The train system in Japan is one of the best in the world, and you can go anywhere in Tokyo with only a short walk at either end.
Subways and trains are used by everyone from schoolchildren to corporate bosses because they’re by far the best way to get around Tokyo. Taking a taxi is expensive and slow because Tokyo is huge and the streets are usually choked with traffic. If you learn to ride the trains, you’ll won’t waste half your trip sitting in it.
There are two kinds of train systems, but you can use the same pre-loaded transit card for all of them:
• Subway “Metro” system: underground trains, just like subways everywhere.
• JR “Japan Rail”: elevated trains
The best thing to do is to buy a reloadable transit card that automatically debits the right amount. There are two kinds of cards: Suica cards and PASMO cards. They are issued by different companies, but both can be used on any train system and you can add fare to either card at any ticket machine. They are plastic, like a debit card, and you can add money when it runs low. Each card costs a non-refundable ¥500 the first time you purchase it, but you’ll never have to worry about buying tickets at a station and figuring out the fare.
How to buy a card:
At any station, find the row of ticket machines along the wall near the turnstile gates. Look for the ones that with a Suica or PASMO logo on them.
On the menu near the top of the touchscreen, select “English” and follow the directions. The green light above the slots where you insert money will light up to help you know where to stick the cash.
I suggest buying a ¥3000 card for 5 days of sightseeing and adding fare later if you need to. This will give you ¥2500 in credit because the card itself costs ¥500. After the one-time fee, the full amount of money you add to the card will be available to use for traveling around.
Using your card:
You go through an electronic ticket gate when you enter and exit the system. You need to keep your train card with you at all times, because you need it to enter the platform and get out the gate at your destination.
• Tap it on the sensor on the front of the ticket gate that says “Suica” or “Pasmo” and when you hear the beep, walk through. This works even if the card is inside your wallet.
• Choose the platform that will take you to your destination. (Your phone travel app should tell you the name of the station that is the last stop in the direction you’re going). Above the stairs leading to the platform or on the wall near the platform stairs will be a map of the subway stops serviced by the trains that stop at that platform. If you don’t see your destination on the map, go to the platform on the other side of the tracks.
• When you exit at your destination, tap your card on the sensor at the ticket gate and it will let you through, automatically debiting the proper amount from your card.
How to add money to your card:
• At any station, find the row of ticket machines along the wall near an entrance like the one where you bought your card. (The ones that sell cards and allow you to add money have a Suica or PASMO logo on them.)
• Feed your card into the left-hand slot, face up.
• Feed bills into the right-hand slot. It doesn’t matter which way you put the bill in. The smallest amount of money you can add to your card is ¥1000.
• Choose how much money you want to add from the choices displayed on the touch screen.
• The machine will add money to your card and spit it out. Your change will come out the slot where you put in the bills.
How to tell how much money is left on your card:
After you tap your card on any sensor as you enter or exit a station, check the lighted display on the right side of the ticket gate as you walk through. The amount left on your card will be displayed.
What if there isn’t enough money left on my card to exit?
If this happens, a loud noise will sound, the sensor will flash red, and the gate will snap closed in front of you.
If it does, back up and find the bright yellow “Add Fare” machines near the exit. Feed your card into the slot and select “English,” then follow the directions on the screen.
How to figure out where you’re going
You could do it the old-fashioned way by carrying a paper map or consulting the map on the wall at the station, but by far the fastest and easiest way is to use a phone app.
*The JR Line also runs long distance trains like the “bullet train,” but you’ can’t ride them trains with transit card. Here’s how to get a ticket for those trains.
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Jonelle Patrick is the author of five novels set in Japan
The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon
“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist