Tokyo City Transport

People in Venice traveled in gondolas. Nordic people on reindeer sledges. On horse backs in the vast steppes of Asia and the Americas. In those days life moved at a slower pace, in tune with individual needs. Discovery of automotive brought in a big change. Horse drawn carriages gave in to motor cars, boats were replaced by – motor boats. That was the norm for quite some time; till the need came up to transport more people, faster than before, farther than before. Mass transit ways on rail was set up to rush the teeming millions to their place of work in time from places afar.

Tokyo compared to London - source https://twitter.com/Amazing_Maps
Tokyo compared to London – source @Amazing_Maps

As cities grew rail transport network became more complex. For Tokyo in particular, rails crisscross across the lengths and breadth of the city areas, both above and under the ground. Rail transport literally holds the key to its city life. The options are confusing at times. In this post lets look at the options available to you first as tourist and  second as local resident.

Options connecting tourist points

Assuming you already know your options as to how to travel from airport or have actually reached into the city from Narita or Haneda airport and moved into a place of stay. If not, then if you like to go through the posts from airport to city and hotels and other short term accommodations.

Within Tokyo city proper, subway “metro” is the primary means of transport. City transportation has been planned around the metro network.

Tokyo Taxi Apps
Tokyo Taxi Apps

Buses ply from station to station covering the innards. Taxi cabs of course are available, can be availed of from taxi stands outside each station or can be hailed from anywhere on road. No need to say taxis are quite expensive. There are two major taxi companies that have English assistance and facilities for advanced booking – Nihon Kotsu and MK Taxi.

If you know Japanese or got a local friend by you then however you have much more options. You can download and use Apps to hail the nearest taxi from your position, and/or book for a specific date/time.

For most tourists though, trains will be the main means of transport. The Metro trains run from morning 5am till midnight. Avoid the rush hour of 8am-9am in the morning and 5-6 pm in the evening if you can. Also the late night trains tend to be full with office-goers returning home after the almost mandatory after-office socializing. However if anyhow you find yourself stuck behind crowd while your station is reached remember to utter the magic work “Sumimasen”, the crowd will melt letting a way out for you. For women travelers there are designated compartments during the office rush hours. Otherwise the clean cool efficient subway will never fail you in reaching you your destination in time wherever it may be. Before stepping out lookup the Maps online. Or use google maps to find out the best connection from point A to B at a given time. Ticket options range from Day discount, train and bus combo discount etc. Also you can buy a magnetic/ chip based swipe card (called PASMO) in place of paper tickets. Its a prepaid card, available from ticket vending machines next to all most all metro stations and also from “combinis” around major stations. The advantage is you don’t have to look for change every time you get in or out of trains. The pass can also be used conveniently in buses, in JR rails (see below) and also in combinis and vending machines on platform. Some times if you are not sure about the fare or best route from point A to B you can choose to buy the minimum fare and adjust it before stepping out of the exit gate. In between you can transfer lines. With pass all adjustment etc are taken care of. Note that though, buying a pasmo does not get you any discount per se.

Tokyo Metro Map
Tokyo Metro Map

Arrangements are being added to make metro transport friendly to the disadvantaged, physically and/or language wise. Lifts and escalators, washrooms for the physically challenged, reserved seating at either end of each compartment are standard facilities. For the visually impaired there are patterns on the platform floor to guide during walk, while chirping bird sounds indicate a staircase or escalator going up or down shortly ahead. Maps at each station also point out the compartment closest to exit at any given station. English guide maps on platform show your location vis a vis the nearest escalator/elevator/connecting line platform. In places where tourists frequent local station assistants,  given their language handicap, try to post visual answers to most common questions (see pic.).

From metro you can connect to buses  http://www.kotsu.metro.tokyo.jp/eng/ at major stations. Buses cover the hinter land not served adequately by the criss-crossing subway lines. Subway train stations have names as well as numbers combining the line name initial followed by station number. Once can easily decipher subway route and plan journey from available information. Whereas personally I find buses are little difficult to handle as the bus names start with place name abbreviation followed by a number. Challenge lies in deciphering the place name which is often written in Kanji script, the pictorial script tracing its origin to China. On top of that there’s the loop puzzle where two buses evidently having same number run in opposite directions crossing at a loop. On the positive side you can always ask the driver who will try his best to help. So even though as each stop approaches the electronic board above the driver shows your stop, he will take care to flag your destination has arrived. In any case buses and trains have free wifi you can register at from your hotel.  So you will always have the assistance from our friend Google that will be able to show your position moving through the map. City Bus fares are same whether you go 1 stop or the entire route. Everywhere elementary school children pay half whereas younger ones travel gratis. Same rule applies for train ticket fares. Unlike some other cities around the world, in Tokyo buses you don’t have to worry about carrying the right change, as the payment turnstile next to driver issues change. Once you get the change insert into the payment slot and walk out past the driver. Apart from local commuter buses, there are the hop on hop off buses especially for tourists, operated by likes of Sky bus and Hato bus. You get pretty much the standard fare like multilingual support half day tour full day tour etc. Check the links for more information.

In the travails through the city especially if you are new to the country and can not read write or understand, it is not unusual to miss your stop or get onto a different bus/train. But Even if you are lost rest assured of assistance to the best of ones ability from anybody around. In case you left your belongings in train or bus or taxi worry not you will get it back. In train station there are dedicated assistants who will collect items left by passengers and help in returning back to owner.

Options for residents

We discussed at length about Metro, bus and taxis but have not spoken so far about JR (Japan Railway). To move inside Tokyo as a tourist, you are not likely to use JR lines much save for the one Yamanote line. Yamanote line weaves through in a circular route touching some of the major business and tourist areas around, thus being very popular with foreigners. Being circular you are never too far even if you are lost or missed your destination. And in a day pass you can “cover” several points of interest. Conveniently connecting at major stations with subway metro, touching by shopping centers/office areas/tourist sites, Yamanote line itself is a tourist “goto” item, exaggeration admitted.

Yamanote line
Yamanote line

But apart from Yamanote line, mostly JR lines travel in North/West/South direction away from the city into its suburbs. Office time rush sees the millions coming into the city traveling by JR.  So JR have no option but to recruit those famed official Pushers in white gloves, helping push the tightly packed compartments doors to close.

Similar to metro, JR maps on each platform clearly show the closest elevator / escalator, exit to a specific landmark, and gates where you can change to a different line with distance in Meters mentioned from where you are at. Often next to the location guide the train timetable lists trains on the two sides of the platform. On each side of the board the station lists are marked in light and dark shades respectively, for the stations past and the ones due next. Take care to note different express semi-express local train lines indicated by separate colors  and the stations where these ones stop or skip. The boards are highly helpful but gets complicated at major stations like Shinjuku Otemachi Shibuya. Platforms underground or overground can run into multi-storied maze spanning 6 levels or more. You may have to walk for upto a kilometer to reach your designated line and entry gate. And added to that, some lines change name from a given station. Further, some trains may stop at certain stations during certain times of the day and skip at other times. If you are OK so far, then the next challenge is in deciphering the railway operator. JR lines are operated by private operators at certain routes, either exclusively or in parallel with JR. So for example if you are travelling between Tokyo and Odawara, a suburb 60 minutes by train, you have to decide whether to take JR or Odakyu, one of the private operators.  Similarly in other zones there are other private operators like Keisei, Keio, Seibu, Tobu etc. Platforms can be separate  or same.

Tokyo route finder
Tokyo route finder

 Thus the JR lines can challenge you first time visitors, given the sheer number of trains arriving and leaving heading to various directions. By the same coin, it is a boon for residents adding to options end of a long day. Lately Japan government is trying hard to make finding transportation more convenient for people, through installation of online kiosks. So even if you are not online / do not have the Google maps transit path, you may not be all lost.

Generally speaking, even though rail stations and the trains are busy and crowded, the overall ambiance is of quietude as travel courtesy demands no talking or loud noise in train or platform. Most passengers immerse themselves in mobile games/social network sites or shopping while a few more traditional ones may browse through paper books. Mobile phones stay in silent vibration mode known locally as courtesy mode. The announcements by the platform assistant and guards ring through mentioning about trains arriving or the next station or reminding passengers to be mindful of the gap between the train and the platform. Infact some of the phrases picked up by foreigners are these very predictable standard announcements such as “Densha to home to Aida ni Aite orimas no de gochuui kudasai” – be careful of the gap between train and the platform! If you are traveling for a few days in the city, the predictability and timeliness of Tokyo rail transit comes to stay with you. You may be forgiven for forgetting it is not always the same everywhere around the world.

As for traveling outside the city, apart from trains buses are also getting popular these days. Leaving from major stations like Shinjuku or Ikebukro, long distance overnight buses operated by JR, Willer Express offer low fare option to go visit distant places such as Kyoto or Nagano. For details on out of Tokyo transport please refer to same named page in this site.

Other less of an options

We have not talked about bicycles, that manual two wheeled mode of transport have we? Well had this been somewhere in some European city it would not have to come at the last. But in Tokyo cycles are conspicuously absent as means of transport for the “serious” traveler. It is not for office goers, to come straight to the point. But that does not mean Tokyo does not have a cycle culture. It does, for the students and the mamas dropping their kids to day cares.  “Mamachari” is a category of cycles with front and back seats with harnesses to seat the tiny tots comfortably while they are half asleep on the way to care center or back.

Tokyo Rent a Bike
Tokyo Rent a Bike

Cycles are also available in some areas for leisure travel, but to a large extent it is absent from tourist options. Attempts are being made though to address this gap. Recently a scheme for sharing bicycles has been launched, with options for booking online in cooperation with NTT Docomo. It is yet to be seen though as to how popular this turns out to be.


As a step up though, fancy trying tricycles, chauffeur driven ones? If you do then there are some options around in the city, specifically aimed as one time experience though. You can ride a traditional hand pulled rickshaw near tourist favorite temples like Asakusa. And in some more hip joints you can try the modern incarnation the “velorides” (see pic.)

There is another mode of transport the Water transport that we did not mention so far.

Tokyo waterways
Tokyo waterways

It is also a distant runner up when it comes to transporting the majority.

Sky duck bus
Sky duck bus

It is still largely a tourist facility like the duck bus around Tokyo Sky tree, or sort of an also ran option connecting two points such as Tokyo Odaiba sea side area with neighboring Yokohama harbor. River transport as an alternative does not quite exist, so to speak, save the one from Asakusa.

Lastly, daily drive down to office is not an option for most, even if owning a car, due to the convenience offered by public transport on one hand and the punishing cost of parking in the city, on the other.  Besides the express highways in and out of the city center  tend to get pretty crowded on week days. Reason for executives staying in expansive suburban residences  to prefer traveling down by the expensive Shinkansens, the bullet train!

Hope reading this far you have had a fairly good idea about your travel options, should you come to town anytime soon. Do not hesitate to leave you comments, if you like the post. Clicking a “like” in your social network will help your friends, not to mention team Couchflyer:-) Enjoy your visit and take care…

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