I’ve been meaning to do this for a while… it’s part of the introduction to Tokyo routine I give to everyone that comes for a visit.
First, the trains in Tokyo are super easy to deal with, especially the subway lines. The JR lines are a little less friendly, but not too tough. There are English signs everywhere. In fact, I don’t remember too much trouble with signage even in the far northern reaches we visited last October. Every ticket machine we encountered had an English option, too!
Anyway, focusing on Tokyo Metro (and the private Toei line)…
All the station entrances have a nice sign around them, and as you approach them you’ll find something like this:
On this sign you find lots of handy info:
- There are two metro lines here, the Marunouchi and Namboku. Their symbols are next to the names and these are completely consistent. Anytime you see a red circle with an M, it’s a Maunouchi station. Below the letter is the number of the station – this is the 22nd station on the Marunouchi line and the 11th on the Namboku line.
- You find the name of the station, in this case Korakuen Station
- You find the gate number – it’s cut off in this picture, but it’s a little black square in the upper right. Lots of stations have lots of exits and given that navigation in Tokyo is done with landmarks, this is an important one.
Once you enter the station, you’ll need a ticket (unless you’ve got a PassMo card… we’ll discuss that later).
You’ll find a nice big board with your current station highlighted, all the other stations you might want to go to and the price of a ticket in Yen. For example…
- We are at Roppongi-Itchome station
- We want to go to Korakuen station
- We need a ticket for Y190
Easy! Now to buy the ticket! Luckily, this board is right above the machines.
I don’t know the difference in the pink and blue machines. Over the blue one is a sticker that says PassMo, but I think the pink machine works with them too. This could be a legacy matter… in the not so distant past the two primary commuter cards did not play together the way they do today.
Ok. So now you’ve got your ticket to the place you’re headed, so let’s go. You head to the fancy turnstiles (which I don’t currently have a picture of), shove your ticket in the slot at the end, and walk through. Be sure to grab your ticket of course – you’ll need it on the other side. You’ll likely have to go down some stairs, and as you do, you’ll see…
Yeah – an awesome sign (bad photo, apologies) with all the stations on that line! Even better? Your station is marked in red – if your target is to the right, go to the right side of the platform; one the left, go to the left. And don’t worry – you don’t need to stand in the middle of the stairs to look over this information, there is one on the platform as well:
There is a ton of information found on this one sign – I love it. Let’s see if I can lay it out…
- First, at the top of the sign the name of the station you’re in, the line you’re on and the station number. In this case, Roppongi-Itchome station, #5 on the Namboku line. (You’ve also got it written in kanji and hiragana if you prefer)
- Out of the picture slightly, to the left and right of the station name are the names of the station to the left and right of this one.
- Lower down is the whole line itself. Again, the current station is marked in red. In this case, the darker stations are where the train on this side of the platform is going, with the lighter stations being where it came from. Note we’ll go to Tameike-Sanno next.
- On that list of stations is even more information…
- The number of minutes from your current station to any other. For example, 12 minutes to Korakuen
- The other train lines you can connect to at any given station. For example, at Korakuen you can transfer to the Marunouchi, Mita or Oedo lines.
- Another way to look at the list of other lines is this: if I want to transfer to the Marunouchi line, I have four stations as options – Tameike-Sanno, Nagatacho, Yotsuya, or Korakuen. (Why is Namboku following Marunouchi so closely…?)
At this point you pretty much just need to wait for the train to show up and hop on. There are a few things I would mention about that, too…
- Don’t talk on your cell phone – it’s considered rude. Feel free to text, game, etc… just don’t talk.
- If you think you’ll get a call, switch your cell to silent / vibrate.
- An interesting phenomenon is that if you’re a foreigner sitting on the bench, you can expect native folks to be hesitant to sit next to you. It’s not to say you’ll never have someone next to you, but there can be an interesting delay even in a busy train.
- Trains do get solidly packed with people at rush times. Solidly. I haven’t seen the station attendants shoving people in that there are stories and videos of, but I’ve been in trains where I was only standing still on a bumpy ride simply for the mass of humans around me. Also, if trains are packed don’t expect the next one to be any better. Tokyo Metro is moving 6.3 million people a day.
- Amazingly, in most cases, trains are pretty quiet. Even in those trains that are human sardine cans, the amount of talking noise, etc. is pretty low. People are pretty respectful of their neighbors.
- Except to see people sleeping in trains. Lots of folks are commuting a hour or more to and from work. They’ve gotten bored with texting, books and everything else, so they sleep sitting up… or even hanging onto the overhead rail. I’ve even gotten to the point where I’ll nap a bit.
- Safety and security is great – but this is true for pretty much all of Tokyo and Japan.
- If you’ve got a backpack, please take it off your back and hold it at your feet, or put it on the luggage rack. If you keep it on, you’re probably going to hit someone. 😦
So now I think I’ve written most of the unwritten (and some written) rules of the train… so let’s talk about how you know when to get off.
- Almost every train will have announcements in Japanese and the English. Sometimes the English track is turned off, sometimes the conductor mumbles incoherently over the English announcements. Basically the announcements tell you what station is next and if there are other lines you can transfer to at that station. (Amusingly I can actually hear the announcement, in both languages in my head…)
- Almost every train has a scrolling LED board that tells you what station is next as well as the transfer lines… just like the announcements.
- Some trains have fancy LCD screens with a graphical representation of the line – plenty of easy info there.
In the worst case scenario, you can look out the train window for signs like these…
This isn’t the perfect example, because it’s one the Japanese only ones (they alternate), but you can at least see which station number it is. If this were in English, it would be just like the earlier sign…
So once you’re at your station, you hop off and start to head out. Except… where are you going? Ah – but of course there is a sign for that, too.
These big yellow signs are A) hard to miss and B) full of more great information. This isn’t a great example of the station map (upper) part… and frankly they usually confuse me anyway. However, the lower part is super handy. You can look through the list of major landmarks and determine which exit that is closet too. The middle part is probably the key to everything though – which direction are which exits?
So now you head out of the station, deposit your ticket in the turnstile and keep following the signs to your exit. Once you’re out of the station… well, I can’t help much there. Google or paper Maps, lots of landmarks and a tiny bit of survival Japanese are your best tools I suppose.
Oh – a couple helpful links for how to find train schedules:
http://www.tokyo-subway.net/english/index.html – Flash, so no iPhone / iPad action here… but my favorite on the laptop
http://www.hyperdia.com/en/ – Not Flash-based and more comprehensive than just Tokyo. Find trains to anywhere in the country.