Tokyo has one of the most extensive mass transit systems in the world and is the most used subway system in the world in terms of annual passenger rides. It is clean, safe and efficient – and confusing. The confusion arises from the fact that several distinct railway systems operate within Tokyo – the JR East network, the two subway networks, and various private lines – and different route maps show different systems. Avoid rush hours if possible; trains get overcrowded very easily.
The defining rail line in Tokyo is the JR Yamanote Line (山手線 Yamanote-sen), which runs in a loop around central Tokyo; being inside the Yamanote loop is synonymous with being in the core of Tokyo. Almost all inter-regional JR lines and private lines start at a station on the Yamanote. JR's lines are color-coded, and the Yamanote is light green. The JR Chuo (orange, 中央線 Chūō-sen) and Chuo-Sobu (yellow, 中央総武線 Sōbu-sen) lines run side-by-side, bisecting the Yamanote loop from Shinjuku on the west to Tokyo on the east. JR's other commuter lines, the Saikyo and Keihin-Tohoku, run off the rim of the Yamanote loop to the north and south. JR East has a good English information line, 050-2016-1603 or 03-3423-0111.
Tokyo has an extensive subway network with frequent trains, and these are primarily useful for getting around within the Yamanote loop. The Tokyo Metro runs nine lines: Ginza, Marunouchi, Hibiya, Tozai, Chiyoda, Yurakucho, Hanzomon, Namboku and Fukutoshin lines. Toei operates the Asakusa, Mita, Shinjuku, and Oedo lines. While the JR Yamanote Line is not a subway line, due to its importance as a major transportation artery in downtown Tokyo, it is usually featured on subway maps. In addition, there is a largely underground Rinkai Line, a private line which is operated by Tokyo Waterfront Area Rapid Transit (web-site only in Japanese) or TWR, that passes through the island of Odaiba.
Announcements and signs are usually bilingual in Japanese and English, though in some areas frequented by tourists, signs in Korean and Chinese can also be seen.
A number of private commuter lines radiate from the Yamanote loop out into the outlying wards and suburbs, and almost all connect through directly to subway lines within the loop. The private lines are useful for day trips outside the city, and are slightly cheaper than JR. Among these, the most important to visitors is arguably the Yurikamome which offers great views on the way to the island of Odaiba.
Most tickets and passes are sold from automated vending machines. Keep in mind that JR trains are free with a Japan Rail Pass.
Prepaid fare cards are convenient and highly recommended because they allow you to ride trains without having to read the sometimes Japanese-only fare maps to determine your fare. There are two brands of prepaid fare cards, JR East's Suica, and PASMO, offered by private (non-JR) lines. Functionally they are completely interchangeable and can be used on just about every subway, train and bus line in Tokyo (with the noted exception of JR's Shinkansen and limited express trains).
The fare cards are rechargeable "smart cards": you simply tap your card on the touch pad next to the turnstile as you go in, and do the same when going through to exit. There is an initial ¥500 deposit that you must pay when purchasing a fare card, but up to ¥20,000 in value can be stored on each card.
The older Passnet cards are not accepted anymore. If you still own some of these, you can exchange them for a PASMO or Suica card.
There are also some special tickets that allow unlimited travel, but most are unlikely to be useful to tourists unless you're planning to spend half your day on the train.
If you're paying à la carte, subway and train fares are based on distance, ranging from ¥110 to ¥310 for hops within central Tokyo. As a general rule of thumb, Tokyo Metro lines are cheapest, Toei lines are most expensive, and JR lines fall somewhere in the middle (but are usually cheaper than Metro for short trips, i.e. no more than 4 stations). Many of the private lines interoperate with the subways, which can occasionally make a single ride seem unreasonably expensive as you are in essence transferring to another line and fare system, even though you're still on the same train. E.g. changing between Metro subway line and Tokyu private line amounts to paying the sum of each fare: minimum fare Metro ¥160 + minimum fare Tokyu ¥120 = ¥280. In addition, several patterns of transfer are listed as "Transfer Discount", and the most famous one is ¥70 discount, that applies to a transfer between Tokyo Metro and Toei subway lines. When using Suica or PASMO, you can get all transfer discounts automatically. At some transfer stations, you may need to pass through a special transfer gate (both for paper tickets and PASMO/Suica) which is coloured orange – passing through the regular blue gate will not get you your transfer discount and if you have a paper ticket, you won't get it back. At some transfer points (e.g. Asakusa station) you may actually need to transfer on street level as the two stations (Metro Ginza Line and Toei Asakusa Line) are not physically connected and are about one block apart.
It pays to check your route beforehand. The Tokyo Transfer Guide by the Tokyo Metro and Toei subway companies, is an online service that allows you to plan subway and train travel from point A to point B, based on time, cost, and transfers. This guide provides information for Tokyo only, and there are other sites which additionally cover the whole country, see the Japan page. Some major stations have terminals providing information similar to the Tokyo Transfer Guide.
If you can't figure out how much it is to the destination, you can buy the cheapest ticket and pay the difference at the Fare Adjustment Machine (norikoshi) at the end. Most vending machines will let you buy a single ticket that covers a transfer between JR, subway and private lines, all the way to your destination, but working out how to do this may be a challenge if you are not familiar with the system. When transferring between systems, whether paying with tickets or smart cards, use the orange transfer gates to exit. Otherwise, you'll be charged full fare for both separate parts of your trip, instead of the cheaper transfer fare.
Most train lines in Tokyo run from around 05:00 to 01:00. During peak hours they run about once every three minutes; even during off-peak hours it's less than ten minutes between trains. The only night when regular passenger services run overnight is for the New Year's Holiday on select lines.
Taxis are very pricey, but may be a value for groups of three or more. Also, if you miss your last train, you may not have another choice.
Fares generally start at ¥710 for the first two kilometers and can add up rapidly. A 20% night surcharge is tacked on from 22:00-05:00. As a rule of thumb, a daytime trip across the city from Tokyo station to Shinjuku station will cost approximately ¥3000, while a daytime trip from Tokyo station to Haneda Airport costs around ¥6200. These examples are based on standard routing and traffic conditions, so your actual fare may vary in relation to the estimated fare.
Taxi rear left passenger doors are operated by the driver and open and close automatically. Don't open or close them yourself.
Do not count on your taxi driver speaking English—or knowing more than the best-known locations, though most taxis have GPS "car navi" systems installed. The best and easiest thing to do is to prepare a map marked with where you want to go, and point it out on the map to the taxi driver. If you are staying at a hotel, they will provide a map. If possible, get a business card, or print out the address in Japanese of any specific places you wish to go. However, because in Japan streets are often unmarked, if the taxi driver does not have GPS he may not be able to do more than take you to the general vicinity of where you want to go. Also, note that taxis can get caught in traffic jams. No tips are expected or given.
Nihon Kotsu has a 24-hour English telephone number, 03-5755-2336, to call for a Nihon Kotsu taxi within Tokyo. There is a ¥400 booking fee for each reservation, payable to the driver at the end of the trip. The English receptionist will inform you about your assigned taxi by color, company name and taxi number. If you already have a destination (or a few) in mind, the receptionist will electronically transmit the information to the driver so that you don't have to tell the driver yourself.
Tokyo is a gigantic warren of narrow streets with no names, with slow-moving traffic and extremely limited and expensive parking. In this city with such an excellent mass transit system, you would need a good reason to want to drive around instead. While renting a car can make sense in Japan in some contexts (e.g., visiting a rural onsen resort), in general it is neither convenient nor economical to rent a car to get around metro Tokyo. Taxis are much more convenient if your budget allows it; walking or public transportation is much less expensive and given the difficulties of navigation and finding parking in popular areas, probably easier too.
If you do decide to plunge in and drive around by car, the main expressway serving Tokyo is the Shuto Expressway, abbreviated to Shutoko (首都高) . The C1 Loop Line forms a circle around central Tokyo, similar in fashion to how the Yamanote Line does it by rail. But whereas the Yamanote Line charges ¥130-250 for a single trip, driving a car onto the Shutoko in Tokyo entitles you to pay a nominal entry fee of ¥700 every time you enter the system, with additional tolls (¥300 or ¥500) collected at various other locations.
Driving on the Tokyo Expressway at night can be a pleasant and beautiful experience as you whiz through and around the Tokyo nightlife. When driving at night you should exercise caution and obey speed limits: Street racing over the Shutoko at night became popular in the 80's and 90's and still happens today, albeit on a less frequent basis. Street racers often concentrate their driving on the C1 Loop Line and the Bayshore (more popularly known as the Wangan) Line. "Competitors" sometimes hang out at parking and service areas on the Shutoko, especially the large Daikoku Parking Area at the intersection of the Bayshore Line and the K5 Daikoku Line in Yokohama.
The few areas within Tokyo that aren't easily accessible by train are served by various bus companies. Buses operating within 23 wards of Tokyo have a fixed fare regardless of distance (¥200 on Toei buses and ¥210 on other private bus companies), which is paid upon boarding from the front door. The fares are not transferable; however most buses do accept Suica or PASMO fare cards (see above). If you use a "Suica" or "PASMO" card to board a Toei Bus, you will receive a ¥100 discount on your next Toei Bus ride as long as it is within 90 minutes of the previous ride. Compared to the trains, the buses run much less frequently, carry fewer passengers, and are much slower. This makes them amenable to the elderly residents of Tokyo, but rather inconvenient for travelers, who will also have to deal with lack of information in English and sometimes very well hidden bus stops. Bus routes can be fairly complicated and are often not listed in detail at the bus stops; signs on the buses themselves often list only two or three main stops in addition to the origin and destination. Inside the bus the next stop is usually announced several times, sometimes by a taped voice and sometimes by a mumbling driver. Recently taped announcements in English are used on some lines, but are still rare. Nevertheless, north-south routes are useful in the western side of the city since train lines (Odakyu, Keio, Chuo, and Seibu) tend to run east-west.
In an attempt to provide some information about their buses to foreign visitors/residents, Toei Bus now has a web site that shows some of the main bus routes used to go to certain destinations in Tokyo. This information is provided in English and several other languages.
Willer Express operates a hop-on, hop-off bus service called the Sky Hop Bus, which bills itself as "the first open-top double decker bus in Japan." At a charge of ¥1800 for a 24-hour pass and ¥2500 for a 48-hour pass (children half price), you can ride these buses and hop on and off as often as you wish. There are three bus routes that operate, all from the Marunouchi Building next to Tokyo Station: One route serves Asakusa and Tokyo SkyTree, the second runs to Roppongi and Tokyo Tower, and the third runs to Odaiba. Service only runs hourly, with departures from the Marunouchi Building between 10:20 and 18:30.
The Tokyo Cruise Ship Company operates a series of Water Bus ferries along the Sumida River and in Tokyo Bay, connecting Asakusa, Hinode, Harumi and Odaiba. The ferries feature a recorded tour announced in English as well as Japanese and a trip on one makes for a relaxing, leisurely way to see the waterfront areas of Tokyo. Of particular note is the super-futuristic Himiko ferry designed by anime and manga creator Leiji Matsumoto, which runs on the Asakusa-Odaiba Direct Line. You might want to arrive well before the departure time just in case tickets on the Himiko sell out!
Bicycles are very commonly used for local transport, but amenities like bicycle lanes are rare, drivers pay little heed to bikes and traffic can be very heavy on weekdays, so if you use a bicycle, do not be afraid to cycle on the sidewalk (everyone does). Keep in mind, however, that parts of Tokyo are surprisingly hilly, and it's a sweaty job pedaling around in the summer heat. Central Tokyo can still be covered fairly comfortably by bike on the weekends. Tokyo Great Cycling Tour offers a one day guided tour for biking around major tourist spots in Tokyo, like Marunouchi, Nihonbashi, Tsukiji, Odaiba, Tokyo tower, Imperial palace and so on.
Renting a bike is possible from some youth hostels, particularly around Asakusa, although it's not common. However, buying a simple single-speed roadster is fairly cheap, and comes complete with a built-in bicycle wheel lock system (this is what most Tokyoites use). An imported multiple-geared bike will be much more expensive so get a good lock, as bike theft is a common threat, although the problem is nowhere near as serious as in other countries.
In this large city with such an efficient public transportation system, walking to get from point A to point B would seem a bit stupid at first glance. However, as the city is extremely safe even at night, walking in Tokyo can be a very pleasant experience. In some areas, walking can be much shorter than taking the subway and walking the transit (the whole Akasaka/Nagatacho/Roppongi area in the center is for instance very easily covered on foot). If you have the time, Shinjuku to Shibuya via Omotesando takes roughly one hour, Tokyo Station to Shinjuku would be a half a day walk, and the whole Yamanote line Grand Tour takes a long day.
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