Tokyo Subway Primer – It’s not as hard as it looks

A city of 10 Million (1/4 of the entire population of Canada) like Tokyo needs a proper subway system. And boy, does Tokyo have subways.

In fact – there are 3 major companies that run subways under, around, and in some cases above the city. So getting from point A to point B can generally be done several ways – and making a decision about which line, and what route is often a question of price vs speed.

I’ve been using the iphone app maps.me to help me get around – although to be honest, it’s more useful if I’m walking than if I’m on the subway. To use the subway, I must rely on quick reading, and slow walking!

To avoid feeling like a salmon swimming up stream among the bears – walk on the left! And that goes double for riding an escalator. This is not something I’m good at either. My natural tendency is to walk on the right – and I get bumped a lot. No wonder the Japanese think we’re awkward. We keep getting in their way because we walk on the wrong side of – well – everything.

But back to subways – The least expensive in general is the ‘Tokyo Metro System” There’s English on the signs at all the stations, and many of the stations are new. The Ginza line is currently undergoing renovation – so it has the most stations that are a challenge to navigate. The other lines are in much better condition. There are public toilets at all stations (so clean you could eat off the floors), there are well indicated elevators, and most staircases also have an escalator if not two. Clearly this is my favorite system. I particularly like their 24 hour pass – at 600 Yen, it makes sense if you are taking 3 trips or more in the next 24 hours – and that’s pretty easy to do.

The next more expensive is the Toei System – which has 4 lines. This system duplicates a lot of the Tokyo Metro System, and you can buy tickets that allow you to change from one to the other – for a price. We were standing at a station in the Toei System – and the price to go to Ikebukuro was 400 Yen. But if we walked to the nearby station that was part of the Tokyo Metro system, the price to Ikebukuro dropped to 170 Yen. A significant difference. But effectively, unless you realize you are using the subway lines of a different company, you can’t tell when switching from Toei system to Tokyo Metro system.

A note on switching lines. Even within one system – say the Tokyo Metro System – the distances from one line to the other line, officially in the same station, can easily be 250 m or more – that’s pretty far to navigate in a crowded environment. So the better if more time consuming plan is to try not to change lines if possible.

The third system, and my least favourite by far, is the JR Line. Yes – that’s the same company that runs the long distance travel and sells those rail passes. They run a subway system within the city that makes a giant circle with one line that goes out into the islands nearby. It’s not the cheap option, but if you want to go to Tokyo Disneyland, or even out to the Sea Life Park – you will find yourself on these lines. The lines are old, the elevators tiny, and there seemed to only be escalators on rare occasions, and always going the wrong way. Not a winner.

Given this complexity – it shouldn’t be a surprise that each line sells it’s own tickets. And each line sells tickets that will work on the competitors lines (no idea how that works financially), but they won’t sell the discount ticket options that include the competitors.

Now, the nice thing about the ticket machines is that they all have a language button that allows you to pick English. Some just offer English or Japanese – others offer several languages – I’m thinking one might be Chinese. Whatever – English is always an option.

Once in the English option, it’s of course easier to use the machine. And all the machines I saw offered a search by destination station name and often by destination station number. And I have to say – knowing your destination station number is a huge advantage! It’s just one letter for the line, followed by a station number. So rather than remember Ikebukuro- you can remember Y09, F09, or M25. Since you can reach Ikebukuro by 3 different Tokyo Metro lines (Y, F, or M) , as well as it being a stop on the JR line it can be confusing. But still, if you know your station name, and it’s number – that’s a huge help.

Another help when getting around by subway is to realize that most stations have signs every few feet, visible from the metro car, that give you the station name (in English and Japanese), the name of the next station in either direction (both languages) and the station numbers. This make it easy to track your progress thru the system when traveling. And there are announcements – again in both languages giving the next station name and connecting information. The problem is that the way Japanese say the names, even in English, isn’t the way we’d phonetically pronounce them. So it’s a better idea to watch the monitors! Much less confusing.

As for navigating the stations – that can be a nightmare. If you hit a station during rush hour, or even just during a busy time (lunch say), the rapidly moving crowds are daunting, truly daunting. And it is easy to get really confused and turned around. In a station like Ikebukuro there are probably several hundred different stores, not to mention 3 huge department stores and cute pop-up shops as well. Signs are everywhere – pointing you correctly to the destinations, and even giving the distances to the destination, but still – I’ve gotten really lost.

One time I ended up in what can only be called ‘Shopping Hell’. It was a sub-basement of a department store with no apparent way out and the only clothes on sale were size 0 to 3. It was mobbed with young Japanese women, and between the throngs, the garish displays, the flashing signs, and the bowing sales people – it was seriously overwhelming. I think they were as confused as why we were there as we were to be there.

My next piece of advice – learn to hug walls. The Japanese have learned this, and know that putting your back to a wall is the safest option when in a crowded environment. Near the toilets it’s not unusual to see 10 to 15 men all lined up along the wall – waiting we assume for their sig other to exit the ladies room. We learned the hard way that stopping in your tracks in the middle of a passage is a recipe for disaster. At tbe least you are going to get bumped – and I’m not so sure that you wouldn’t get trampled!

And my last piece of advice, and one I gave earlier – walk slowly. If you keep moving, even slowly, the crowds will part around you. And by walking slowly you have the time to visually identify and read the signs. They are extremely well written – giving not only the line, but often several key destinations, so if you are moving slowly, and know where you want to go, you can get there.

Bottom line – the Tokyo Metro System, in all it’s complexity, is a thing of beauty. Use it – Enjoy it – but do it slowly and on the left. Let the folks that know where they are headed flow by – take your time and you too can enjoy the voyage.

Signing off to do more traveling on the Subways of Tokyo – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

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