I’ve had some experiences with subways in Chicago, New York and the very limited Rio de Janeiro subway but Tokyo has its own unique differences that can easily throw off a first time traveler to Tokyo. There are rules, guidelines, pre-purchased fares and manners that you must adhere to. It is true that as a foreigner you will be forgiven for your ignorance of the Japanese transit system – but it is always to come a bit prepared.
Understanding it All
Maps. First things first, get yourself a map. The TokyoMetro.jp website is very easy to navigate and has all of the resources you will need – including maps in multiple languages. There are 9 major lines Ginza, Marunouchi, Hibiya, Tozai, Chiyoda, Yurakucho, Hanzomon, Namboku, and Fukutoshin. There is also the Tokyo loop, named the JR Yamanote Line, this route circles Tokyo. You will usually take this as a direct route off of one of the 9 main lines to a stop such as Ueno or Akihabara. If you are not located on one of these lines you will likely find yourself coming from the outskirts of Tokyo to reach one of these lines. In my case I took the Den-en-Toshi line and hoped onto whichever line took me to my next destination at the Shibuya station.
Stops. All stops are marked in Kanji, Hirigana (which is an easier understood phonetic writing), and romanji (phonetic spelling in English characters). As an example, my exit had a sign that read 中央林間 , ちゅうおりんかん, and Chūō-Rinkan. Eki or 駅 means station. There will be an announcement of each stop that you make, which if you have a copy of your map you can count off how many stops you will take and double check when you get there by reading the signs and listening to the station’s name to be announced.
Each line is associated with a color, that matches the color on the map. The stops are numbered going from left to right and bottom to top. When you reach a stop you will find a colored circle with a letter that represents the line (such as a G for Ginza) and a number according to the stop). The color coordination makes it easy to follow even if you can’t pay attention to the announcements or written names of the stops.
Express. As is often the case with metro systems, Japan has express trains that skip some of the smaller stops. This is important to be aware of because if your stop is at one of the smaller stations, you may skip by your exit. On the other hand, if you are on a rush to a major station, you can skip the slower train that hits all of the stops along the way.
Purchasing your Ticket
Fare. Unlike in New York City, where you pay one base fare, in Tokyo you pre-pay for your ticket based on your starting location and destination. You may need to transfer, which makes it harder to calculate your fare. Using the Tokyo Metro Transfer Planner & Fare Calculator you can easily predict not only how much each trip will cost you but the time it will take you to get there. The Tokyo Transfer Guide, also is a good tool to use when you are starting off from outside of one of the 9 major lines. There is also a difference in fare according to age.
PASMO card. If you are going to be traveling throughout Tokyo often, it may be more beneficial for you to purchase a PASMO card. This will be done at a station for 500¥. If you want to be able to walk on and off the subway with purpose and not like a lost tourist then I recommend purchasing this card. You can reload it with money as you go and it leaves you with only making sure you get off at the right exit.
Women Only Cars. In an attempt to be considerate for female passengers during the morning rush there are “Women Only” cars. These cars are restricted on which passengers may enter, mainly women and small children. The idea is to protect women from any threat of inappropriate touching among other reasons.
Manners. Men, if you are on the subway during busy hours keep your free hand, or both if you are not carrying anything, on the hand rails. This is a way to ensure that you cannot be accused of any inappropriate touching on the train. Also, it is considerate to give up your seat to others, namely women, children, elderly or injured. Sleeping is perfectly OK but talking on your cell phone is not. Eating on the subway is considered very rude, even though the stations have snacks and drinks available right as you get on and off the train – try to avoid nibbling.
Seating and Standing. There is a special section in each car that is designated for elderly, pregnant and injured persons. This section is usually marked with stickers and a different color seating and hand rails. In most cases it was a yellow-orange color, but I am not sure if this is true for all lines/cars.
Trash. There are no trashcans once you enter the metro area. I was told that this was because of the 1995 Sarin attack on the Tokyo subway, where a gas bomb was placed in a trash can. I’ve read other explanations of why this practice continues, such as economic and environmental reasons – either way carry a plastic baggy with you to carry your trash while exploring.
One last side note, if you plan on traveling throughout Japan, make sure that you purchase a Japan Rail Pass before you enter the country. These cannot be purchased once you enter Japan, and will end up saving you a lot of money compared to purchasing routes destination-to-destination along the way.