The Tokyo train system is our recommended way of getting around town.
It may look confusing at first, but once your figure it out it's easy to use. That's what this page is all about!
Before we get started though, one thing to remember, as a tourist you're also able to take advantage of the Japan Rail Pass.
This is a great way to save yourself quite a lot of yen if you're planning on using the bullet train to venture to other parts of Japan. If you're only intending on staying in Tokyo, however, you're unlikely to save any money with the pass and its better to go with the day passes or other train passes which are available.
The Basics - Best Times Of Day To Travel
Efficiency is the name of the game and it works. It has to! Around 28 million people travel within Tokyo on an average working day. Be warned though. Ferrying this many people around results in peak times of day.
Generally, we're talking from 7:30am - 9:30am and 5:00pm - 7:00pm. It's not that the trains are ever particularly quiet by the way - but during these hours it's a little more like sardines in a can. If you've never heard of the men in white gloves, these are the guys whose job it is to make sure that everyone is on and the doors are safely closed - even if that means pushing you on while all around you hold their breath and squeeze in.
Don't believe me? Check out this video!
Planning ahead and organizing your timetable around this can help you avoid some potentially uncomfortable close up moments. If you are feeling daring though, I would say try it just once. This is the kind of experience that defines a place and is a moment you're unlikely to forget. Check out the Yamanote line during rush hour!
However, I would strongly recommend avoiding these hours if you are traveling with kids. It's not much fun trying to hang onto your little ones in the midst of a seething mass of people. It's not that the people around you don't care - this is just the way it is here.
Dealing With Luggage - The Heavy Kind
Tokyo train stations are big and busy - at least in the center of the city. There are many steps and passageways that connect different sections of the stations and carrying heavy bags and suitcases comes with a health (and temper) warning.
When you arrive at the airport there's a facility that allows you to have your baggage sent to your destination, rather than carrying it with you. This is a great option which reduces the number of frazzled moments as you find your way around Tokyo for the first time. Just look for the counter in the arrivals hall at Narita airport or Haneda airport and they'll help you organize the rest.
Finding Your Way Around - Your Starting Point
When you first arrive at a Tokyo train station, find a spot where you can stand still for a moment and take in the scenery.
Check out the electronic sign boards you'll see at most of the big stations. They alternate between Japanese and English so don't freak out if the first thing you see is all completely alien. Just wait for the signboard to change.
You'll also see laminated signs on the walls of passageways and in the stations that show you maps and station listings both in Japanese and English. It's a good idea to take a second, get your bearings... and then jump into the fray : )
Etiquette and Irritations - Make Sure You Don't Do These!
Common sense dictates that when people are waiting for the train, you need to let people off before attempting to get on. This works pretty well here although you always get the odd idiot who stands in front of the doors and then grumbles when they are knocked by those getting off.
In rush hour, you have no choice but to go with the momentum of the crowd so if you are stood in the wrong place, don't take offence if someone does get bundled in your direction. Watch what the majority are doing and follow suit is the best advice here. It's all part of the Tokyo train experience!
In many Tokyo train stations there are escalators as well as stairs to take you to different levels and platforms. The rule is to stand on the left and leave the right-hand side free for those wanting to walk or in a rush. If you stand on the right, even the most polite Japanese person may well end up tutting in your ear, or worse! Time is money my friend.
Have your ticket ready. This is my own particular pet hate. You need to swipe your ticket when you leave any Tokyo train station as well as when you enter.
In the midst of rush hour, there is always one who stops at the ticket gates, starts to fumble in their bag whilst happily humming the latest hit tune to themselves and smiling benevolently at passers by. I confess that, on occasion, usually when running late for work, I have turned into a slightly crazed foreigner and "gently" hustled said person to one side.