How to Take the Train in Japan

Jul 9th, 2009 | By Shane Sakata | Category: Travel

Taking the train in Japan is really quite easy but like doing anything for the first time it can be a bit intimidating at first. Which train line do I want?  Which track do I need to be on to go in the right direction?  These questions and more will be racing through your mind as you prepare to embark on your first train ride in Japan.

Tokyo Metro Map

Getting around in Japan provided an overview of the different transportation options that you have when you visit or live in Japan but for most people the predominant mode of transportation is the train system.  Whether you take the Narita Express (NEX) into the city from the airport, the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto or or the local metro system you will likely spend a lot of time on trains! (see budgeting your time in Japan for planning strategies & tips)

While this article is focused primarily on taking the subway in Tokyo you will find that much of the information is the same across the JR Trains and local metro systems in other cities.

Train Route Maps

Many guidebooks and the front desks of most hotels catering to tourists as well as tourist information desks usually offer free bilingual train route maps for you use.  Pick one up and stash it in your pocket – it will come in handy trust me!

If you are doing some advanced planning for your trip to Japan and will be spending some time in Tokyo take a moment to download and print a color copy of the Tokyo Metro English Route Map.

How much does it cost?

YenTrain fares in Japan vary by the distance traveled and start around Y160 for adults in Tokyo.  Children are half price and those under six ride free.

There are two ways that you can determine the fare to your destination.

  1. Look for fare charts in English near the ticket vending machines and find the name of you destination – the fare will be to the right of the station name.   This is the easiest and quickest way to determine your fare.  Locate the name of your destination and the number off to the right is the fare.
  2. If you don’t see an English fare chart you will need to find your destination on the map above the ticket vending machines at each station.  This can be a challenge as not all maps are bilingual.  Newer maps assign each subway station a letter (usually the first letter of the line) and a number (the stop number) which make this a whole lot easier but as you can tell by the photo below all of the maps have not been updated yet.  The number below or off to the side is the fare to your destination.  At this point you should also make a note of the end station in the direction that you will be traveling.

If you have access to a computer you can do all of this online at Tokyo Transfer Guide, Hyperdia or Jorudan.  Follow the on screen directions and these sites will tell you the fare to your destination, transfer points along the way and the total travel time.

Prepaid Train Cards

Suica Card Avoid the hassle of determining your train fare altogether by purchasing a Suica or Pasmo Card.  These cards allow you to bypass the ticket vending machine and head straight for the fare gates.  No more trying to decipher the fare maps!  Just swipe your card across the reader at the fair gates upon entry and exit and the correct fare will be deducted from the balance on the card.

You can purchase or add funds to your Suica or Pasmo Card at ticket vending machines bearing the correct logo.  Most of these machines provide guidance in English.  The minimum value that you can purchase is Y1,000 ($10 USD).  Both cards require a deposit of Y500 of which all but Y210 is returned to you when you turn the card back in.

The Suica and Pasmo cards can also be used on busses that display the cards logo and can even be used to purchase merchandise at participating vendors.  The advantage to the Suica card is that it can also be used on JR train lines and is not limited to central Tokyo and the subway.   However there are different Suica for different regions of Japan so a Suica card purchased in Tokyo may not work in Osaka and vice versa.

Tokyo Metro One-Day Open Ticket

If the purchase of a Suica or Pasmo Card is not warranted in your situation then you should consider the One-Day Open Ticket.  At a cost of Y710 (around $7 USD) this is an inexpensive option if you will be using the system a lot on any given day.  The tickets can be purchased in advance (at pass offices) or on the day of travel at the normal ticket vending machines.

Suica MachineTransfer Points

There is a good chance that you will have to change trains to get to your final destination.  If you used the tools identified above you already have that information but if you are looking at a paper map the easiest way to the to determine your route is to locate your staring and ending points on the route map and then follow the colored lines on the map until they intersect – these will be your transfer points.

Purchasing a Ticket the Old-Fashioned Way

Insert Yen into the ticket vending machine and select the amount of your fare from the lit buttons or the touch screen on newer machines.  If you are traveling with a group it is possible to purchase multiple tickets by first selecting the number above the fare amounts.

Correct change is not required and you may pay with bills or coin (credit cards are not accepted).

Proceed through the Fare Gate

If you purchased a paper ticket insert it into slot located above the green arrow on the fare gate. Don’t forget to retrieve your ticket as you pass through the gate as you will need to use it to exit at your destination.

If you purchased a Suica or Pasmo Card just pass it slowly over the readers as you enter.

When yo arrive at your destination you will the fare gates in the same manner as you entered them only this time the machine will keep your paper ticket if you purchased one.

Station Gates

Which Platform/Track?

In order to determine which platform you need to be on look for the overhead signs after you pass through the fare gate.  These signs will indicate where the train on each platform is headed  and may also list a other significant stops along the way as well as the end point of the line in both English & Kanji.  If the sign  is electronic and you only see Kanji wait a moment – it will switch to English at most stations.  If it does not, stop at the stationmasters office for the track number for your destination.

Tokyo Metro SignIf by chance you head in the wrong direction simply get off at the next stop and switch platforms to head back the other direction.

Exit the Station

It may seem like a simple task but larger stations may have many exits located blocks apart!  Most guidebooks will mention an exit name or number where it is applicable.  The signage in most stations is very good and you will simply follow the arrows to the correct exit.

Tokyo Metro provides an online guide titled Using the Subway and also reminds users of train etiquette – these guidelines are mostly common sense and should be utilized on train lines throughout Japan.

Rush Hour & Trains

If you can avoid taking the train during rush hours it is a good idea unless you enjoy being crammed into a train car like a sardine!

Online Resources:

Japan Train Route Planners:

Photo Credit:  Personal Collection

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7 comments
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  1. Here’s an easier way to determine the fare of a route in the Tokyo subway system : buy the cheapest ticket available ! Once at destination, look for a fare adjustment terminal, indicated in yellow (there is one at nearly all the exits), insert your ticket and you’ll be prompted to insert the missing yens. We found this to be a lot faster then trying to understand the fare map above the ticket vending machine.

  2. I like that the ticket machines have both Japanese and English.

  3. figuring out the tokyo train system was one of the most confusing things in my life

  4. @Madagenais What you are describing is a fare adjustment and it is anther great option that will save some time – thanks for bringing it up.

    @Nomadic Matt I’m not sure when you were last in Tokyo but the signage in the city’s train stations has improved greatly in the last few years. English translation is common on major lines and on newer trains and a lot of the signage is now bi- or even tri-lingual (Korean).

    @tornadoes28 Most ticket machines have an “English Button” but for the most part the machines are pretty self explanatory once you get over your initial fear ;)

  5. I found it can be tricky to read the station Kanji maps sometimes, but while standing there confused, more times than not a kind Japanese person asked to help me, and pointed out the correct one for me. After a couple of mishaps, i started recognising the Kanji for certain places, or at least well it begins with Oo and i know that can look like *This* or *this* and that one usually means ta or da so it can’t be that etc. Helped my Kanji reading tons!

    So if you are not in a massive rush, and just off exploring, it is worth trying to figure it out and take educated guesses at which train to get, and how much to pay, if you get lost, try again, see some random places along the way, get some help from the locals, and watch your Japanese come on leaps and bounds ^_^

  6. @Marisa I too have earned some Kanji by utilizing the train maps :) I liken what you describe to the childhood game of memory – where you turn over a card and try to find the matching one. When I first arrived in Japan, English on signs was not as common as it is now and I would look at my bilingual train map, the station map, etc. until I found the Kanji for my destination….

    You are also right that the Japaneses are very kind to lost looking foreigners in train stations – that has been my experience as well.

  7. [...] tickets depending on your itinerary. Use Hyperdia or one of the other tools identified in How to Take the Train in Japan to estimate your train travel budget in [...]

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