Tokyo is so big, so dense and filled with so many people, it seems impossible to easily get around. But it is easy! Because there are multiple rail and subway lines operating through dozens of stations, it’s a snap to connect different trains to get to where you want. You might ride a subway part of the way to your destination, and then transfer to a rail line for the rest of the journey.
With Tokyo’s public transportation network and today’s technology on our phones, you can get around without renting a car, paying for a taxi or walking long distances.
Below are some of the subway and rail lines and big stations you’ll use to be an expert Tokyo transport rider. And we’ve included our favorite way to get to and from the airports.
When I first arrived in Tokyo, there were no apps for anything—the iPhone was years away! But even in the 90s, there was an English map of the Tokyo Metro showing how all the stops were connected. It was easy to follow.
I was struck by how the Tokyo Metro was always on time. If a sign said a train was coming in three minutes, it arrived in three minutes.
If you’ve never been on the Tokyo Metro, you are missing out on a major way to travel. You can get a Tokyo Metro card for a foreigner in one- or a three-day all-you-can-travel versions. Or even better, a card you can refill as needed. For a short visit, get the three-day version to go wherever you want without worrying about running out of money on the card. The Tokyo Metro runs virtually flawlessly, and you can easily catch a subway and switch lines at stations.
When I stayed in Tokyo for longer periods, I bought a reloadable card with my name on it.
It’s called a Pasmo card, and if you are going to be in Japan for a while, it’s the way to go when riding subways. You load it with Japanese yen at a Pasmo station. I loaded our cards with yen, and we breezed through the ticket aisles.
When I first worked in Tokyo, I carried a Tokyo Metro paper map. These days you can use an app on your phone that tells you the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B. The subway lines are color coded and easy to remember. And the app makes it even easier.
But Isn’t It Too Crowded?
With so many people in Tokyo, a subway car can be very crowded. Tourists see these pictures and think of avoiding the Tokyo Metro. Don’t make that mistake! Just avoid the busy rush hours, from 6:00 to 8:30 AM and 5:00 to 6:30 PM.
While living in Tokyo, I didn’t attempt to go to work on the Tokyo Metro until 8:30 AM. And going home, I’d either leave at 5 PM or wait until 6:30. Millions of Japanese take the Tokyo Metro every day, but choose the right times and you can avoid the crowds.
Riding the sunway involves etiquette. For example, the Japanese always make way or clear a seat for the elderly or disabled. Here are some more things you’ll see or experience riding the subway:
- The Japanese are respectful toward foreigners, and you’ll see this on the subway. Children might stare at you if you are a Westerner—they don’t see many Westerners. If you smile at a child and give a little wave, it’s almost always returned.
- You’ll also notice everyone is staring at their keitai or mobile phone. It’s a form of distraction and showing respect for others. They don’t want to bother you. And it works the other way. Those looking at their phone are asking for privacy.
- You’ll also see lots of people reading manga. You might find it odd that a salaryman is reading a comic book. But this is normal in Japan. Manga is sometimes confused with anime. Manga is a long-form comic in paperback book form. Anime is animation in film or series form. Much of anime is based on popular manga. But some anime is based on Western books or film, and some have original characters and plots.
- You’ll also see lots of people with headphones. Like using phones, they are trying to be by themselves. And you’ll notice that the volume is usually low so as not to disturb others in the car.
- It also is normal for people to sleep on the subway. I wonder how commuters can sleep and not miss their stop. Most Japanese commute between one and two hours every day—each way! As this can cause sleep deprivation, the commute is a place for Japanese to catch up on sleep. And somehow they always wake up just as they approach their stop.
Even an experienced traveler like this site’s editor gets tired from seeing and experiencing everything Tokyo!
Follow the Signs
When you get to your stop, determine which exit to take out of the station to get to your destination. At each station there are large yellow signs that show major nearby places and which exit to use to get there. These usually use English as well as Japanese. Most everyone is very friendly in a subway station and you’ll get plenty of help from the staff or from local Japanese who want to practice their English.
Take the Tokyo Metro—you won’t regret it. It’s one of the best ways to get around and to experience Tokyo people and their culture.
Japan’s railway system is impressive. They have trains going all over Tokyo and the rest of the country.
Japan Railways (JR) operates many rail lines throughout Japan. It used to be government owned but are now is a private company. JR East supports the Tokyo area.
In Tokyo, the Yamanote Line is the most well-known because it stops at most of the major stations that also serve the Tokyo Metro. The Yamanote Line circles Tokyo, easily linking to many other lines and stations. Traveling in Tokyo from one destination to another often involves riding a JR and subway.
The Shinkansen, or bullet train, has been running since 1964. You can take the Shinkansen to major destinations. It’s rail travel as it should be. The scenery whizzes by at 200 miles per hour. This is a great thing to do if you are a tourist and want to take a day trip or overnight to another city while in Tokyo.
As with most transportation in Japan, the trains are almost always on time. And the service is efficient and friendly. Take the Shinkansen and you can tell people you’ve gone 200 miles per hour on the ground. The only thing that comes close is riding in a race car!
In most cases, the best way to pay for your JR travel is by using the JR Pass. The pass allows multiple trips per purchase. If you know you’ll use the JR a lot, get a JR Pass.
Busiest in the World
This is the busiest railway station in the world. You can easily get lost here because it’s so massive. But if you’re careful and follow the signs in English and Japanese, you can get where you want to go. When I worked in Tokyo the first time, I had to go through this station every day.
As of 2017, three and a half million passengers traveled through Shinjuku Station every day. There are more than 200 exits! Not only does it serve trains, Tokyo Metro (subway) traffic runs through here. And Shinjuku Station offers shops and restaurants to passengers. And many hotels are nearby. Shinjuku Station is one big hub right in the middle of Tokyo’s busy financial district.
Shinjuku Station opened in 1885 for trains and 1959 for the Metro. JR Railways is the largest train line. It serves one and a half million passengers per day. Another rail line, Keio, handles more than 700,000 passengers each day.
Shopping and Dining
You’ll likely find yourself in Shinjuku Station, since it is a connecting point for so many things. The Friendly Airport Limousine Bus will drop you off here from the Haneda or Narita airports. There’s a nine-floor shopping center, Mylord, adjacent to the Shinjuku Station. This makes Mylord a popular place to shop or eat. The Mosaic Dori shopping street runs across the top of Shinjuku Station, linking Mylord with the Keio Department Store. Not to be outdone, the Odakyu Department Store offers 16 floors of shopping in the same area. Odakyu and Keio are competitors, so both try to attract shoppers with deals and offers.
There is a vast shopping area beneath Shinjuku Station. While not as large or comprehensive as the big department stores around the station, these shops are unique and worth a visit. The underground stores cater primarily to commuters and weekend window shoppers. Being underground, you don’t have to worry about any weather problems. And the stores are open almost on the same time schedule as the trains.
The underground includes about two miles of shops, including drugstores, clothing stores, convenience stores, restaurants, and even shoe repair. They cater to the everyday commuter, so it makes sense to drop off your shoes when you know you’ll be walking through the same area later in the day. It’s fun to shop or browse, but you need to have some idea of where you might want to exit. The restaurants are plentiful, and you easily can see if there is food or drink you want.
Outside the Shinjuku Station, lots of other shops and restaurants abound. There are many McDonald’s restaurants around, and they are always crowded.
Shinjuku Station is very close to the Park Hyatt Tokyo and Hyatt Regency Tokyo hotels. Both hotels have a complimentary shuttle service to and from Shinjuku Station.
Tokyo City Air Terminal
When I lived in Tokyo, I took the bus from Tokyo City Air Terminal, or T-CAT, to Narita airport because it was a direct route. The alternative was to take a bus that stops at hotels. But I’d stop at lots of hotels before mine, and this added 40 minutes to an hour to my trip. The Royal Park Hotel Tokyo is popular with tourists because it’s across the street from T-CAT. You don’t even have to go outside to get to T-CAT from the Royal Park. We loved this convenience.
T-CAT is an easy way to catch the nonstop Friendly Airport Limousine Bus to Narita or Haneda airports. We like T-CAT because once you are there, you can go directly to the airport without stopping at all of the other hotels. It can save you 20 to 30 minutes.
Highlights of T-CAT are the services and support for international tourists. The T-CAT Tourist Information Center is on the first floor and provides help and guidance for sightseeing in and around Tokyo. They are very friendly and helpful.
The main area for sightseeing guidance is on the second floor. It shows many areas to explore throughout Japan using images and video, including Mount Fuji and regional events that change monthly. Sometimes, they invite visitors to get a first-hand impression with sake tasting and quizzes.
Friendly Airport Limousine Bus
We brought each of our five children to Tokyo when we lived there. Madeline was the tour guide during the work week, and I took over on the weekend. All our children consider their Tokyo experience as one of the best of their lives.
It was always fun to see our children arrive but sad to see them go.
On the flip side, we always thought the limousine bus was the best way to get to and from the airport. We always called it the Friendly Bus, and even when we were buying our tickets, we felt that everyone was friendly and looking out for us.
When we first arrived in the Tokyo area at Narita or Haneda, we were jet-lagged and overwhelmed by our general lack of language skills. If you are concerned about arriving in Japan with poor Japanese language capabilities, fear not!
Go to the Friendly Airport Limousine Bus counter, which is highly recognizable in orange and white colors. Tell them where you want to go, and they will tell you which bus will arrive the closest to your destination. In many cases, we went to the hotel where the bus stopped, but some hotels are not on the route. For those hotels, you can walk or take a short taxi ride.
Friendly Airport Limousine Bus fares are very reasonable, and you travel from Narita or Haneda quickly. Everything runs on time in Japan, and the Friendly Bus is no exception. If they say it is leaving at 11:24 AM, it leaves at 11:24 AM. So, you need to be at the pickup point a few minutes early. Friendly people help you to the right line and handle your luggage. When you depart the stop, employees will bow, as you’re their guest.
There is no tipping in Japan, so you simply have to keep track of your bus tickets and the luggage tickets they give you—and enjoy the ride!
If you are going to Narita, you can avoid many of the bus hotel stops by going straight to T-CAT in Nihombashi. T-CAT is also a comfortable place to wait for your bus because it has shops and restaurants and some tourist information.