First Timer’s Guide to Transportation in Tokyo: Taking the Train

Tokyo’s amazing public transportation system is one of the reasons I fell in love with the city. The network of trains covers the entire Tokyo metro area, and it’s easy for non-Japanese speakers to use. With plenty of English signage and stations near every neighborhood and tourist site, there’s no reason to take a different type of transportation in Tokyo. And, riding public transit is one of my favorite ways to save money while traveling!

tokyo subway train car interior
Trains in Tokyo are clean and quiet.

That being said, when you’ve just taken an ultra-long-haul flight across the Pacific, Tokyo’s train system can be a little overwhelming. That’s why I want to share a couple tips that I wish I had known on my first day in Japan’s capital.

  1. Use the Google Maps app to find schedules and routes
  2. Buy an IC card (PASMO/Suica) – yes, even if you have the Japan Rail Pass
  3. Know that there are many different Tokyo train lines – JR, Keio, Tokyo Metro, and more
  4. Keep your eyes on the signs when navigating Tokyo’s train stations

Using Google Maps for Tokyo train schedules

Instead of trying to decipher the mind-boggling puzzle that is Tokyo’s train map, just pull out your Google Maps app. All of the train stations have WiFi, so even if you don’t have an international data plan or a Japanese SIM card, you’ll be able to use the app.

But, if you want to have connectivity all the time, I recommend getting a Japanese SIM before your trip. You’ll save a lot of money compared to buying it in Japan, and the country is actually pretty strict on selling SIM cards to foreigners. I have this one, and I had fast 4G service everywhere.

Anyway, cell service or not, Google Maps is a great way to find the fastest, most direct train routes. Simply plug in where you are (or the station you want to start from) and where you’re going, then you’ll see some options.

Tap on a route option to see more details, and if the route brings you through a bigger station, you’ll also see a platform number. And note that each leg of the train journey says whether the train is a JR, Tokyo Metro, or another Tokyo train line.

If you click on a station name, like Higashi-nakano or Akihabara in the example above, you can also see upcoming departures for the same train line. So if you want to catch an earlier or later train, it’s easy to find alternate times. SO much easier than trying to figure out a route on your own!!

Buying an IC card

If you’re going to take the train more than once or twice (which about 99% of visitors will do), do yourself a favor and buy an IC card. An IC card is a reloadable train pass which you can use for any of Tokyo’s trains – JR, Metro, Keio, etc. Simply buy and load the pass at any of the ticket kiosks before passing through the ticket gates. The best thing about using an IC card? You can just tap it to pass through the ticket gates. No more fumbling with tiny train tickets (yes, the paper tickets are super small). And if you need to transfer from one line to another (from JR to Tokyo Metro, for instance), you can easily tap your IC card as you exist the JR line and tap in again to enter the Tokyo Metro line. No need to get another ticket.

tokyo train pasmo ic card
My trusty PASMO card.

You’ll notice that there are two types of IC cards in Tokyo: PASMO and Suica. What’s the difference? Nothing. They are just two different brands. They work the same way so it doesn’t matter which one you get. You’ll have to put down a 500-yen deposit to get a card for the first time, and when you leave Japan, you can turn in the card to get your deposit back.

When you buy the card, and every time you reload it, keep in mind that the machines only accept cash. There is no way to reload your IC card via credit card. But, you can use your IC card like a credit card at many vending machines and convenience stores!

Understanding the different Tokyo train lines

Before I came to Tokyo, I didn’t realize there were several different train companies that operate in the city. The two most widespread lines are JR and the Tokyo Metro. If you’ve purchased the Japan Rail Pass, you can use your pass on only the JR trains. But, JR trains might not go everywhere you want to go, you’ll likely take a Keio train, a Keisei train, or the Tokyo Metro at some point.

We took the Tokyo Metro instead of the JR to get to the Tsukiji Fish Market.

You might also take the Keisei line’s Skyliner train when traveling to or from the Narita airport. This train is operated by yet another company, and you have to buy a ticket at a Keisei ticket kiosk or counter directly. Sorry, the IC card doesn’t work for this one.

Navigating train stations in Tokyo

Tokyo’s train stations are busy all day, every day. And, if you travel through a hub like Tokyo Station or Shinjuku Station, you’ll want to avoid getting lost. Getting lost might mean an extra mile of walking because these stations are massive!

Underneath bustling Shinjuku lies the labyrinthine Shinjuku Station.

My pro tip for finding your way around a busy train station: keep your eyes on the signs. While the stations can be massive, they’re extraordinarily well-labeled. Since you know exactly which train you’re looking for (thanks to Google Maps), just focus on following the arrows that point you to that particular line. The color-coding is helpful too. And should you need to use the restroom or find a specific exit, signage (in English!) will point you there.

Have you taken the train in Tokyo? Do you like riding trains anywhere you go? Let me know your experience in the comments, and don’t forget to pin this post to read before your first trip to Tokyo!

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