Tokyo

Ultimate guide to Tokyo’s subway: Tokyo Metro, JR lines, and insider tips

Navigating Tokyo’s dynamic urban landscape is made remarkably easy thanks to the city’s efficient and extensive subway system. However, when we first arrived in Japan, we encountered a few challenges finding our way through the maze of trains, stations, and operators. That’s why we created this ultimate guide to master Tokyo’s subway, crafted from our firsthand experiences. From in-depth information on Tokyo Metro to essential insider tips, this is the guide we wished we had before setting foot in Japan!

Introduction

Mastering Tokyo’s subway system is crucial for anyone looking to explore this bustling metropolis efficiently. Renowned for its punctuality, cleanliness, and comprehensive coverage, Tokyo’s subway network boasts over 280 stations. This ensures that you can reach almost any destination swiftly. The clearly color-coded maps and multilingual signs found both in stations and on trains make navigating the system straightforward, even for first-time visitors.

The Tokyo subway system

Tokyo’s subway system consists of multiple operators that together create an efficient subway system that serves as the lifeline for Tokyo’s residents and visitors. The network spans hundreds of kilometers, connecting all corners of the metropolis and handling millions of passengers daily. With its extensive coverage, the Tokyo subway system ensures that you can reach almost any destination in the city swiftly and efficiently. That being said, mastering Tokyo’s subway system is no small feat, so that’s why we created this ultimate guide!

Understanding the different operators

The Tokyo subway network is managed by multiple companies, primarily Tokyo Metro and Toei Transportation, which can be confusing for newcomers. It certainly was confusing for us at first!

Established in 1927, Tokyo Metro is the largest operator, managing nine lines that span 195 kilometers and connect 180 stations. With nearly 6 million passengers daily, there’s a big chance that you’ll be on one of Tokyo Metro’s lines at some point during your time in Tokyo.

Key lines and routes of Tokyo Metro

  • Ginza Line (G): Connects Asakusa to Shibuya, passing through key districts such as Ginza and Omotesando.
  • Marunouchi Line (M): Runs from Ogikubo to Ikebukuro, stopping at major destinations including Tokyo Station and Shinjuku.

Toei Transportation

Toei Transportation, with little under 3 million daily riders each day, operates four lines: the Asakusa Line, Mita Line, Shinjuku Line, and Oedo Line, collectively serving 106 stations.

Navigating multiple operators

Having multiple operators can be confusing for travelers. Tickets for one operator do not typically grant access to the other’s lines. You can imagine our surprise when we were refused entry to the Asakusa Line, even though we bought a 24-hour subway pass! Here are some tips to help you navigate the system:

  • Ticket incompatibility: Be aware that a ticket purchased for Tokyo Metro cannot be used on Toei lines, and vice versa. This applies to 1, 2, or 3-day open tickets (unlimited rides) too, but more on that later. Using IC cards like Suica or Pasmo can simplify your travels, as they work across both systems. In addition to these two cards, you also have Icoca. This works similar to the other two, but is the is the prepaid IC card of JR West (if you enter Japan in Osaka, for instance).
  • Transfers: Transferring between different operators’ lines can sometimes involve long walks within transfer stations, or even to different stations altogether. Pay close attention to station maps and signage, or use Google Maps (more on that later).
  • Fare Differences: Fares can vary slightly between Tokyo Metro and Toei lines, which was confusing for us in the beginning. Expect single rides to cost between 180 and 430 yen per person (usually less than 250 yen in our experience).

Ticketing options

Navigating Tokyo’s subway system becomes a seamless experience with modern tools and various ticketing options. Here’s a detailed look to help you master Tokyo’s subway.

IC cards

IC cards like Suica and Pasmo are rechargeable smart cards used across Tokyo Metro and Toei, JR lines, and city buses. These cards provide a seamless travel experience, allowing you to enter, exit, and transfer between lines effortlessly. Available from vending machines at stations, these cards require a 500-yen refundable deposit and can be recharged as needed. We highly recommend getting either one of these, gone are the days of struggling to find coins at the ticket vending machine! Also, these days you can add the IC card to your phone, which is even more convenient.

One-way tickets

You can use the ticket machines found in almost every subway station to purchase one-way tickets pretty easily. Fares are based on the distance traveled, with Tokyo Metro fares ranging from 180 to 330 yen and Toei fares from 180 to 430 yen. You will need to know your end station to pay for the correct fare, or just pay the lowest fare possible and use the fare adjustment machines at your end station. All machines can be set to English and are pretty easy to navigate, although they might have a big queue in front of them.

Once you’ve bought your ticket, simply insert it into the gate and keep it with you until you reach your destination. Then, you’ll need to insert it one last time to exit the station (the machine will not return your ticket). If you know that you won’t be taking the subway during your time in Tokyo, one-way tickets are sufficient and you don’t have to get an IC card.

Subway passes

For tourists, Tokyo Metro and Toei offer convenient 1-day, 2-day, or 3-day subway passes. These passes provide unlimited travel across all subway lines, making them cost-effective for extensive city exploration. We bought one of these on our first day in Tokyo, and that’s the moment we discovered that you can’t use them on all lines. 😂 The pass we bought was the 600 yen (€ 3,56), 24 hour ticket for Tokyo Metro, which we don’t recommend. However, we didn’t know that there’s a “Common One-day” ticket available for 900 yen (€ 5,33) that lets you ride both the Tokyo Metro and Toei lines unlimited times. If you’re planning on taking more than five subway rides in a day, this ticket is a no-brainer!

Using Google Maps for navigation

Google Maps was such a lifesaver for navigating Tokyo’s (sometimes complex) subway system. It offers real-time train schedules and route options, and we found it pretty reliable as well. On top of all that, we absolutely loved Google Maps’s detailed directions, like which entrance or exit to use, the optimal train car for easy transfers, and the total fare for your journey. It was also a quick and easy way to see what direction we had to take (eg. G1 -> G18), since all information was there in the palm of our hands!

Tips for a smooth subway experience

To fully master Tokyo’s subway and make your commute as pleasant as possible, consider the following insider tips:

  • Color coding: Pay attention to the colors of the train lines and the direction they are heading. Each line is color-coded, which helps in larger stations. So even if you don’t remember the name of the line or your final station, knowing the color will still help a great deal.
  • Topping up IC cards: you can top up your IC cards in train stations, convenience stores (7-Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson), and even via some ATMs (like the ones in 7-Eleven).
  • Avoid peak hours: The subway can become extremely crowded during peak hours (7:30-9:30 AM and 5:00-7:00 PM). Traveling outside these times will provide a more comfortable ride, especially if you’re carrying big luggage.
  • Line up properly: Every platform has designated spots for lining up. This ensures people can quickly get off and on the train when the doors open.
  • Mind your space: We already told you that you best avoid traveling during peak hours if you have suitcases with you. But, even if you just have a larger bag or backpack, it is better to wear it on your front or place it between your legs to save space.
  • Priority seats: There are multiple seats marked for pregnant women, the elderly, and people with disabilities. In fact, Japan even has women-only cabins! Some of them are operating during peak hours only (and become “regular” cabins outside of these times), others are women-only at all times.
  • Keep quiet: As with everything in Japan, respect fellow passengers. This means you should avoid eating, drinking, and talking on the phone while on the train.
  • Last train times: The last trains typically run between 11:30 PM and 12:30 AM. Checking the schedule to avoid missing the last train might be a good idea. 😉

Popular Tokyo destinations and their subway stops

The Tokyo subway system is your gateway to numerous iconic destinations. Here are some must-visit spots and their nearest subway stations:

Shibuya

Ultimate guide to master Tokyo's subway: Shibuya
  • Famous for Shibuya Crossing, the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world, and its energetic shopping and entertainment venues.
  • Closest stations: Shibuya Station (Tokyo Metro Ginza Line, Hanzomon Line, Fukutoshin Line)

Shinjuku

  • Known for its bustling atmosphere, shopping areas, entertainment options, and the serene Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.
  • Closest Stations: Shinjuku Station (Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line), Shinjuku-sanchome Station (Tokyo Metro Fukutoshin Line, Marunouchi Line, Toei Shinjuku Line)

Asakusa

Ultimate guide to master Tokyo's subway: Asakusa
  • This historic district is home to the famous Senso-ji Temple, traditional shops, and delicious street food. If you’ve read our where to eat in Tokyo blog post, you probably already heard of it. 😉
  • Closest Stations: Asakusa Station (Tokyo Metro Ginza Line, Toei Asakusa Line)

Roppongi

  • Known for its vibrant nightlife, international dining scene, and cultural attractions like the Maman Spider Sculpture and Mori Art Museum.
  • Closest Stations: Roppongi Station (Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line, Toei Oedo Line)

Akihabara

  • The heart of otaku culture, filled with electronics stores, anime shops, and themed cafes. It’s also the place where we won a cute edamame keychain!
  • Closest Stations: Akihabara Station (Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line)

Now, if you’re looking on what to do when you finally get to Tokyo, we highly suggest you check out our 14 best things to do in Tokyo.

Comparing Tokyo Metro, Toei, and JR Lines

Mastering Tokyo’s subway involves understanding the differences between the Tokyo Metro, Toei, and JR lines, all of which are crucial for an efficient travel experience. These systems, while interconnected, have distinct features and benefits that you should know about before your trip to Japan.

Coverage and convenience

Tokyo Metro

Ideal for traveling within central Tokyo, Tokyo Metro covers key districts extensively with nine different lines. It’s perfect for getting to popular destinations like Shibuya, Ginza, and Akihabara, a comprehensive network for inner-city travel. Stations and lines use a circle icon.

Toei lines

Operated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation, Toei runs four lines: Asakusa, Mita, Shinjuku, and Oedo. The Toei Oedo Line forms a loop around the city, making it convenient for accessing a wide range of neighborhoods without needing to change trains frequently. Stations and lines use a circle icon, similar to Tokyo Metro.

JR lines

In Tokyo, there are five lines that are operated by Japan Railways (JR): Yamanote, Chuo, Keihin-Tohoku, Sobu, and Saikyo. Out of these five, the Yamanote line is the most famous (and used) one as this loop connects major central areas like Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Tokyo Station. JR lines extend far out to suburban areas, and even other parts of Japan, making them ideal for longer journeys. The JR network is extensive, covering not only Tokyo but also reaching out to other cities and regions in the country. Stations and lines use a square icon, this is how you can differentiate between Tokyo subway lines (Metro or Toei), and JR lines.

Cost and ticketing differences

Tokyo Metro and Toei lines

Fares depend on the distance, and range from 180 to 330 yen (Tokyo Metro) or 180 to 430 yen (Toei). The 1-day, 2-day, and 3-day passes offer unlimited travel on both Tokyo Metro and Toei lines, and there are also combination tickets available that let you ride lines of both operators with the same pass.

JR lines

Fares are based on distance, similar to Tokyo Metro and Toei. Prices for a one-way ticket range from 150 yen to 270 yen, although the most common amount is around 180 yen. If you’re only visiting Tokyo, getting a JR pass is not recommended, especially after Japan Railways implemented a price hike at the beginning of 2024. But even before the price went up, there was no need to buy the JR Pass if you were only visiting Tokyo. The JR Pass offers unlimited travel on JR-operated lines, including the Shinkansen (bullet trains), which only makes it great value if you travel around Japan.

Frequency and operation hours

Tokyo Metro

Trains typically run every 3-5 minutes during peak hours and every 5-10 minutes during off-peak times. Tokyo Metro lines generally operate from 5:00 AM to around midnight.

Toei lines

The frequency of Toei trains is similar to Tokyo Metro, with trains running every 3-6 minutes during peak times and every 6-10 minutes off-peak. Toei lines also operate from early morning until around midnight.

JR lines

Frequencies are similar to Tokyo Metro and Toei during peak and off-peak hours. The iconic Yamanote Line loop, for instance, runs with intervals of about 2-4 minutes during peak hours. JR lines in Tokyo have similar operational hours, typically from 5:00 AM until around midnight.

Practical insights, recommendations, and insider tips

To make your travel experience seamless and enjoyable, let’s go over some key aspects of Tokyo’s subway system:

  • Safety and hygiene: Tokyo’s subway system is known for its safety and cleanliness. Security personnel and surveillance cameras are everywhere, so there’s no need to feel unsafe. Regular cleaning schedules ensure that the stations and trains remain spotless. This applies to the whole of Japan, to be honest!
  • Lost and found: If you lose something, head to the nearest station office or contact the subway operator. Tokyo Metro has an efficient lost and found system, although we hope you don’t have to make use of it!
  • Station facilities: Major stations have advanced facilities including luggage storage, free Wi-Fi, and detailed information centers. Most stations have free public toilets, and some stations even offer convenient capsule hotels and shopping arcades!

Lastly, here are some final tips and tricks to help you master Tokyo’s subway system in no time:

  • We already mentioned Google Maps, which works well enough. If you want local alternatives that do the same (and maybe even more), you can check out HyperDia and Jorudan.
  • In addition to these websites, you can also download the Tokyo Metro app or Navitime app. We especially liked the Navitime app, as it was helpful throughout our Japan journey (not limited to Tokyo). Navitime also has a website.
  • Use the free wifi! Free wifi is available in almost every Tokyo Metro and Toei station. It often even works when you’re in a riding train, which means you don’t have to limit your wifi usage to when you’re waiting.
  • Don’t underestimate how much you’ll be walking, even if you take the train. When we were in Tokyo, we averaged around 25k steps a day, and that was us exclusively using Tokyo’s subway system. On longer routes that require transfers, it’s not unusual to have to walk another 10 minutes to the correct station or platform.

Conclusion

Navigating Tokyo’s subway system can initially seem daunting. With the right information and tools, it becomes a smooth and efficient experience. This ultimate guide aims to help you master Tokyo’s subway system, from understanding the different operators to using modern navigation tools and ticketing options. Our firsthand experiences and insider tips are designed to help you avoid common pitfalls and make your travels as enjoyable as possible. Now that you know that Tokyo’s extensive and reliable subway network is there to support your journey, it is time to explore Tokyo. Safe travels!

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