Is it easy to navigate the Tokyo subway system?

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8 February
12:01
17 February
17:29

The Tokyo Metro combines with excellent overground lines to create one of the world’s most impressive metropolitan transport networks.

"The mass of colourful lines can look like terrifyingly-coloured spaghetti, bursting with incomprehensible lettering and mysterious messages."

On standard maps, the mass of colourful lines can look very confusing – a terrifyingly-coloured mass of spaghetti, bursting with incomprehensible lettering and mysterious messages – but it isn’t as bad as first appears.

Station names are usually written in English as well as Japanese. Most ticket machines also have English options on them and many train announcements and information screens are helpfully repeated in English.

Perhaps the most challenging element involves the fact that ten separate companies operate overground and subway lines in Tokyo – and that transferring from one to another generally requires separate tickets. Whereas in London you’d buy a single ticket or pay a single Oyster fare if combining, say, the Victoria line and Overground, it works differently in Tokyo. If possible, it’s far simpler to stick to just one company for each journey.

The two subway companies are the predominant Tokyo Metro, which runs nine lines, and Toei Subway, which operates four. Among the overground companies, JR East’s orbital Yamanote line links neon-tastic Shinjuku, the cosplay queens (below) of Harajuku and Shibuya’s legendary Scramble pedestrian crossing.

Another issue is that stops can be utterly vast. Take the world’s busiest train station, Shinjuku, which is. There are over 200 separate exits, many via shopping centres and arcades, plus 51 platforms. In short, it pays to know exactly where you’re going – otherwise you could spend a lot of time wandering.

"The Japanese are exceptionally polite, and you’ll notice a heavenly silence on trains."

Some trains can get very crowded – we’ve probably all seen the video footage of people being pushed into carriages – but avoid certain stations and lines at rush-hour times and things won’t ever be that extreme. The Japanese are also exceptionally polite, and you’ll notice a heavenly silence on trains. Chatting on your mobile phone is frowned upon here.

Other benefits are that trains are frequent and the system is both ultra-reliable and relatively cheap to use.

To make life much easier, InsideJapan Tours usually provide clients with a Manaca transport pass (aka an IC Card or IC Transport Card). Although this doesn’t bring any savings, it is highly convenient – as travellers are able to tap in and out at station gates, and simply top up if necessary.

The UK's leading Japanese holiday specialist, InsideJapan Tours offers bespoke and group tours across the entire country.

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