Backpacker’s Guide to the Tokyo Train and Subway System

Tokyo MapGetting around Tokyo is daunting, exciting, and incredibly efficient all at the same time. Taxis are very expensive, and buses aren’t the most useful unless you’re going somewhere very remote, leaving the train and subway systems to be the transportation mode of choice for most travellers. Not to scare you, but we’ve included a picture of the subway and train system below, just to give you an idea of the complexity and scale of Tokyo’s transit system.

Tokyo Subway Map


Check out our Ultimate Guide to Tokyo, Japan here!


Pretty wild! Tokyo has hundreds of subway and train stations, all interconnected by different subway and train lines. To make things more complicated, some are operated by the city, and the others are operated by multiple different companies (Japan Rail, or JR, being one of them). Navigating this organized and efficient mess of chaos takes a little getting used to, but it can be done! We’re here to provide some tips on how to ride the subway like a pro, and to isolate the most important lines and stations that you should know about for a successful visit to Tokyo! We’ve also made a useful map for you! We break down the post into the following sections:

Subway/Train Tips

JR Pass

Before getting to Japan, you should think about getting a JR (Japan Rail) Pass. This is only useful if you’re going long distances, and is available for one, two or three week periods. It can be used on most Shinkansens as well on short distance JR trains and buses in most big cities. It is only available to foreigners, and you have to have it mailed to you, so make sure to order it early to allow time for it to reach you in the mail. Check out our post here on whether a JR Pass is Worth It.

Tokyo Metro Pass

This pass can be used on Tokyo Metro Lines and Toei Subway Lines. It can be purchased for a 24-hour period for 800 yen, 48-hour period for 1200 yen, or 72-hour period for 1500 yen. You can also pair this pass with the Keisei Skyliner ticket, which is the fastest way to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo, for even more value. Check out the prices here.

TokyoPic19

We didn’t use these lines that often, as the JR train system connects the main tourist attractions better than the subway lines. The Ginza line is the only line that’s necessary to get to one of the main sights, Senso-ji temple. Getting from tourist attraction to tourist attraction will often require at least one line switch on the Tokyo Metro Lines, and in turn costs you a lot more time. You also probably won’t spend 800 yen in one day as trips cost 120-240 yen depending on distance, so the 24-hour pass probably isn’t worth it. The 48-hour or 72-hour passes are more realistic, especially if combined with the Keisei Skyliner ticket.

If you know you’re going to have to take a Tokyo Metro line into the city from your hostel everyday, it may make sense to get a pass, depending how many days you plan on spending in Tokyo. Otherwise you might be spending too much time switching lines and trains, and forcing value out of the Tokyo Metro Pass. We would suggest sticking to the IC card!

You can learn more about the pass, including access to a Tokyo Metro Map, here.

IC Cards

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The first thing you’ll want to do when you get to Japan is buy an IC Card. This is a loadable card that works on most trains in Tokyo (all trains that we went on!) as well as trains and buses in other big cities in Tokyo (Hakone, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima etc.). You can also use it at some corner stores, vending machines, and even some day use storage lockers in the train stations. Even if you have a JR Pass, you’re going to come across certain areas not accessible by JR train lines, and that’s when you IC Card comes in handy! It also frees you from having to purchase a train/subway ticket at the ticket machines every time you want to get on a train, and saves you from having to find exact change on buses. You can simply tap on/off and be on your way, like a real Tokyo local!

The two main types of IC Card you’ll find in Tokyo are Suica and Pasmo. Suica is made by JR-East, and Pasmo is made by Tokyo Metro and other private train lines. You can only buy/return them at their respective stations/companies. They are both virtually identical except for the following differences:

  • You can load Pasmo will 1000 yen, whereas Suica requires 2000 yen to activate a card. Both take 500 yen of that as a deposit, and then the rest can be used as train fare.
  • Suica takes 220 of the remaining money on your card when you return it as a handling fee, Pasmo does not. For example, if you have 500 yen left on your Suica card, you will receive 780 yen back when you return it (500 yen deposit + 500 yen fare – 220 yen handling fee). You’ll receive the full 1000 yen back with Pasmo.

TokyoPic9Especially for travellers on short trips, this gives the slight advantage to Pasmo as the better card, as it might save you a couple hundred yen. Just don’t forget to return your card at the end of your trip!

Both cards can be bought/returned at the airport at the ticket machines in, or just outside the respective stations (JR for Suica, Tokyo Metro or Kesei for Pasmo). You can also buy them at most convenience stores in the stations. There are always train employees around that are eager to help if you need to be pointed in the right direction.

Once you have your card, you can simply tap on at the station gates (you’ll see IC written on the spot you’re supposed to tap) and then tap off again when you leave the station. To load up your card, head to the ticket machines, input your card, and then choose the amount you want to charge onto it. You’ll need to put in cash to add money to your IC Card. Having the card saves you so much time, as you don’t have to go to these machines every time you want to get on a train!


Check out our Top Places to See in Japan here!


Navigating the Tokyo Train/Subway Line

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Obviously the map above is crazy, but sometimes it’s nice to have an overview of everything available to you. There is a very similar map available in the JapanTravel app, which you can zoom in on with your phone, and use offline. It comes in handy when you’re trying to figure out how many more stops you have until getting off, or for figuring out if the subway line your near can get you to the right station when you’re changing your plans on the fly. You can download the app here on Google Play or here on the Apple App store.

HyperDia is also an amazing resource for navigating the Tokyo train/subway system. You can enter your origin and destination stations, and it will give you multiple options on which route to take, and how long it will take. It works for JR and other train/subway companies, and also has an option for JR Pass holders to show you which routes you can take with just your JR Pass. It not only works in Tokyo, but for Shinkansen trains, and stations in other big cities. You can download the app on Google Play here, and on the Apple app store here. Unfortunately it doesn’t work offline, so make sure to plan out your route while you have wifi!

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If you have an IC card, you will tap on when entering the station, and off when you leave. The charge for a ride ranges from 120-240 yen, and is dependent on how far you travel. Within the JR stations, you can transfer to other JR lines without having to tap on/off. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, or which route you take between two stations, you’re simply charged for the distance. That means that even if you take an express train, it still costs the same amount.

If you don’t have an IC Card, you’ll have to buy a ticket from a ticket machine located just outside the station gates. Most have english language options. Enter your destination, pay the fare, and it’ll spit out a ticket for you. Enter this ticket into the gate, the gate will open, and you’ll grab your ticket from the other side. Make sure to keep your ticket, as you’ll need it to leave through the gate at your destination! At that point the gate will keep your ticket.

Getting from Narita Airport to Tokyo

Most travellers will fly into Tokyo via Narita Airport. Narita Airport is actually 80 km or so east of Tokyo, so you’ll need to hop on a train to get to the city after you land. Here are the three main options, organized by length of trip:TokyoPic5

  • Keisei Skyliner – This is the fastest train taking only 41 minutes from the airport to Ueno station in Japan. It also stops at Nippori station. Both of the listed stations are on the JR Yamanote line, which connects you to many of the main areas of Japan, including Shinjuku, Shibuya and Tokyo station. Foreigners can buy tickets online here for 2200 yen, otherwise a ticket costs 2470 yen. You can also pair it with a Tokyo Metro Pass, more information in our Tokyo Train and Subway Guide here. You have to select that date you want to use the ticket, but you can use it anytime that day. Check out HyperDia for train times. If you buy the ticket online, simply show your confirmation email at the ticket office and you’ll be issued a ticket for the next available train. There is wifi on the train, space to store your luggage, and outlets to charge phones and laptops.

*Note that that the train arrives at Keisei-Ueno, which is a separate building from Ueno station. Leaving Keisei-Ueno, you just have to go left and the cross the street, you’ll be able to see signs for JR lines. If you’re heading to the airport from Ueno, follow the signs to Keisei Skyliner. They will lead you down an underground passageway, then to outside where you’ll cross the street and see the sign for Keisei-Ueno station. Give yourself 10 mins to switch stations if it’s your first time navigating it, but it should only take 5 minutes if you don’t get turned around.TokyoPic3

  • JR Narita Express – If you have an active JR Pass, this is the fastest free option for you. The JR Narita express gets you from Narita to Tokyo station in just under an hour, for free if you have a JR Pass (make sure to activate it!) and 2820 yen without the pass. Tokyo is on the JR Yamanote line, which connects you to popular stations like Ueno, Shinjuku and Shibuya.

We have a post on whether the JR Pass is Worth it for you, check it out here before heading to Japan!


  • Keisei Limited Express – This is the most cost effective option, with tickets going for 1030 yen. The train takes 75 minutes to get from Narita to Nippori station. Nippori station is on the JR Yamanote line, which connects you to the rest of Tokyo’s popular train stations including Shinjuku, Tokyo, Ueno and Shibuya.

No matter which train you take, you’ll need to go down to the airport basement (B1) to get on the train. You can purchase tickets on the first floor in both terminals for Keisei Skyliner, or on B1 for all trains.

Popular Stations

The map above becomes a lot easier to navigate once you know where the most frequently used lines, and popular stations are, but a simpler map doesn’t hurt. Here’s our makeshift Tokyo subway map, outlining the stations we used below:

Tokyo Subway Map (Alex)

Tokyo

  • May as well start with the station named after the city itself! This station is close to the Imperial Palace, remains of Edo Castle and the East Imperial Gardens. It’s also close to the Pokemon Center and Cafe!
  • Tokyo station is on the eastern side of the popular JR Yamanote line, and also connects to the JR Keihin-Tohoku line. You can also transfer here to the Hakutaka Shinkansen on the Hokuriku line, which takes you to Nagano and Kanazawa.

Shinjuku

  • Next stop; the busiest train station in the world! Shinjuku is visited by 1.26 billion people/year, which is simply mind-boggling. It is your stop for some popular Izakaya (very tiny japanese pubs) neighbourhoods including Golden Gai and Memory Lane/Piss Alley. You should also get off here to see Kabukicho, or Tokyo’s Red Light District, a fun, lit up area with crazy bars and restaurants (including the Robot Restaurant), and the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Shinjuku is one of popular areas to find a hostel in Tokyo.
  • Shinjuku station is on the western side of the popular JR Yamanote line and the JR Sobu line. We also walked from Shinjuku station to Seibu-shinjuku station to get to our amazing hostel called Shinjuku Skycapsule Hotel, located beside Nakai station.TokyoPic7

Harajuku

  • Harajuku is a fun neighbourhood based around Takeshita street,
    filled with crazy clothing and thrift stores, known for it’s famous “Harajuku Girls”. It is also the closest station to Meiji Shrine, an important shrine in Japan, and where you can find one of the biggest and most well know Torii gates in Japan. Lastly, get off here if you’re looking to have lunch in the crazy Kawaii Monster Café!
  • Harajuku is on the JR Yamanote line, a few stops south of Shinjuku

Shibuya

  • This is the second busiest train station in the world, which makes sense that the busiest scramble crossing in the world is located right beside it! Get off here to see Shibuya Crossing, the famous Hachiko statue, and nearby Hyakkendana district known for its love hotels and hole in the wall restaurants and bars. Shibuya is also one of the popular areas to find a hostel in Tokyo.
  • Shibuya is one stop south of Harajuku station, located on the JR Yamanote line.

Ueno

  • Ueno is (unsurprisingly) where you get off to see Ueno Park, which has some great scenery as well as some interesting temples and shrines to see. It’s also by a cool shopping street called Ameya-Yokocho.
  • Ueno is also on the JR Yamanote line (are you seeing a pattern?) and on the JR Keihin-Tohoku line. It is across the street from the Ueno-Keisei station, where you can catch the Skyliner to Narita Airport. You can also transfer here to the Hakutaka Shinkansen on the Hokuriku line, which takes you to Nagano and Kanazawa.TokyoPic18

Asakusa

  • This is your stop for Senso-ji shrine, the oldest shrine in Tokyo. It is also home to Nakamise shopping street, a great spot for souvenir shopping! It’s also a great area to stay, although most blogs recommend Shinjuku or Shibuya. We stayed at Red Planet Asakusa and loved it!
  • Asakusa is our first (and only) popular station not on the JR Yamanote line! It is on the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line, accessible from Ueno Station. You can also get to Asakusa on the Tsukuba Line via Akihabara.

Akihabara

  • This station is right in the heart of Tokyo’s anime district. Even if you’re not into anime culture (like us), it was an amazing place to visit!
  • Akihabara is located just north of Tokyo station on the JR Yamanote line. It connects with the JR Sobu line, and JR Keihin-Tohoku line. You can also get to Asakusa from here via the Tsukuba line.

Shinkansen StationsJapanPic2

Japan is very well connected with high speed trains, or bullet trains, called Shinkansen. A lot of these run through Tokyo! They are expensive, but with the JR Pass you can make the costs more manageable. Check out our post on If the Japan Rail (JR) Pass is Worth it here! You’ll want to use HyperDia or download the app for Shinkansen schedules. Here are the stations where you can catch a Shinkansen in Tokyo to explore the rest of the country. For more info on the lines, scroll down to Shinkansen Lines.

Tokyo

  • Tokyo is the main Shinkansen station, all the main lines in Tokyo start here. You can hop on the Tokaido line to Odawara (Mount Fuji), Kyoto and Osaka, or the Hokuriku line to Nagano and Kanazawa from here.

Ueno

  • You can also take start your journey to Nagano and Kanazawa on the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Ueno.

Shinagawa

  • You can also start your journey to Odawara (Mount Fuji), Kyoto and Osaka on the Tokaido line from Shinagawa.

Less Popular/Transfer Stations

Nippori

  • This is the other stop, along with Ueno, for the Keisei Skyliner that runs between Narita Airport and Tokyo proper. It also connects to the JR Yamanote line and JR Keihin-Tohoku line.

Shinbashi

  • This is a stop on the JR Yamanote line where you can transfer to the Yurikamome line in order to get to Rainbow Bridge for an amazing view of the Japan skyline! Once you transfer to the Yurikamome line, you want to get off at Shibaura-futo station and walk towards the bridge along the left side of the road to get to the bridge elevator.TokyoPic17

Shinagawa

  • This is another stop on the JR Yamanote line, where we boarded the Kodama Shinkansen on the Tokaido line to Odawara, en route to Hakone to see Mount Fuji!

Nakai

  • This is the stop right beside where we stayed, at Shinjuku Skycapsule Hotel. It’s 3 stops (or an 8 minute ride) from Shinjuku station on the Seibu-Shinjuku line, and was way cheaper than staying right in the heart of the city. You can check it out and book it online here.

Popular Lines

The JR lines are the most useful lines to use in Tokyo, and are conveniently covered by your JR Pass. However, you will most likely not use the trains enough in one day to make it worth spending a day of you pass if you don’t need to. Try to start your pass where it will cover the most long-distance travel days. See more in our post here!

If you aren’t using your JR Pass, you should be using your IC Card. The fares on most Tokyo train/subway lines are based on distance and generally range from 120-240 yen. You can transfer between JR lines without leaving the station gates, but if you’re transferring to a line owned by a different company you’ll have to tap off, then back on again at the next station.TokyoPic21

JR Yamanote Line (JY)

  • Generally colour coded a light green. This is the line we used to most, as it links pretty much all of the popular stations listed above, as well as all of the less popular lines listed. It goes in a loop around Tokyo, passing by many of it’s top attractions.

JR Sobu Line (JB)

  • Generally colour coded in yellow. This line cuts through the JR Yamanote line, connecting Shinjuku and Akihabara. It basically gives you a shortcut from the east to west of Tokyo, especially if you can catch one of the express trains.

JR Keihin-Tohoku line (JK)

  • Generally colour coded in light blue. A line that runs along the JR Yamanote line on the east side of the city. You can hop on this line if you’re travelling between Tokyo, Ueno, Akihabara or Nippori. It’s useful to know it goes to the same stations as JR Yamanote along the east side of the loop, as a JR Keihin-Tohoku train might come into the station sooner!

Tokyo Metro Ginza Line (G)

  • Generally denoted with a capital “G” surrounded by an orange circle. This line takes you to Asakusa from Ueno station, in order to get to the popular Senso-ji shrine.

Yurikamome Line

  • This line isn’t that popular, but we didn’t want to throw it under “Other Lines” either. It’s the route you’ll take to get to Rainbow Bridge if you want to check out some amazing views of the Tokyo skyline! The Yurikamome line connects with Shimbashi on the JR Yamanote line, and takes you to Shibaura-futo, which is a short walk to the Rainbow Bridge elevator.

Shinkansen Lines

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Japan is very well connected with high speed trains, or bullet trains, called Shinkansen. A lot of these run through Tokyo! They are expensive, but with the JR Pass you can make the costs more manageable. Check out our post on If the JR Pass is Worth it For You here! You’ll want to use HyperDia or download the app for Shinkansen schedules. Below is an outline of the Shinkansen lines you’ll most likely use when visiting Japan.

Tokaido Shinkansen Line – Tokyo, Shinagawa, Odawara, Kyoto, Shin-Osaka

  • Leaving from Tokyo or Shinagawa station (both located on the JR Yamanote line) with access to Mount Fuji from Odawara, as well as Kyoto and Osaka.
  • Kodama train – This is the one you’ll need to take if you’re stopping at Odawara, as the Hikari train doesn’t stop there. From there make your way to Hakone on the bus or local train for views of Mount Fuji! You can get from Tokyo to Odawara in 35 minutes.
  • Hikari train – This is the one you’ll want if you’re heading to Kyoto or Osaka, as it gets there much faster! You can get from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka station in 173 minutes on the Hikari train.
  • Nozomi train – This is the fastest train on the line, but can’t be used with a JR pass.TokyoPic11

Hokuriku Shinkansen Line – Tokyo, Ueno, Nagano, Iiyama, Kanazawa

  • Leaving from Tokyo or Ueno (both located on the JR Yamanote line) with access to some amazing skiing in Nagano or Iiyama, and the often passed over city of Kanazawa. Many people will do a day trip to Nagano to see the Snow Monkeys. Iiyama is closest to Nozawa Onsen, a great historical ski town with lots of Onsens! Kanazawa is a great city to check out, home to one of Japan’s three great gardens.
  • Hakutaka train – This is the only train that stops at Iiyama, as it makes all stops along the Hokuriku line. It is also one of the trains that runs all the way from Tokyo to Kanazawa, but you’ll want to take a faster train if you’re taking it from end to end.
  • Kagayaki train – This is the fastest train on this line, and goes all the way from Tokyo to Kanazawa with very few stops (one being Nagano). You can go from Tokyo to Kanazawa is 150 minutes on this train, and from Tokyo to Nagano in 82 minutes.
  • Asama train – This train will also get you from Tokyo to Nagano, but makes more stops and takes 110 minutes.

Sanyo Shinkansen Line – Shin-Osaka, Hiroshima

  • This doesn’t leave from Tokyo, but it’s useful if you’re hoping to go from Tokyo to Hiroshima. First you’ll take the Tokaido line to Shin-Osaka, and then this Sanyo line to Hiroshima.
  • Sakura train – All trains on this line stop at Hiroshima, but Sakura gets from Shin-Osaka to Hiroshima the fastest out of all the JR Pass eligible trains, in only 90 minutes.
  • Nozomi and Mizuho trains – Both very fast, but neither can be boarded with the JR Pass.

Those are the three lines you will most likely take during your visit to Japan! You can find more info on the JR Pass website here, but be aware there are some typos! (Osawara instead of Odawara, and Liyama instead of Iiyama etc.).

Other LinesTokyoPic20

Tsukuba Line

  • This is an alternative route to Asakusa from Akihabara. The Tsukuba station in Akihabara is located just around the corner from the JR station. The Tsukuba station in Asakusa is about a 5 minute walk from the Tokyo Subway Asakusa station, but still close to Senso-ji.

Toei Oedo line

  • We used this line to get from Shinjuku station to Nakai station, where our hostel was. We highly recommend Shinjuku Skycapsule Hotel, we saved a bunch by just being a few subway stops away from Shinjuku station, and we had an amazing double room. You can book online here. The Toei Oedo line is located within Shinjuku station, but it costs 216 yen, which is more than the alternative below, and takes longer, stopping at 5 stops.

Seibu Shinjuku

  • This is another route from Shinjuku station to Nakai station, where our hostel was. It’s the cheaper and faster option, but the train doesn’t actually stop at Shinjuku station, but Seibu-Shinjuku station, which is just outside and to the north of Shinjuku station and across the street (cross the main street north of Memory Lane/Piss Alley, walk under the underpass on the right, then immediately turn left and you’ll see signs). It costs 144 yen for a ride with only 3 stops. The short ride is worth the discount you get at Shinjuku Skycapsule Hotel! You can book online here.

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