Navigating around Japan: How to get where you’re going if you don’t speak Japanese

If you have a smartphone, the easiest and fastest way to plot your routes anywhere in Japan is with a train finder app

You can get the train app before you go, or download it once you arrive. It’s less than $5.00, and worth every yen. I use one called Navitime Japan Travel, and it looks like this in the app store:

It will work with wifi alone, but if you’re out and about with no wifi, you’ll need cellular data to do a search. (Check here for how to use your phone in Japan and where to get wifi.) Japan phone hack: If you don’t have wifi or cellular while you’re out and about, do the search before you go and take a screen shot of the results to consult when you need to.

How to use the app

• Click on the “Route” menu item at the bottom of the landing screen. Here’s what comes up:

• Enter your station names in the top fields (starting point first, destination second) in English. (If you’re starting from your current position, you don’t need to enter it.) As you type, it will show you the station options below. You have to click on one of them in order to enter it – typing it alone won’t fill out the field. (Tip: Just type the first few letters and scroll down to find the station you’re looking for.)

• If you want to arrive or depart at a specific time, click on the “Leave Now” menu item, and select your date and time. Click “Done.”

• Click the “Search” button. Here’s what you’ll get:

• It will give you four different train routes, plus (scroll down) a taxi option (which you should take with a grain of salt, because it doesn’t account for traffic). It will tell you which trains you’ll need to ride, how long it will take to get there and total transit price.* (JPY means “Japanese yen” and the number following it will be the total fare. Ignore the IC price, because that’s for discount commuter cards.) The little donut icons are underground subways, the train icons are JR (or other elevated train) lines. If you click on one of the routes, you’ll see details:

What this means:

The station where you get on: Shinjuku

At what time: 15:42

Which train line you will take: JR Yamanote Line

Which platform you leave from: Platform 14

“Get on car”: Board a car at the back of the train, if you want to be closest to the platform exit for your transfer

How much it will cost for this leg: ¥200

How long it will take: 27 min

What time you’ll arrive: 16:09

Transfer station: Shimbashi

Which train line you will transfer to: Yurikamome

In which direction: Toward Toyosu

When the train leaves Shimbashi: 16:15

How much it will cost for this leg: ¥320

How long it will take: 15 min

What station you get off at: Odaiba-kaihinkoen

When you will arrive: 16:28

How do I transfer to another line?

Everything is very clearly marked, in both Japanese and English, including the electronic overhead signs, which alternate between the two.

• When you get off the train, find a bright yellow station directory billboard before you leave the platform. These are either posted on the wall or freestanding in the middle of the platform. Find the name of the subway/train line you’re transferring to and which escalator/stairs to use.

• Follow the overhead/wall signs until you arrive at the new train line. Sometimes this requires going through long corridors and occasionally you need to traverse another line’s platform. Just keep following the signs.

• Sometimes you need to go out the ticket gate and back through another one to change lines; sometimes the transfer is within the system, but your Suica or PASMO card works at every ticket gate.

What if I accidentally enter the wrong line’s ticket gate?

No problem. There is a manned booth or counter at the end of at least one of the ticket gates at every station. Hand your Suica or PASMO card to the agent and explain that you entered the wrong train line. They will electronically void the entry on your card and tell you either to exit through the gate next to the booth or hand you a small paper ticket to put through the ticket gate as you exit. That way, your card isn’t messed up the next time you try to enter the system.

* The times and prices for the train tickets are accurate, but the taxi time and price is just an estimate, and not a very good one. It can’t account for traffic, or predict how much of a problem this might be.

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