Navigating Tokyo – Public Transit

Getting around Tokyo can be one of the biggest challenges if you’re not accustomed to it. When I first arrived in Japan it took me a month or so to actually get the hang of trains and then another year to actually learn the quirks about my stations. Maps are helpful, but for people not used to using trains, the sight of the Tokyo Metro, JR, and Keio maps can be daunting. And how do those companies relate anyway? In this post, I hope to answer some of these questions and speed up that first month of trial and error.


There are a handful of companies that operate in the Tokyo area. If you get a Pasmo or a Suica (see section below), you largely don’t need to worry about them. There are two things of note regarding companies: 1) transferring between companies often costs more than using the same one to get to your destination, and 2) if you have a special pass like the JR RAIL PASS, it won’t work on non-JR lines.

IC Cards

There are two main IC cards in the Tokyo area: Pasmo (Issued by Tokyo Metro) and Suica (Issued by JR). As of early 2013, these are interchangeable, so you can choose based on whatever criteria you want. Like pink and grey? Go Pasmo. Want to make watermelon jokes? Go Suica. Either way, I highly recommend getting one of these cards, as it will significantly improve your experience traveling in Japan. You can even get it personalized for a nice souvenir.

These cards are charged at the train stations, usually right outside of the ticket gates. The machines all have an English option, so you can hit that to get English instructions. You essentially insert the card, select how much you want to charge, then feed the bills in. If you are trying to exit and the gate turns red and screams at you, you’re out of money. Inside the gates you’ll find a “Fare Adjustment Machine”. It works just the same as the charging machines outside.

You use the cards by tapping the glowing blue circles on the right-side of the ticket gate. You have to hold it for about 0.5 to 1 second. If it turns red and screams, you’re either out of money or didn’t tap it right.

If you enter and decide you need to get out (like you ran in ahead of your friends *cough* I’ve never done that), you can walk over to the window at the ticket gates, hand your card over, and give a simple 間違いました (machigaimashita). You might be charged 100 yen or so for your crimes, however.


Rather than explain the complexities of navigating Tokyo by memory (and you wasting your time memorizing all of the lines), it’s easier to use a mapping service. Both Google Maps and Hyperdia do a fine job of getting you around and can recognize most major landmarks in both English and Japanese. If you are just looking to get from point A to point B, don’t spend more time figuring it out. Just listen to your mapping software.

If you are in a huge rush about getting somewhere, it can get complicated. For instance, on my commute to work I actually skip one station (A) and go to the next (B) because the difference in transfer time between A and B is actually so high that it makes up for the extra time travelling from A to B on the train. If you’re competing with hundreds or thousands of other Ps for the goods line, those few minutes can count. We will be putting together a post specific to each major event about the most efficient way to get out there.


The majority of stations are fairly simple and are nothing to worry about. They have one or two exits and that’s it. There are frequently situations where you’ll have two companies operating close (and even connected) stations using the same name, and sometimes they have different names. These can be a bit confusing, so make sure to research your plan ahead of time. Google Maps can be useful for locating how each of these stations relate to each other. Akihabara is a good example of this.



There are also a few locations where nearby stations will have entirely different names. Don’t let these trip you up because the transfer is easy!


Lastly, you have the nightmare stations: Tokyo and Shinjuku. These stations are old and almost every company is represented with dozens of lines going in and out. This makes them incredibly convenient but also incredibly confusing. Reading maps of these stations is nearly impossible and you’re left with just following the signage. If you’re travelling into one of these stations, look up your exit before you get there. Google Maps lets you see the exit numbers for most major stations, so once you get off of the train you can start following signs for your exit.



Knowing your exit can be very important. Akihabara station is a great example of this as well. There’s no quick way through Akihabara JR station if you’re on the wrong side of it. You just have to walk around. For Shinjuku, taking the wrong exit could result in a kilometer or more of walking outside in direct sunlight or in a typhoon. Make sure to pay attention to where you are exiting and where you need to go. Often taking the trains is the easiest part of a trip somewhere.

Coin Lockers

Most stations have coin lockers somewhere. If you need one, you can ask the station master where they are. They usually range from 300 to 500 yen depending on size and are good for storing heavy luggage if you’re going to be somewhere for a while. Just make sure to get your stuff out by midnight or getting it back is a pain.

Lost and Found

If you lose something in the station or train, find the Lost and Found at each station. They will want to know what train you were on, so it’s usually a good note to keep track of what time you got on or got off. Also note the car and door if your can. The more specific the better. The language barrier can be a problem here, so don’t be afraid to write down information if necessary.

Random Notes

  • Trains are pretty much always on time. Don’t count on your train being late.
  • Eating in the station or train is rude. Some stations have restaurants inside and food should be kept inside. Drinking on the train is OK as long as its a bottle and you’re careful.
  • Trains can get very, very crowded. You need to divorce yourself from the idea of personal space. Because of this, it’s good to keep your hands up on the handles to prevent any claims of perversion. Bags should come off your back and in your hands, between your legs, or on the luggage racks.
  • Let people off the train before you get on.
  • If you get lost, you can ask a station master. They probably don’t speak superb English, but most can understand that you want to get to X station or Y line and can give some basic instructions in English.


That’s pretty much the basics of what you need to be aware of to get around reasonably efficiently. If there is any specific information you’d like me to address, leave it in the comments!

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