Tokyo Travel Guide Part 2: How to get around the city

A JR (Japan Railway) train bound for Shibuya, one of the major stations in Tokyo. — Pictures by CK Lim
A JR (Japan Railway) train bound for Shibuya, one of the major stations in Tokyo. — Pictures by CK Lim

TOKYO, Jan 3 — Once you’ve figured out when is the best time for you to visit Tokyo, the next thing is to figure out how to navigate the often complex public transportation system in the city.

With a multitude of options — JR (Japan Railway), Tokyo Metro, Toei Subway, various private railway lines and different payment systems — it’s easy to get confused.

Don’t despair. Begin with the nearest information counter; one can easily be found at the airport after you have landed or at every major train or subway station once you’re in the city. These information counters and offices are indispensable; the helpful folks there can even assist you in mapping your journey.

For the general Tokyo Metropolitan Area (where you will spend most of your time, in most cases), the subways and JR lines cover almost everything. There are two subway lines — the Tokyo Metro and the Toei Subway – but both are shared and interchangeable.

Where possible, use the subway as the JR city centre lines are shared with JR trains from outside of Tokyo so the queues tend to be longer. However, since queueing is such an intrinsic part of Japanese culture, why not join in? Do look out for signs, both overhead and on the platform, to make sure you’re queueing in the right line!

For the subway (Tokyo Metro), you can get discount passes for 24-, 48- and 72-hour periods. These are value-for-money and can be purchased at the airport itself (if you’re not in a rush to get into the city).

Alternatively, once you’re in the city, you can just locate BIC Camera shops (one of the most conveniently located ones is the BICQLO BIC Camera Shinjuku East Store near Shinjuku station) and purchase your pass there.

To head out to the suburbs or some interesting neighbourhoods such as Daikanyama and Jiyugaoka (that have become trendy and havens for hipsters these days), neither JR or subway lines are particularly convenient.

Instead private train lines are the way to go. In such case, it may be easier to use an IC card rather than queueing to buy tickets.

Get help mapping out your journey at the nearest information counter
Get help mapping out your journey at the nearest information counter

What are IC cards? These are rechargeable cards used for paying fares on public transportation (sort of like the Tokyo version of the Touch ‘N’ Go card we’re familiar with in Malaysia).

This being Japan, you can also use IC cards to make payments at konbinis (convenience stores), vending machines and a wide variety of shops and restaurants.

There are over two dozen types of IC cards but two of the most widely used are Suica and Pasmo. Suica is the prepaid IC card for JR trains in the Greater Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai regions, while Pasmo is used for Tokyo’s railway, subway and bus operators other than JR.

However, the various operators have become compatible with each other in recent years so you’d really only need one of these cards.

Let’s all squeeze in! (left). Queueing is an intrinsic part of Japanese culture, so why not join in? (right)
Let’s all squeeze in! (left). Queueing is an intrinsic part of Japanese culture, so why not join in? (right)

I’d recommend getting a Tokyo Metro day pass for the days you intend to spend solely in the city centre and use an IC card on other days when you might use the private lines (or a mix of private lines, JR trains and subways), such as when you head out to the suburbs.

This is really more about convenience because you really don’t want to keep buying single train tickets every time you need to travel. This can be especially troublesome if you need to buy tickets during peak hours.

Indeed, another way to get a better travel experience is to note which hours to avoid using the Tokyo Metro or JR trains. These are typically on weekdays: the rush hours are between 8am and 9am in the morning, and a second round after 5pm in the evening. You’re on vacation, so why not sleep in?

After all, the worst is the morning rush when salarymen squeeze into trains to get to work; I wouldn’t worry too much about the after-work rush hours as those are spread out.

The famous Shibuya Crossing, considered the busiest intersection in Japan
The famous Shibuya Crossing, considered the busiest intersection in Japan

Speaking of squeezing into trains, don’t be shocked to see some station officers pushing passengers into carriages like sardines into tins. That’s considered exemplary service (albeit without much of a smile) to ensure no one is late for work (horrors of horrors!).

Some stations can be travel destinations themselves. The famous Shibuya Crossing, considered the busiest intersection in Japan, is located right in front of the Hachiko Exit of the Shibuya Station.

The best place to view this scramble crossing is usually from the second-floor Starbucks store overlooking it. The statue of the faithful dog Hachiko (for which the exit is named) is a popular meeting place.

Consider renting a bicycle to get around town, especially when the weather is nice
Consider renting a bicycle to get around town, especially when the weather is nice

It’s clear navigating the Tokyo stations can be a fun experience. When the weather is nice, however, consider renting a bicycle to get around town. The cycling paths are clearly marked and you get to see more of the city while you’re getting from one place to another. Another option is to take a ride on the bus (but again, this means more queueing!).

Certainly, some of the most interesting sights aren’t at our destinations but during the journey along the way.

With that in mind, perhaps the best way to navigate Tokyo is to get familiar with some of its major neighbourhoods. We’ll look at these in the next part of this series and whether where you stay makes a difference...

This is the second part in a five-part series about travelling to Tokyo. Read the first part on the best time to visit here.