Getting around Tokyo: fast, easy & cheap

Here’s everything you need to know about the fastest, cheapest, best way to get anywhere in Tokyo (plus how to rent a cellphone or pocket wifi and other useful stuff.)

HOW TO GET INTO TOKYO FROM NARITA AIRPORT

Limousine bus

Pros: It’s the best and least expensive way into Tokyo if you have heavy luggage. The ride into Tokyo from Narita takes about 2 hours, unless the traffic is especially bad. A ticket costs about $35 per person. The limousine bus serves major hotels; if you are staying elsewhere, go to the hotel nearest where you need to go , then take a taxi to your destination.

Cons: If traffic is bad, it can take FOREVER. And if you’re not staying at one of the hotels it serves, you have to get in a taxi from the nearest one.

How to take the limousine bus:

• Go to the bus counter. It is in the arrival lobby, right across from where you exit from customs. it will have a big “limousine Bus” sign above it in English.

• Look at the big board behind the counter. It will list hotel destinations and neighborhood destinations with departure times. If you do know know which one to choose, ask the clerk. Most of them speak English perfectly well.

• Buy your ticket, then go outside and stand in line at the designated lining-up place next to the curb.. The clerk will tell you which one is for your bus, and you can confirm that by looking at the stand-up sign in front of each curbside departure point. Note: Buses, like every kind of transportation in Japan, are extremely prompt. Do not be late. They will not wait for you.

Taxi

Pros: Taxis still take about 2 hours to get into town from the airport, but they do take you directly to your destination.

Cons: A taxi will cost you around $200-$250, one way. And if there’s traffic, it can take forever.

• You can catch a taxi right outside the arrival terminal, across the big street on the far island.

• When you get the cab, give the driver the address of your hotel. It’s OK if it is written in English.

Train

There are two high-speed train lines that go into town from the airport: the Narita Express and theSkyliner. They have drop-offs at several major stations, then you have to catch other trains or a taxi from there. You have to buy reserved seat tickets at the airport before you get on the train. The ticket counters are close to each other on the very lowest floor of the airport. Follow the overhead signs that say “Keisei Line.” It costs ¥ 2400 to get into town.

Pros: Fastest and cheapest. This is how I always go into town from the airport.

Cons: You have to schlep your own luggage, which isn’t a problem at the airport, but once you get to the express train terminal station, you have to lug it to your destination (which can mean transferring to another train then wheeling it to where you’re staying or getting a cab).

Skyliner:

Trains go every 40 minutes to:

•Nippori

•Ueno

One-way tickets are ¥2400

Here is the timetable

Narita Express:

Trains go every 30 minutes to:

•Tokyo Station

•Shinjuku Station

•Yokohama Station

Some trains also stop at:

•Shinagawa Station

•Shibuya Station

•Ikebukuro Station

•Yokohama Station

One-way tickets are approximately ¥3000 to ¥4500

Here are the fares and timetable

HOW TO USE THE SUBWAYS AND TRAINS IN TOKYO:

The subways and trains are the easiest, fastest AND cheapest way to get around Tokyo. Because traffic is terrible and distances are huge, you will be much happier if you use the subway and train system.

The two kinds of train systems:

• Subway “Metro” system: underground trains,  just like subways everywhere.

• JR “Japan Rail”: elevated trains (including the “bullet train”)

The way that all subways and trains work is that 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.

The Easiest Way To Ride The Subways And Trains

The best thing to do is to buy a multi-use passcard that automatically debits the right amount. Every subway and train station has machines where you can buy these cards, usually along a wall right near the ticket gates.

There are two kinds: 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 kind from 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.

SubwayCards

How to buy a card:

At any station, find the row of ticket machines along the wall near an entrance. Look for the ones that say Suica or PASMO at the top and the screen does not have a bunch of little squares with small amounts of yen (such as ¥260) displayed. On the touchscreen, select “English” and follow the directions. 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 that, the full amount of money you add to the card will appear as a credit.)

Using your card:

• 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. 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, check the one 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 say Suica or PASMO at the top and the screen does not have a bunch of little squares with small amounts of yen (such as ¥260) displayed.)

• Feed your card into the left-hand slot, face up.

• Feed bills into the right-hand slot. 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 I get to my destination and there isn’t enough money left on my card to exit?

If this happens, a bell will sound, the sensor will turn red, and the gate won’t open.

If it does, back up and find the “Add Fare” machines near the exit. Feed your card into the slot and select “English,” then follow the directions on the screen.

Where to get an English subway map

There are racks of literature near the ticket machines at every subway station. If there are no English maps in one of the cubbyholes, as the attendant at the desk or window at the end of the ticket gates.

HOW TO TAKE A TAXI IN JAPAN

In order to take a cab in Japan, you must either:

Hand the driver a piece of paper with a map or address in Japanese

OR

Be going to a well-known landmark with a name the driver will understand even if he doesn’t speak English (eg. Tokyo Tower, Meiji Shrine)

How to take a taxi:

• Stand on the curb and hail the first cab you see with a lighted-up roof sign and red two-character windshield sign.

• Wait for the driver to open the door automatically for you from the inside. Do not open it yourself.

•Give the driver your instructions.

• Do not ever eat or drink in a cab. Talking on cellphones is OK.

•When you arrive, the driver will show you your fare on the meter. Some drivers do not carry change for ¥10,000 notes, so please try to pay with ¥5,000 or less. The driver will open the door for you after you pay.

•You do not need to tip the driver. It is unusual to tip, although drivers are grateful for tips if they have helped you with lots of luggage or other special needs.

RENTING A CELLPHONE/SIM CARD/POCKET WIFI

Having a cellphone for every member of your party can be essential if you ever need to split up and meet again later, and GPS in Tokyo is a must-have because even if you have the address, buildings aren’t numbered consecutively along the street (yeah, weird, huh?) But international roaming is expensive, so here’s how you get around it:

How to rent a cellphone at the airport

• When you exit the customs area, you will see various counters along the far wall. Walk along until you start seeing the cellphone rental counters. There are a number of companies that rent phones. (I usually use Sky Cellular, but any of them will do. You can research them online before arriving if you want to compare prices.)

• It takes about 10 minutes to sign up for the phones. The clerks speak English and have laminated English cards that explain the various rental options. All phones come with English instructions for use. Don’t expect any nice features. These phones are VERY basic.

• Rental is by the day, and at most carriers you can choose between two plans:

• Domestic use only (you can’t call outside Japan)

•International use (more expensive per minute)

When you compare plans, you will see that the things that vary are:

• Rental cost per day (fixed)

• Cost per minute of use

•Cost per text message

• If you are renting a smartphone, you will also have choices of data plans (packet charges/internet access)

• When you return the phones before your departure, bring them back to the counter where you rented them. They will give you a receipt, then later you will get a charge on your credit card for the rental fee and the minutes used. They do not figure this out for you at the time of return.

Renting a SIM card or pocket wifi device

This site gives the best info I’ve seen so far on how to use your own devices in Japan.

Basically, the best (and cheapest) thing to do is to rent a pocket wifi device (which you can use with either your phone or your computer for internet access and GPS stuff) or to rent a SIM card and put it in your American phone (although this only works if you have an unlocked phone). I think the drawback of the wifi device is that you have to enter a password every time you use it. As for “free wifi,” they actually have it at Starbucks and convenience stores, it’s not actually all that common, and often the free wifi is only free if you’re already subscribed to a special plan with a Japanese phone company (so not free at ALL grr).

• The big benefit to renting a SIM card is that it allows you to have a local Japanese phone number (so people don’t have to make an international call to dial you), a local data plan (instead of paying expensive international roaming charges) and you can call anyone, anytime, even if there’s no wifi. In order to use a SIM card, though, your phone has to be unlocked before you arrive.

Read a novel set in Tokyo

“A genuinely gripping crime thriller which wrong-foots and perplexes the reader throughout, drawing us in emotionally . . . Highly recommended.” Raven Crime Reads

When Detective Kenji Nakamura’s phone rings with the news that his mother’s death wasn’t an accident, his life begins to unravel…read more