Tokyo is a city like no other offering the visitor a combination of modern amenities, ancient cultural rituals, and exquisite Oriental art and architecture. To top it all, getting around Tokyo is easy as it has one of the most efficient subway systems found anywhere on the planet.
From interesting cuisine in tiny bars and café’s, garish neon-lit skyscrapers to tranquil gardens surrounding Shinto shrines, Tokyo has it all. If you’re ready to hit the bright lights and your journey through one of the safest and most vibrant cities in the Far East, start with a look at our guide on how to get around Tokyo.
How to get around Tokyo: A transportation guide
Tokyo has a well-deserved reputation for transport efficiency. Trains are always on time. They’re clean, efficient and can get you to just about anywhere in the sprawling city of Tokyo.
Payment is quick and easy with several hop-on hop-off cards and passes available. The Tokyo transportation system is relatively inexpensive – unless you take a taxi.
The congested central districts of Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ginza (which are, coincidentally, the top areas for travellers to stay in Tokyo), are also surprisingly great for cycling or for taking a walk and enjoying the sights, aromas, noise and general hubbub of the city.
- Pasmo or Suica cards: These cards offer the tourist a convenient way to pay for travel on the subway and trains of the Tokyo transportation system. They’re easy to use. You simply swipe the card when entering or leaving the station or subway and the fare will be deducted. The cards are accepted for both Japan Rail and private rail companies operating in Tokyo. You can also use these cards for bus transport, and at retail outlets that subscribe. The cards are available online or from ticket offices or vending machines located in the stations. When the funds are depleted, you can top the card up at any station. When you’re finished with the card hand it back for a refund of your deposit (¥500) and any remaining funds on the card.
- Tokyo Combination Ticket: Valid for one day on all trains, subways, and buses. They cost ¥1,590 for adults and roughly half of that for children. Buy yours at the ticket office or a station vending machine. This is a great option for tourists planning to travel a lot on a single day.
- Common One Day Ticket: Valid for a day on the subway. A ticket will cost you ¥1,000, half price for children. This is the perfect solution for visitors who already have a JR pass. (For more info, check out our guide to Japanese rail passes).
Trains and Subways
By far the best way of getting around Tokyo is via the trains and subways. There are thirteen subway lines in Tokyo. They are run by two interlinked subway systems, the Tokyo Metro Subway, and the Toei Subway. Prepaid cards or subway passes will allow you to pass seamlessly from one subway system to the other.
The Tokyo transportation system also has train lines. Trains are operated by the Japanese Rail company as well as a number of private rail companies. The most important of the train lines is the JR Yamanote Line. It is commonly known as the Japan Rail Loop Line because it runs around the outskirts of the city. It has stops in most of the surrounding districts.
The JR Chuo Line runs from east to west through the city. The yellow trains stop at every station along the way. The red trains are rapid transit and do not.
Trains and subways are easy for foreigners to use as the signage is in English. If you are unsure of the cost of your ticket, you should buy the cheapest ticket available. You will have the opportunity to pay the difference at your destination where there are machines that calculate and charge out the difference.
It is always best not to travel on the trains and subways at peak times as the transport and stations are famously crowded with commuters at these times. (There are even subway “pushers” at the stations to ensure that everyone fits in!)
Most trains run from 5am to midnight with a train arriving every three to five minutes. Train schedules are displayed in the stations.
Trains are reasonably priced when compared to other major cities. Bear in mind that the less you change from one operator to another the more cost-effective your journey will be.
Buses in Tokyo are relatively cheap and they are a good option for areas not adequately covered by the subway system. The problem with getting around Tokyo on a bus can be the language barrier, which makes it difficult to work out which bus to take and where to get off. Only the end destination appears on the bus and most bus drivers do not speak English.
For something a little more convenient, try out the The Sky Bus, an open-air double-decker that takes tourists to the Imperial Palace and other top Tokyo tourist attractions.
Overall, buses offer one of the least expensive ways to take day trips out of Tokyo to the surrounding areas.
Taxis are the most expensive of the Tokyo transportation options and are really only worth taking when several of you are going to the same destination or where you have little other option.
Tokyo taxis have a starting rate ¥710 which is on the meter before you even start your journey. Between 10pm and 5am you will pay an extra 10% for a taxi service.
If you really need a taxi, they’re never far away on the streets of Tokyo. Look out for one of the thousands of yellow, green and black taxis cruising around. If the red light is on it is available, a green light indicates that the taxi is in use.
Bicycles and other Tokyo transportation
Cycling through Tokyo will bring you closer to the sights and sounds of the city and get you closer to the action. This is always a fun way of exploring a new place and in Tokyo, there are plenty of bicycles up for hire.
Walking through the pedestrian malls is also an interesting way to get around, allowing you to browse through the many sidewalk stalls and sample the tantalizing Japanese food on offer.
Take a trendy water bus up the Sumida River or get a view of the city from Tokyo Bay. No reservations are required for a trip on one of the many sightseeing water buses that ply the waterways of Tokyo.
Also available are the bright yellow water taxis that operate like any other taxi-on-demand. These have become very popular amongst residents and tourists alike as they are just as comfortable as motor vehicles but offer rides with a difference.