Blessed with an incredibly efficient transit system, not only do trains run like clockwork, they are also insanely clean and safe. A dizzying array of train and subway lines, taxis and buses can take you literally anywhere you need to go but for most travellers, the train will be your best bet as the fastest and cheapest. There are however some basic things you need to know about Tokyo’s transit as you start planning that dream trip.
Introducing The Competing Rail Lines
Image via Flickr doublek83
Tokyo’s rail lines are incredibly thorough and that’s really only possible because there are multiple competing lines run by different companies. This is where it gets a little confusing. One of the most popular lines is run by Japan Rail (JR) and they run the JR Yamanote Line which is one grand loop that covers all the major city centers. JR also has the Chūō line which cuts through the center of the city. The subways themselves are run by two other companies – Tokyo Metro and Toei which layers on another 13 color-coded web of lines.
Different Passes Available
Image via Flickr hsm_photos
For most visitors, picking up a Suica card at a JR station or a Pasmo card at non-JR stations will make the most sense. These are prepaid cards that won’t give you discounts on single tickets but will allow you to freely use all train, subway and bus networks in the city. With a simple swipe of the card, you’ll be able to get around everywhere you need to go. This way you can bypass trying to figure out how to use ticket dispensing machines.
You need to pay a refundable deposit of ¥500 to get the card but you can get it back whe you return it at a station window. When you run out, simply recharge the card at any ticket machine in ¥1000 increments.
If you plan on doing extensive travel on rail lines during a day, you can consider some of the alternative passes but be careful what rail companies they are valid for.
- Tokyo Free Kippu (Tokyo Tour Ticket) – Unlimited use of all subway and JR lines but at ¥1590 it is way overpriced.
- Tokyo Subway Ticket – If you don’t need to ride any JR lines, this is going to be the best value out of all these passes. This pass is only sold to foreign visitors at Narita Airport, Haneda Airport and Bic Camera stores in Tokyo (1 day: ¥800, 2 days: ¥1200, 3 days: ¥1500)
- Toei and Tokyo Metro One-Day Economy Pass – This pass is identical to the pass above but more expensive (¥1000. So why mention it? Well this pass is open for anyone to buy so in a bind you could buy this at any subway station.
- Tokyo Metro Open Ticket – This ticket is limited to the Tokyo Metro line. The one day version is ¥600 and ¥980 for two days. A special two consecutive day visitor version is avialable for purchase at Narita and Haneda airports for ¥980.
- Toei One-Day Unlimited Pass – The only reason why you’d want to use this one is if you knew you’d be riding the Toei line exclusively in the day. Costs ¥700.
- Tokunai Pass – This pass gives you unlimited access to JR lines only for the day at ¥750.
Does the JR Pass Make Sense?
Image via Flickr hanayakakajin
This is a question that probably gets asked the most. The JR Pass is a foreign visitor-only rail pass similar to the Eurail Pass in Europe that gives you unlimited ride privileges on JR specific lines that can be purchased in 7, 14, and 21 day denominations of consecutive use.
From a value perspective, the best use of the JR Pass is when you’re able to use it to take a JR bullet train from city to city. If you’re staying in Tokyo exclusively, it won’t make a heck of a lot of sense just because it would be a lot cheaper to use a prepaid Suica card or one of the passes mentioned above.
My recommendation is to tally up all the trains you’re looking to take by using the Hyperdia tool and see if it makes sense to buy the rail pass. If you do end up deciding on picking up a JR Pass, remember that you can only do it from your home country.
During my last trip to Japan, I planned to visit Osaka, Nara, Hiroshima, and Kyoto. In order to take advantage of the JR Pass, I started the trip by doing 7 consecutive days in these cities and once my pass expired, I spent the remaining 5 days of the trip using a Suica card.
Once you get these basics down you’ll be all set to travel around Japan’s capital city.
Looking for a place to stay in the city as you plan your trip, don’t miss out on this article on cheap hotels in Tokyo.
If you’re looking to do any travelling around Japan, I highly recommend picking up a JRailPass. Keep in mind that you’ll need to purchase it before your trip and ship it to your home.