First time travellers to Tokyo who are faced with the subway map above would definitely be daunted and take a while to figure things out. Amid the various colours lie certain subtleties which you would not have realised if you did not do your homework!
Rail being the primary mode of transport in Tokyo, is extensive and covers 882 interconnected rail stations in the Tokyo Metropolis, of which 282 are subway stations, with more being constructed even as I type this article. There are only 2 subway operators in Tokyo – Tokyo Metro which has 9 lines and Tokyo Metropolitan Bereau of Transportation which operates the four Toei subway lines. In comparison, there are many railway operators, many of which are privately owned and operate lines out of Tokyo. The largest and most popular would be JR East (East Japan Railway Company), which operates the Yamanote line, Chuo line, Sobu line, and even the Shinkansen, which is bullet-train to other parts of Japan.
Before you embark on your journey, get hold of a Suica card which works exactly like our local EZ-link card. If you do not know Japanese, it can be quite problematic buying tickets at the station as the station names may not be in English like in the guidebooks and you may have problems figuring out where is your destination and how much you need to pay. As such, with a preloaded card, you just tap and go! The Suica card is also widely accepted in shops so you can use it to buy drinks at convenience stores or even certain restaurants, without worrying that you may not have the chance to use up the cash value! The card comes with a deposit of 500 yen and is valid for 10 years from the date of last use (which is much longer than our EZ-link). If you want to refund the card, ensure that you have as little value as possible, preferably 0 yen, as there will be a charge of 220yen when you return the card. With a nil balance, this fee is waived and you get back your deposit of 500 yen!
The JR lines run above ground, compared to the subways, of which some parts run underground. Apart from this difference, the JR lines are much cheaper as compared to the 2 subway lines. For instance, the lowest fare on the Yamanote line starts from 140 yen for 1 stop, whereas the Tokyo Metro line costs 170 yen and the Toei subway line costs 180 yen for 1 stop. The Yamanote line is the most important line as it goes to many of the touristy destinations such as Shinjuku, Harajuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa, Hamamatsucho, Tokyo, Akihabaru, Ueno etc. For those people staying in Tokyo station area and who wish to go to Shinjuku, there is an alternative route via the Chuo line which is much faster – 14-16 min compared to almost 30min on the Yamanote line!
One important tip, if you are planning to go by rail, then stick to the JR service as much as possible. The fare is calculated based on the distance travelled like in Singapore, and you will not be penalised if you switch lines e.g from the Chio rapid line (faster version with skipped stations) to the Yamanote line. However, if you switch from rail to the subway, then you will need to pay the rail fare + subway fare, which will definitely be more expensive.
A day pass called the Tokunai Pass is available at 750 yen which is valid for 1 day. However, i find that its use is quite limited as the pass is quite expensive and you need to take more than 5 trips in order to make it worthwhile.
Covering 9 lines, the Tokyo Metro is definitely the more popular subway operator as can be seen by the number of passengers per day. As seen in the map at the top, the majority of the touristy places can be accessed via the Tokyo Metro lines. A one-day open ticket is available for 710 yen and you can have unlimited rides for the day.
From Oct 2013, Bic Camera has tied up with Tokyo Metro to offer overseas tourists the same one-day pass for 600 yen and a 2 day pass for 960 yen. This is definitely a must-get for all tourists as you get to tour most parts of Tokyo at a really low cost! Check out the Tokyo Metro website here. In addition to the discounted rate, tourists get 8% tax refund + 8% discount off your shopping at Bic Camera stores! Check out the promotion T&C here
If your accomodation is located along the Toei line instead of the JR or Tokyo Metro lines, then most likely there will be times that you need to use the other 2 services as the Toei line is quite limited since there are only 4 lines and the coverage is not as extensive. Morever, this line is more expensive compared to its fellow competitor. A one-day Toei pass is available for 700 yen, and is extended to the Toei buses, Toei streetcar (Toden) Arakawa line and the Nippori-Toneri Liner. There is also a combined pass for Tokyo Metro and Toei lines for 1000 yen which you can consider if you are planning to cover many places in a day.
Do your homework on hyperdia
Before every trip, I would strongly suggest checking out Hyperdia, which is an excellent website that provides the various timing of the trains or subways, the cost and the various options available. It was through this website that I discovered the presence of the Chuo rapid line which helped shave my travelling time. The website also provides information on train services out of Tokyo and other parts of Japan, so you should use it to plan your trips such as comparing the difference in fare between the normal train vs the Shinkansen as well as the time that you will spend on travelling.
My last tip, save the 2 important maps – JR and the subway onto your phone or ipad so that you can locate where you are before deciding whether it is better to take the rail or the subway. Many a times, the rail isjust less than 5 min away from the subway station and you may not have realised that!
Now, are you more confident of travelling in Tokyo?