Navigating the public transport system of a country you don't know can be tricky, even more so if the language is a barrier. When I traveled to Tokyo, I knew that getting from point A to point B would be tricky so I prepared myself as best as I could in order for this trip to be stress-free. I also learned a few tricks during my stay...
When you hear about Tokyo's public transports, some aspects often come back: how huge the network is, the amount of commuters per day, the size of stations but also the number of operators...
Take the Shinjuku Station for example... It is the main connecting hub for rail traffic in Tokyo which means that millions of commuters pass by Shinjuku Station every day. The station is so big that you can easily get lost if you don't know where you are going. It has no less than 200 exits and 36 platforms serving for the railway and subway but you can also reach 17 extra platforms using various halls...You can even reach the Tocho-Mae station using underground passages. In Shinjuku Stations alone you can expect to find the following operators: JR East, Keio Corporation, Odakuy Electric Railway, Toei subway and Tokyo Metro...So you can see why I say that it is easy to get lost and how scary your first use of the public transports can be...
The price of a trip can vary...a lot!
The first thing to know is that there are several operators for both the railway and the subway systems. Depending on where you need to go you will probably use the services of more than one operator, because of this the price of your trip will fluctuate. The longer the trip, the more you pay. The more operators you use, the more your pay. A single trip can cost as little as 170 Yen or 400 Yen... Which makes a huge difference and impacts your budget.
Another important thing to know is that all tickets don't work for all operators, make sure to know which card/ticket covers which operators. Otherwise, you might find yourself stuck at the exit door and you will need to add credit to your card or correct the fee with an officer.
Different cards for different needs.
You have different ways to pay for a trip, here is what I experienced and what I recommend:
Single trip: You can buy a single trip ticket at one of the machines of the station. You will need to enter your departure point and where you are going. The machine will calculate the cost and offer you to pay. You will receive a ticket to validate before the metro/train and when exiting so don't loose this ticket!
A one-day ticket: you can buy a one-day ticket at one of the machines of the stations. We did this and got a bad surprise...The Toei line wasn't covered and we used the service of that operator during one of our trips...And got stuck at the exit ^^'
The 72h Metro Card: it allowed us to use the entire subway system (all operators included) as many time as we wanted within 72h after the first use. This means that we could travel on the Metro lines, but not on the JR lines, without having to calculate costs and being worried about exiting the station. This pass is useful and cannot be purchased in stations so make sure to buy it online (and to get it delivered to your hotel) or get it at the airport. This kind of pass is typically sold to tourists.
The Pasmo/Suica cards: Probably my favorite card after the 72h Metro Pass because it's so easy to use. You can buy this card in most machines of the stations, you'll see on the screen a Pasmo OR a Suica logo. I say Pasmo or Suica because these are 2 different providers and depending on which station you are in, they sell one or the other. But both work the same way: all over the network (bus, railway, subway, taxi) and as payment method in 7/11 stores. To purchase these cards, go to a machine and select your language. Tap on the Suica or Pasmo logo and follow the steps. You can personalize your card (if you want to have it returned if you loose it, it's free) or go directly to the payment screen. The card itself costs 500 Yen which can be reclaimed when you give it back at one of the kiosk of the station. Note that if you decide to put 1000 yen on the card the first time, 500 yen will pay for the card and you'll have 500 yen of transport credit. The next time you top up your card, the full amount will go as credit because you already paid for the card :) Whenever you use your Suica or Pasmo card to exit a station, you'll see the amount deducted for the trip and the amount left on your card which means that you know when to add credit and you don't have to think too much about costs.
Knowing where you're going and how?
2 apps saved me during this trip: Google Map and City Rail Map. Since I wasn't familiar with the public transports in Tokyo, I simply asked these apps how to get from point A to point B. And every time, the information was extremely accurate. Both apps told me which line and direction to look for (name and color), which platform to wait at, how many stops until I had to change or exit, which exit to take to reach my destination. Honestly it was very easy and we never got lost once!
Until you understand how the railway/subway system works, you can fully rely on these 2 apps to get to where you need to go in Tokyo. I really like the fact that they even tell you which exit you need to take, it saves you so much time! I like not having to search my way for 10 minutes, it's such a breeze!
Are stations well indicated?
Despite the fact that I didn't know which line to take to go somewhere and fully relied on my apps, I never felt "lost" in a station. Lines are rather clearly indicated: JR lines (trains) are easy to spot and the subways too. You can follow a color or a line name, the distance in meters is indicated so you know if you are close or not to the platforms you're looking for, you then just need to wait on the right or left side of the platform depending on which direction you're going. It's fairly easy!
I also found an interactive screen in Shinjuku station that helps you define your itinerary. It's really useful if your battery is out and you don't have access to your apps. If you're lost, don't be afraid to ask a station staff or just to stop someone. Even if they don't speak English really well (or at all!) they will try to help you.
Which exit should I take?
Follow the suggestion of the apps, they're super accurate, or look for a clue. For example, if you are at Shibuya station and looking for Hachiko's Statue, follow the Hachiko Square/Mae signage. Most touristy spots are clearly indicated in stations and if you don't find a direction, check the maps available almost everywhere in stations. They will tell you where you are, which shops/monuments are around you and exit numbers, this way you can find how to get to your destination.
Ultimately, I'd say that I was scared for nothing because I had the best apps and the system is well designed. It is logic and you don't need to think too much once you know which line to take, just follow the signage. Even buying a transport ticket or card was easy and available in multiple languages...
Do the train and metro work the same?
Absolutely! You have a line and color to follow (Train = Yamanote line/Green, Metro = Fukutoshin line/Brown), meters are indicated, until your reach a platform with 2 directions. Check which side gets you to where you want to go and that's it (going towards Shinjuku or the opposite?).
Have you used the public transports in Tokyo? Share your experience below!