A Tour of Japanese Pop Culture, Part 8: Traveling on Tokyo’s Trains

I’ve mentioned trains and train stations number of times so I should probably give a little more information about them. Japan has an extensive, efficient public transportation system. For most areas in the country, taking the train is the most economical way to go. It can be a little overwhelming though.

This is the Tokyo subway, which is actually a combination of railways run by several different companies. I first traveled it was 1995 when I was an undergrad traveling with several other American and Japanese college students. I saw the map and thought it was a piece of artwork. No joke.

Even having grown up traveling San Francisco Muni, I found Tokyo’s subway incredibly intimidating. So I stuck to my Japanese friends like Velcro, terrified of getting lost alone. Almost 20 years later, I had to navigate these rails again, this time with only my husband, whose Tokyo train experience was as limited as mine. Fortunately, English-speaking travelers now have tools to make the trains much less bewildering, and chief among them are: Hyperdia, Suica and PASMO.

Hyperdia: this website provides transit information in English, Japanese, and Chinese. You simply enter your location and desired destination, the time of departure/arrival, and Hyperdia will tell you which trains you need to take, and the transfer points and times. An app is available so if you have a smartphone, you can recalculate your route if you get lost or miss a train. No need to bother with maps or train schedules!

Suica/PASMO: If you’re going to take the subway only once or twice, then purchase a ticket at the ticket counter or ticket machine (most have a button that says “English” that will give you instructions in English). But if you’re going to be on the train multiple times over several days, it will behoove you to get a PASMO or Suica card.

These are transit debit cards. Suica is distributed by JR (Japan Railways) and PASMO by Tokyo Metro, but really both cards are interchangeable and will work with practically all the local train lines in the greater Tokyo area.

You simply purchase a card for ¥500 and then load it with credit (in increments of ¥1000). To use it, you scan the card when you enter a station and when you exit at your destination. Whenever you scan your card, the turnstile screen will show how much credit you have remaining.

The card saves you the hassle of constantly purchasing tickets (and carrying coins and figuring out which ticket to buy and transfers from one rail company to another, etc.). And if your card comes up short at your destination, you simply take it to an “add fare” machine, which will calculate the necessary credit for you to complete your trip.

They’re similar to the TAP (Transit Access Pass) cards being implemented in the LA area but better. Suica/PASMO also works at participating vending machines, restaurants, and stores. So if you’ve got no change on hand for a snack (or if you loaded way more credit than you’ll need for travel onto your card), you can use your Suica/PASMO credit to get a beverage or meal.

Once you’re done traveling, you can get a refund for your remaining balance and deposit by turning your Suica in at a JR station ticketing office. PASMO cards can also be refunded, but I’m not exactly sure where.

These tools definitely made things easier traveling in Tokyo this time around.

Another thing that helps make the subway navigable is that station and train signs are in kanji and Roman letters so you can at least read the station names. Electronic signs, like the ones indicating track numbers at JR stations, will usually flash between English and Japanese. And these signs are everywhere. Even if you’re at a monster station like Shibuya, as long as you know what train you want and you’re at the right station, it won’t be very long before you find a sign pointing you toward the right track.

And DO check signs before you enter a turnstile. As mentioned before, multiple companies run Tokyo’s trains, and a single train station may have several sets of turnstiles leading to different tracks. For instance, the Asakusa and Mita lines both go through Mita Station, but there are separate turnstiles for each line.

A few last things of note:

  • Trains do get crazy crowded at peak times. So if you’re carrying a lot of bags during rush hour, you’re in for a world of hurt.
  • When you’re packed that tight and someone coughs, there’s no escape. So you might consider wearing disposable face masks as the locals do. No one will think it’s weird. We bought a box of masks at a pharmacy for 600 yen and wore them the entire time we were traveling.
  • Trains end service around midnight. If you miss the last train, you can hang out at an all-night restaurant or manga cafe until they resume service in the wee hours of the morning.
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