by Bryce Marley
Today Japlanning are giving you the bible on understanding the maze of train lines and companies that cover every inch of the worlds largest city, Tokyo. It's a network that is used by millions a day without issue, which can, at first glance, look confusing and intimidating, however read our guide below and you will step off the plane a pro on all things trains in Tokyo!
When you first start planning a trip to Tokyo, one of the first things you will see is the daunting map of the rail network (above). This scares most people who have never been to Japan, and can even make some reconsider their journey! Don't stress, its a breeze to understand and use while you're in Tokyo.
Lets break it all down for you:
Okay, so the first thing you need to understand is that the rail networks, for the most part, are privatized, and different companies run different sections of the tracks, stations and more. For a first timer, what you need to know is the three major train companies, as they run the bulk of the lines you will use.
When you're in Tokyo, you will see a lot of above ground rail. For the most part, these are run by JR Rail, there are different sub companies of JR Rail, however, in Tokyo it is all run by the one, JR East.
JR Rail, the once owned government rail company, still with its sub companies, cover most of the tracks in Japan, especially in Tokyo.
In Tokyo they have many lines, however a few major lines cover most areas of central Tokyo and, especially if you have a JR Rail Pass, can get you where you need to go 95% of the time.
These main lines are:
Yamanote Line - This is the a giant loop around central Tokyo, hitting most major points, if you're a bit scared by it all, start out with using the Yamanote Line. It may take you longer than others, however all the trains have screens above the doors that are multilingual, that tell you what station is next, any delays, what carriage you're in, and also the next stations platform map to help you navigate where to next!
Chuo/Sobu Lines - Now there are a couple of Lines here, the Chuo/Sobu Local and the Chou Rapid. These lines cut across the middle of the Yamanote line's circle, getting you anywhere in the middle of central Tokyo. It's main starting and ending points are Shinjuku and Tokyo Station, two of the major stations in Tokyo. The big differences between the local and rapid is the amount of stations it actually stops at, if the rapid is stopping where you need to go, take it!
Saikyo Line - This runs alongside the Yamanote Line on the western side of the loop and beyond.
Keihin - Tohoku Line - Similar to the Saikyo, this line runs along the eastern side of the Yamanote line and beyond out to Yokohama.
JR Rail in Tokyo also have Shinkansen Stations at Shinagawa, Tokyo, and Ueno Stations.
Although for newcomers to Tokyo, who may arrive with a JR Rail pass in hand, you can survive on using just the JR Rail, the sprawling subway trains of Tokyo cover all the middle ground that JR misses, as well as covering most of the JR area as well.
In Tokyo there are two subway companies that runs the underground rail, Toei Subway and Tokyo Metro.
Toei is the smaller network of the two, running 4 subway lines under Tokyo, and Tokyo Metro run 9 subway lines. Between the two of them, they criss cross and cover the majority of central Tokyo, particularly all the major stops inside the Yamanote Line Loop.
The great thing about Tokyo and the separate train companies, is that they all seemingly work together in harmony, with many sharing train stations, public walkways and space, so you can get from one to the other in the same building/complex.
Now there are many more private rail companies in Tokyo (more than seven in fact), which cover certain areas, and focus more on covering regional Tokyo and beyond. You will find them at many major stations, with clear signage and maps showing where they can take you.
Now the other part of train life in Tokyo: the stations. Let's state this now - they. are. EVERYWHERE.
The greatest part of Tokyo is the fact that it's never a far walk to a train station, there is a reason it's the most used train system in the world (besides being safe, clean and running on time 99.9% of the time).
Now lets put any fears at bay now: all train stations have bilingual signage! Don't worry about not knowing where you are, what platform goes where, or what exit takes you where. All official station (and train for that matter) signage has English as well.
When looking at the Tokyo rail map, which is always a must to keep on you when in Tokyo, keep two things in mind: the colour of the line you want to take, and the name of the line. When at a train station, the platforms will tell you the name of the line it services and the lines colour at the entrance.
Across all the train lines and companies in Japan, they have standardised platform signage, which, if you can get a handle of now, will make traveling 90% simpler.
See our guide below to the platform signs -
- Current stations name
- Next stations name
- Previous stations name
- Stopping at next station - if there isn't a white dot, your on an express that won't stop at the next station
- Train line colour
- Direction you're traveling in
These signs are great for getting your bearings, and also to keep an eye out while on the train and passing stations, especially the next station name, so you don't miss your stop!
So the last part to go over is what do you need to ride this amazing network of trains, tickets! Well there are a large array of daily passes (that are aimed at tourists) to buy, they really aren't that great value, as none cover all train networks. Usually it will be one just for JR Rail, or just for the subway network.
Japlanning recommends you get yourself a pre-paid IC card, which is what the local's use most. These don't offer any discount on your travels, however they are convenient with a tap-on when you enter the station and tap-off when you depart. These can also be used on all trains, buses and monorails, even some boats in Tokyo! So convenience wise, this is your best choice.
Another great part is that all stations have a fare make up machine, so if you don't have enough on your card to cover the journey you just took, you can pay the difference just before exiting! Japan's rail companies aren't too focussed on trying to make money by issuing out fines.
There are two cards, Suica and PASMO, however all train networks in Tokyo accept both, so really either are fine.
If you're arriving via Narita Airport, the best deal we've found is the Suica & Nex package for sale at the airport for foreigners only. You get a special Suica card with 2000¥ pre-loaded for using on the trains, and a heavily discounted Narita Express train fare into Tokyo!
A one-way Suica & N'EX ticket costs 3500¥ and the round trip (for the Narita Express) costs 5500¥, giving a saving of over 2000¥. For more information on this great deal see the official website here.
Now the other ticket that is a great option for some, is the steal of a deal, the JR Rail Pass, that is only available to foreigners and must be purchased outside Japan. we have heaps of information on this on our Shinkansen guide here.
However please note, Japlanning doesn't recommend getting a JR Rail Pass if you are not taking any Shinkansen trips while in Japan, as you will not cover the cost of a rail pass in just using the Tokyo JR Train network. For more information on rail passes check out our previous Shinkansen post, mentioned above, or check the official JR site here.
Tokyo's train networks are simply the best in the world, both for performance, convenience, and ease of use. You will be a pro within a day of using them, and see just how easy they are to understand. Just remember keep a map with you, or download one of the dozens of Tokyo Train apps available to help you on your way, and you will not only have an amazing journey in Tokyo, you will also be able to maximise your time by using all the different train networks to get you where you need to be the fastest.