How to use the Tokyo Subway and Japanese Rail System

For some reason, I completely overestimated how easy it would be to get around in Tokyo from the moment I arrived. Having navigated my way round Hong Kong, I didn’t think that Tokyo would be that complicated but to be honest, we spent quite a bit of time getting lost and confused on our first day!

There’s a lot of posts out there to tell you where to go and what to do in Tokyo, but I wish I’d had a bit of pre-warning about how to use the subway system, which is why i’m writing this post now for you guys.

To be honest, once you get the hang of things the Tokyo subway system actually makes  a LOT of sense and it’s a very accessible city to get around in, but for first timers and anyone new to Japan it can be a little bit overwhelming at first!

Here’s my guide on how to use the Tokyo subway System

Buying Tickets For The Tokyo Subway

To travel on the subway, you need a ticket (obviously). But, when arriving at any of the subway stations, this can sometimes be easier said than done – which we found out when we couldn’t purchase from any of the machines!

Most ticket machines only accept cash, so if you have notes or change then great! But if you don’t, or just want to purchase from a person then most subways have a ticket office where you can buy from an actual person.

If you can’t find the ticket office, ask a local with the phrase: kip pu wa do.ko de kae mad ka kudasai (which means, where do I buy a ticket please)

We found that in general, the subway staff spoke very limited english – so here’s a phrase you’ll find VERY useful:

ichi nichi ken kudasai means one day ticket please. 

This will give you 24 hours of unlimited travel on the Tokyo Metro.

Now things get a little more complicated.

Unlike the London underground, the subway lines are operated by two separate companies; the Toei line and the Tokyo Metro. You can either buy tickets for both or just one, so it all depends on where you stay and where you’re planning on going.

The Tokyo Metro 24 hour pass is 600 Yen (around £4) whereas the pass that covers both is 1000 yen (£7). If you’re on a budget, you can definitely get around on just the Tokyo Metro as we did – you just need to plan your route appropriately using the subway map.

Suica Cards

A really great thing to get (that I wasn’t aware of before our trip) is a Suica card. This is a rechargeable contactless smart card that you can use for trains, subways and even food.


tokyo metro ticket

Getting Around Tokyo With The Subway

Once you’ve got a ticket and have figured out which of the lines are Tokyo Metro and which are the Toej line, you can now get to business with getting from A to B.

Amazingly, from here on out the Tokyo subway system is pretty intuitive as the stations are all numbered and lettered. For example, the Ginza Line is called G and the stations along it at G1, G2, G3 etc. So if you’re at G4 and need to head to G8, you look for the platform where the numbers are counting upwards.

Luckily in most Japanese stations, you can read the names in English as well as seeing the numbers!

Stations for popular attractions in Tokyo

Shibuya Crossing:  Tokyo Metro Shibuya Station (G01, Z01, F16)

Takeshita Street: From Tokyo Metro Meiji-jingumae ‘Harajuku’ Station (C03, F15) Exit 3: 2 mins on foot

Harajuku: From Tokyo Metro Meji-jungumae Harajuku Station (C03, F15)

The Imperial Palace: From Tokyo Metro Nijubashimae Station (C10) Exit 2: 1 min on foot

Meji Jingu Shrine: From Tokyo Metro Meiji-jingumae ‘Harajuku’ Station (C03, F15) Exit 2: 1 min on foot to South Entrance

Ginza: Tokyo Metro Ginza Station (G09, M16, H08), Higashi-ginza Station (H09), Ginza-itchome Station (Y19)

Tsukiji Fish Market: From Tokyo Metro Tsukiji Station (H10) Exit 1: 3 mins on foot

Tokyo Tower: Tokyo Metro Kamiyacho Station (H05) Exit 1: 7 mins on foot
girl on shinkansen bullet train

The Japanese Rail System

The Japanese railway system really is a modern masterpiece. Not only are the trains clean and efficient, they are always on time and extremely reliable!

Unfortunately, for longer journeys this can come at a price tag so if you’re heading between Tokyo to Osaka or Kyoto, you can expect to pay £50+ for a one way ticket on the Shinkansen (Bullet train).

One thing you should ABSOLUTELY do before travelling to Japan is purchase a JR Rail pass. These are either 7, 14 or 21 day passes that give you unlimited and also discounted travel by JR and Bullet train in Japan.

You cannot buy these passes in Japan. Let me repeat, you cannot buy the JR Rail pass in Japan! They are only available to foreigners and must be purchased before you travel to Japan.

We bought our 7 day rail pass through STA travel. They are roughly £200 for 7 days (£385 for 14 days) and although this seems like a lot, if you’re travelling long distances like we did then you’ll make back the cost in only 2 trips!

Normally a one way fare from Tokyo to Osaka on the bullet train is 14,450 Yen – which is £103, so you can see what good value the JR Passes really are.


Exchanging your JR Pass For A Ticket

When you buy your JR Pass, you’ll be sent a voucher to exchange into an actual ticket. You can change your voucher into a ticket and activate it at a later date during your trip if you wish, but from the day you activate your ticket you’ll then have the set number of days to use it by (e.g. 7 days or 14 days).

You can exchange your voucher at certain stations in Japan, e.g. the airport, Tokyo etc. and then you’ll head to a travel office where the pass is exchanged.

There’s plenty of signs up everywhere directing you to the JR Pass exchange, so this is quite easy to do and takes around 5-10 minutes for them to create your ticket.
JR Pass Vouchers Train
One you’ve got your ticket, you are good to go! You can travel on pretty much any JR route and even use the Shinkansen bullet trains which are awesome. Look out for the carriages without seat reservations if you haven’t booked a seat (usually cars 1-3) and make sure you form an orderly queue when waiting to get on – the Japanese are very polite and pushing and shoving is very much frowned upon!


I hope you’ve found this guide useful!

You can always Pin It for later here:

japan travel train pinterest


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