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How to use train / subway in Tokyo

2020 5/01

Public transportation is very useful when traveling Japan, especially Tokyo. If you’re not traveling in a tour, train/subway would probably be the main transportation to look around the city. It’s very efficient and useful, but it may be confusing for someone who visit Japan for the first time. I believe that once you understand the basics, you are ready to go! I have been living in Tokyo for more than 30 years, and I use train/subway everyday. In this blogpost, I’m going to explain the most basic of basics. When you finish reading, you will be able to understand the basic ideas of how to use train/subway in Tokyo.

Touristのアイコン画像Tourist

I’m nervous about taking trains in Japan…

Tomo(author)のアイコン画像Tomo(author)

Don’t worry. Sometimes it’s even hard for Japanese to get used to taking trains in Tokyo. I’m going to explain from the foundations.

Table of Contents
  1. Introduction
  2. Basic Rules for Taking Train / Subway
  3. Train / Subway map in Tokyo
  4. How to Use Train / Subway
  5. Conclusion

Introduction

Have you ever used trains (or subways) in your home country? If yes, that’s great! I don’t think taking trains in Tokyo would be that different from the ones in your country. But if you come from a place you don’t use trains at all, that’s totally fine too. From now on, I will start from basic rules of taking trains, then go on to take a look at train map of Tokyo, and lastly explain how to use train.

Basic Rules for Taking Train / Subway

First things first. Let’s take a look at some basic rules of taking trains!

Train Platform
You should be standing behind the yellow line when you wait for trains
Tomo(author)のアイコン画像Tomo(author)

I have picked up some major topics that tourist would be interested in. Now let’s take a look!

Types of Tickets


There are 3 types of tickets when taking trains.
A basic fare ticket is necessary for all train travel. Generally speaking, a basic fare ticket is valid only for the day you bought (*if your travel distance is shorter than 100km). So, for a short distance travel, you cannot purchase the ticket beforehand and use it on the next day. If you’re planning to use public transportations frequently, a prepaid IC card (called Suica, PASMO etc) allows you to take trains without purchasing tickets every time you take trains. I will explain more details about the prepaid IC card in another blogpost.
A super (limited) express ticket, on the other hand, such as taking Shinkansen, you can purchase ticket beforehand.

1. Basic Fare Ticket : required for all train travel. You can get a prepaid IC card (Suica, PASMO etc) instead.
2. Super (Limited) Express Ticket : required when traveling on a Shinkansen or Limited Express train. You need to purchase both super (limited) express ticket and basic fare ticket.
3. Green Car Ticket : required when traveling in a Green Car (first class). You need to purchase green car ticket on top of above tickets.

Train Fare Classifications (Adult / Child)


Train fare differs depending on your age. If you are older than 12 years old, you have to purchase adult ticket.
Adults and children are classified as follows.

Adult : 12 or older
Child : 6 – 11
Infant : 1 – 5
Baby : Less than 1

Fares and Charges for Children, Infants and Babies
*Children’s basic fare, super (limited) express, express and reserved seat tickets are 50% of the adult price.
*Green Car tickets and some supplemental tickets are the same as the adult price.
*Infants and babies travel for free, except that they need child’s tickets in the following cases.

-When three or more infants accompany one adult or a child (tickets are required for the third and any additional infants).
-When an infant or baby occupies his or her own reserved seat, Green Car seat or berth, etc.
-When an infant travels alone.

Baggages


Even though no one is going to check your baggage size or weight at train station, I believe that some of you might be interested in policies regarding baggages. It’s a bit different depending on which train you may take, so I will list general rules here.

Weight : Less than 30kg
Size : Total linear dimensions (length, width, height) of no more than 250cm (with a length of a side not exceeding 200cm)
Number of Baggages : Up to 2 baggages

Tomo(author)のアイコン画像Tomo(author)

This is it for basic rules! I hope you could have general understanding toward taking trains in Tokyo. Now, let’s move on to next!

Train / Subway map in Tokyo

Train map in Tokyo
Subway map around Imperial Palace, central Tokyo

As you may have already seen train maps of central Tokyo, train and subway lines are spread all over Tokyo like a spider web. So if you can use it well, you can save a lot of time and money to travel!

To begin with, it is important for you to understand that there are different types of trains. Roughly speaking, there are 3 types of trains in Tokyo; JR(Japan Railway) line, private railway and subway. The reason why it is important to know the difference is that train transfer is different between same-type train transfer and different-type train transfer. Most of the times, the latter requires to transfer outside the ticket gate. (Train transfer differs depending on each train station, so I cannot say “all” of train transfer would follow this rule. But for most of the cases, I think you can assume as such!) So, you need to purchase ticket separately when it comes to different-type train transfer.

Touristのアイコン画像Tourist

Types of trains, I see…
Subway lines seem very colorful on the map.

Tomo(author)のアイコン画像Tomo(author)

That’s a good point! Trains and subways have their own designated color for each line (or company). So, you can distinguish which trains to take by looking at their color. When I transfer trains, I do the same!

How to Use Train / Subway

Finally, let’s go on to how to use train / subway!
Taking trains (or subways) requires 3 steps: (1)search for the route, (2)purchase a ticket and (3)ride!

Step 1 – Search for the Route

In order to buy a train ticket, you need to know which route you take first.
The easiest way to do this is by searching routes online. For prepaid IC card users, I recommend using Google Map app. You can save your hotel locations and places you want to visit on the Google Map, so it makes much easier to search.
But, if you are traveling without IC card, it is more suitable for you to use route finder apps or websites. Route finder’s search result is clearer when it comes to ticket purchases. As I mentioned earlier, how to buy a ticket differs if it’s either same-type train transfer or different-type train transfer. Route finder shows you not only total fare you need but also ticket price for each trains. (This is very important!) I will list 2 of my favorite websites below, so please check it out.

Google Map App *Recommended for prepaid IC card (Suica, PASMO) users
How to search :
After you search for a place you want to go to, tap direction. And the Google Map will show you direction by car, so tap train mark tab right next to car. Then, you can see direction by trains. Click options on your above right if you want to change settings.

Route Finder Apps / Websites *Recommended for no IC card users
How to search :
In order to use route finder, you need to know station names you are going to use. Go to website (app), type departure and destination station names, and click search. Then you will have search results. You can see total price on top and also several ticket price which is needed at Step 2. So make sure to check details.
Following websites are very useful.
Japan Travel by NAVITIME
Japan Transit Planner by jorudan

Step 2 – Purchase a ticket

With Prepaid IC cards (Suica / PASMO etc)
The prepaid IC card can be purchased at the ticket machine or ticket counter at most stations. With ticket vending machines, you can change language setting to either English, Chinese or Korean. You will need to pay 500 yen as a deposit but it will be refunded after you return the card. When your IC card is charged with enough money, you can just tap the IC card at the card reader when passing through the ticket gate. The fare will be deducted automatically when you tap the IC card again when exiting at your destination.

With Basic Fare Ticket
Basic fare ticket can be purchased at the ticket machine or ticket counter at almost all stations. Follow the instruction and pay for the amount that you searched in Step 1. You will receive a small paper ticket, so you can insert the ticket when passing through at the ticket gate. You will need the ticket when exiting, so try not to lose it!

Step 3 – Ride!!!

After you pass through the ticket gate, there is no more complications! Look for the electric noticeboard and find the platform of your train. Then, wait at the platform and ride the train.

Entrance of JR Osaki station, Tokyo
Touristのアイコン画像Tourist

It sounds easy enough! I think I’m ready to take trains now!!

Tomo(author)のアイコン画像Tomo(author)

That’s great! Be confident, you already know everything you need!

Conclusion

Did this blogpost help you clear questions or uncertainties about how to take trains (subways) in Tokyo? To sum up, I would like to review essential parts.
First, you need to purchase a basic fare ticket for all train travel. You can substitute it for a prepaid IC if you are going to take public transportations frequently. In order to take trains, there are 3 steps you need to take: search for the route, purchase a ticket, and ride. Online services such as Google map and route finder are very useful to find the best route for your train travel. At ticket vending machine, you can change language setting to either English, Chinese or Korean. Follow the instructions, and make sure to purchase the right amount of ticket. After you enter the ticket gate, try not to lose your ticket until exiting at your destination. Look for the electric noticeboard and find the platform of your train. Ride the train, and enjoy your journey!

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