometimes be difficult to spot, but look for it in case you´d like to take one of those lines.
You can get an up-to-date map of the Tokyo metro lines at every station, or simply download it here in advance before your trip and mark all the stations you´d like to get off at. Additionally, there are explanatory Tokyo Metro Guides available at the stations, too.
Another recommendation is for you to buy a SUICA card. This is a prepaid card which you can top up at any station. You can even leave it in your wallet and just touch the respective area at the entry and exit gates. The amount will be deducted automatically. This will save you a lot of time. Another benefit of this card is the fact that you can pay at many drink vending machines with it. No matter if you´d like to get a mineral water, coffee, softdrink or tea.
You can buy this Suica card at the ticket machines which carry the SUICA logo. The language can be changed to English, the machine will guide you through the purchase process. Here you can also charge it by inserting Japanese Yen bills from 1000 to 10000 Yen.
As there are so many private lines, the fare system is quite intransparent, even for locals. You will notice that many Japanese will be asking the station staff about tickets and fares as well. Certainly you can buy good old fashioned paper tickets, but having to check the fares will take some unnecessary time and effort.
So no matter if metro…
… or JR….
…with the Suica card, you can experience Tokyo stressless and easy. There are only a few exceptions where you can´t use it (see below).
Tokyo´s metro is very clean, can´t stress this enough. You´ll get a lot of comfort and quality, but this literally doesn´t come without a price. Depending on where you go to, it sums up quickly, per day it may be even 20 or 30$. There are special day tickets available for travellers and foreign tourists, but those can be only obtained at special ticket counters (such as in the airports).
Solely the monorail Yurikamome and the airport trains (e.g. Narita Express, Sky Liner) have different pricing systems and you´ll have to buy a ticket for those at the respective counters in the departure zones.
If you own a Japan Rail Pass (see here, will be linked soon), you can use all JR lines as well as the Narita Express for free – yet you´ll still have to pay for the private lines.
In case you have to use the local trains to get to the outskirts of Tokyo, take care to use a train that does stop at your destination station. There are Local Trains (which stop at every station), Rapid Trains (fast trains that will skip one or the other station) and Super Rapid Trains (express trains that skip even more stations).
With over 30 million people living in the greater Tokyo area, it´s just plausible that you´ll now and then encounter “strange” or “weird” people taking those trains, especially at night, but to my experience, this is by far no comparison to other metropolises. Besides, it´s really safe and people are generally very friendly, can´t stress this enough. If you lose something, chances are very good you´ll get it back the next day by checking the station´s lost and found office (or just ask one of the staff at the gates).
Waiting for the next train, which rarely takes longer than five minutes. If you´re really lucky…
…there won´t be too many passengers even. It´s rare for Tokyo though. Best time to ride subway in this regard is perhaps from around 11am to 1pm.
I personally am trying to avoid the rush hour times whenever I can. Trains are at 300% of its capacity whilst a station such as Shinjuku transports around 3.5 million passengers per day. The train company staff, equipped with their white gloves, may politely help pushing people into the overcrowded compartments. Yes, it may sound or even look funny and I´ve noticed there are videos on youtube taken by tourists laughing at those scenes, but please, don´t do that. Locals are going through this day by day, it´s pure stress and terribly exhausting. Having some tourists giggling and laughing whilst filming it with their mobile phones is neither polite nor appropriate.
A relic, reminding of analog times where people didn´t have mobile phones to communicate. You could find those blackboards in many stations, people could write messages onto it for friends and colleagues. This one made me smile. It says that if you have a problem and no one else can help you, write XYZ onto the blackboard at Shinjuku station 😉
Below a video of a Ginza Line train arriving at the station: