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The Subway System of Tokyo

The Yamanote Line

View Lebanon 1st Trip - 1999 & Japan 1st Trip - June 2019 & Lebanon 3rd Trip - 2000 on tmulcahey's travel map.

The vacation has finished. I spent a total of 16 days in the Land of the Rising Sun. As promised, I am here now to talk about the things that I saw, did, and hopefully to provide some insights about this beautiful country and its people that may help any future visitors.

Lets begin with the obvious. The Airport. My son and I arrived in the afternoon of June 5th (about 3.40-ish) at Haneda Airport. Going through customs and immigration took about 20 minutes. Three airplanes all dumped their contents around the same time, so the line was a bit long. That said, the long line moved quite smoothly and quickly. The Japanese customs agents were very polite, and very specific in their questions. They asked us where we were going, the purpose of the visit, how long were we staying in the country, and if we were bringing anything in that they needed to be aware of. After the questions, we moved on to a second area where we gave our index finger prints (digitally), and were then welcomed into the country.

Passing through the large smoky glass doors, the signage was immediate and obvious (and color coded). We had 4 options that we could see on the overhead sign. Limobus, Monorail, Taxi, and Train (metro). We opted for the Monorail. Each of these options was color specific on the sign, with arrows pointing. It took us less than 10 minutes to find the location and board with our tickets (cost about 10$ USD each, or about 1,000 Yen). It should be noted that when we arrived it was about 100 Yen to the dollar, and about 105 when we left... so keep a close eye on those exchanges!

The trip into downtown was quick. About 15 minutes in length, and we were taken to Tokyo Station. Here we got off the monorail and walked around looking for the Yamanote Line. This is the main subway/metro rail system that forms a gigantic loop in Tokyo itself. There are other lines, of course, but this is the one you would use if you were visiting places like Shinjuku, Akihabara, Asakusa, etc...

The tickets cost (1-way) about 220 Yen per person from Tokyo Station to the Shinjuku Station. The price varies based on distance from your starting point. I didn't see anywhere on the Yamanote Line that went over 300 Yen, but if you were heading to a station to transfer to a different line that might take you out of the city proper, I saw prices go as high as 1600 Yen (about 16$ US). Every line was color-coded (Yamanote line is the Green line). A note here; get yourself a Suica Card. This is a nice and very handy thing for people who want or need to travel around the city and don't want to keep feeding coins or cash into the ticket kiosks. It is a debit card, of sorts, and we got one and put about 35 USD (3,500 Yen) onto it for our trips. There is a 500 Yen fee for getting one, but if you return the Suica Card at one of the many Suica Card kiosks (which are in almost every station), you will get it back.

Above the ticket kiosks every station has the map of the Tokyo Subway system. From what I saw only the Tokyo and Shinjuku stations had anything on those maps with any English (aside from the prices, which are English numbers). Many of the Kiosks have an English button so that when you buy your tickets you are not guessing. I also saw Korean, Chinese, and I believe Hindi as well as options.

To call the Tokyo system efficient would be a gross understatement. Those are some seriously punctual trains, and they are impeccably clean.

Movement around the stations can be a bit tricky at first. I will freely admit that it took me about 2 days to really start to grasp things. As I stated before, everything is color coded, but also on the above monitors, many of the lines indicate their names, not necessarily the individual stops, so you will need to be mindful of that. As an example, on our second day, we hopped on the Yamanote line from Asakusa thinking we were going directly to Shinjuku (where our hotel was located), only to find out that we were going the wrong way on the line. While we did eventually get there, it was quite the detour as we hit about 14 stops instead of about 6... so we got to see the subway platforms of over half of Tokyo! ha! So you will need to be very mindful of which direction your train is going on the line you have selected. It will get you there, the only question is when.

One of the ways that I was able to reduce the number of errors is that from the south Yamanote Line going north on the great circle, I memorized that Harajuku was followed by Yayoga, and then Shinjuku afterwards. If I didn't see either of those, I knew I wasn't on the right line.


In each of the trains above the doors they have electronic displays that will tell you in both Japanese and English what stop you are at, then what the next stop is by name. Additional information that they give is the 'number' of the stop, as well as the ETA to that stop. By default its about 2 minutes between stops, except for some of the stops on the lower section of the Yamanote line which I noted were about 3 minutes apart.

One really neat aspect was that every stop had its own little 2-3 second musical chime that would let you know what station you had arrived at. After a few days you knew where you were just based on the musical jingle alone, which I thought was a fantastic addition to their system.

For the record, we (my son and myself) rode that subway system at all hours, across 5 days in total. During the rush hour as well as not, and I can tell you this; you have never seen a packed car until you have ridden the Tokyo Subway at 5pm on a Thursday! It was no joke that every station had 'people packers', who helped shove everyone into the cars. The exception was the women-only car (that seemed to be train car 5 or 6), which was identifiable by the fact that the colored lettering was pink and it says in English on the train car itself (next to the sliding doors) WOMEN ONLY. The people packers for the women only car were what you would expect... women. Not that I think it would matter much. The Japanese keep their hands to themselves.

Another interesting aspect is how well everyone obeys the intentions of the rules, even the younger generations. Many of the train cars specifically say in no uncertain terms that they are quiet cars, or not to have conversations on the phones. While just about everyone I saw had a mobile phone, while on those trains no one (and I mean that - NO one) used them for talking. They were all glued to their phones, no question about that, but they were simply texting, or looking at the news, or listening to music on their headphones... no one was having a conversation verbally with a phone. I thought this was incredible given how many times over the years I've seen jokers yapping it up on silent cars while going into Chicago.

Now, I would be remiss to not point out that some of these stations hardly qualify for that name. They're monstrous in their size, and that is not an exaggeration. Shinjuku Station is not only massive, but its split in two with a highway running between the north section and the south section. There are over 200 exits to this station, and they are on multiple levels. If you exit the station from one side and need to get to the other... good luck. You're going to need it. This station (Tokyo Station is similar in size) is a labyrinth. You could walk for hours in it and never see the sun let alone taste fresh oxygen. There are entire levels dedicated to shopping, as well as eateries. They're absolutely everywhere. I think I noted about 5 levels and sub-levels in Shinjuku Station alone. The north side of Shinjuku Station has a massive 'Lumina' sign on it. This is some large department store, or series of them. If you exit on the above ground level on the south side, you will see this building across the 6 lane highway. If you do this, but you wanted to exit 'street level', there are escalators outside the station and I suggest you take them otherwise you would have to swipe your IC card, or buy another ticket to get back in.

All of the stations that we visited have information booths, and also information kiosks. I found that going to the booth where there are very nice people, was far more effective. In my case, I would simply walk up to them, and say the name of where I wanted to go with a shrug. "Asakusa?" or "Akihabara?". The people would rattle off something in Japanese, but they would point and also add in English the number of the platform. So the conversation would be polite, brief, and informative. But keep in mind! You will buy the ticket before you get to these people (unless you have a JR Rail Pass).

If you overshoot your destination, and get off at another stop, one that was a bit farther, you will have to do a 'Fare Adjustment'. This happened to me several times. You will feed your ticket into the exit area, but the gates will not open. It will tell you on a little screen to your right that you need a fare adjustment. If this happens (and it does, even to Japanese nationals), there are fare adjustment kiosks located near every exit that I saw in every station. The adjustment kiosk... when you feed the ticket in, do it sideways. As an American, I just feed the ticket short side first. The machines do not like that. Insert the ticket long-side in. On the screen it will tell you how much you need to add. In my case it was never more than 30 Yen (about 30 cents equivalent). Once you do this, it will give you a new ticket that will let you pass through the ticket gate. You will only run into this when attempting to exit the train access areas.

As a final note, be mindful that during the rush hour times (about 3.30pm - 7.30pm), movement through the subway terminals and stations is not for the faint of heart. You have never SEEN so many people bustling about (unless you live in a city like New York, or London, etc...). If you do not like large crowds I would strongly suggest you limit your travels in Tokyo to times not corresponding to typical rush hour times on the weekdays (7am - 9am, noon - 1pm, and 4.30 - 6.30pm). On the weekends I would also be wary of a late rush around 10.30pm and then another around 1.30am, especially around Shinjuku and Tokyo Stations, respectively.

Next up, I'll talk about Shinjuku specifically as well as the Capsule Hotel we stayed at (Hint: It was awesome).

Posted by tmulcahey 05:29 Archived in Japan Tagged tokyo train metro subway station shinjuku suiça ic jr yamanote

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