Disclaimer: I don't live in Japan nor have I lived in Japan for a long period of time so there may be some incorrect information or mistakes here and there. This is all based on my personal experience as a traveler/tourist who visited Japan and how I interpret and understand the transportation system works and this is solely based on the transportation I have encountered in Tokyo. So this is more of a Tokyo transportation guide as I have not yet visited any other prefectures in Japan to know how the transportation works in other regions of the country. But I believe if you can learn and master taking the trains and subways in Tokyo, it wouldn't be a hard task to do so in other prefectures. I just wanted to share my knowledge of what I know with my readers and anyone who plan on traveling to Tokyo and want to understand how the transportation system works there. This is just some of the basic information I have gathered and it does not include or cover everything about trains and subways in Japan.
First off, let's start with some background information about Japanese railways.
In Japan about 70% of the railway networks are owned and operated by Japan Railways (JR) and the remaining 30% are owned by other private railway companies, especially in and around the metropolitan areas.
The JR Group is made of up 6 regional passenger railway companies which include JR Hokkaido, JR East, JR Central, JR Shikoku, JR Kyushu, and a national wide freight company JR Freight. Together they operate a nationwide network of urban, regional and interregional train lines, night trains and shinkansen (bullet trains). You can also buy a JR Rail Pass which will allow you to conveniently travel from different cities within Japan for a reasonable price.
Tokyo is covered by a dense network of train, subway and bus lines, which are operated by many different companies. The train lines that are operated by JR East and the subway lines are the most convenient for moving around central Tokyo.
Tokyo's most prominent train line is the JR Yamanote Line, a loop line which connects Tokyo's multiple city centers. I find that the Yamanote line is the easiest to navigate in Tokyo as it just goes in a circle. It also connects to the most popular stations for tourist spots such as Shinjuku, Harajuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa, Tokyo, Akihabara, Ueno, and Ikebukuro.
Here's a picture of the Yamanote Line and all the stations it runs through.
One of the things I like the most about taking the JR lines is that they run above the ground as oppose to the subway lines that run underground so you get to see the pretty scenery of Tokyo city while you ride the train. When I was traveling in Tokyo, I rode on the Yamanote Line to almost 70% of the destination places I went to and I absolutely love it!
Aside from the Yamanote Line, there are also 5 other major JR lines that are most relevant to use for people who travel within central Tokyo.
Image credit from japan-guide.com
When I was in Tokyo, aside from taking the Yamanote Line, I also got to take the Chuo/Sobu Line (Local) and Chuo Line (Rapid) but I have yet to take the other 3 train lines.
Another thing I really like and find convenient about JR train lines is that the trains are colour-coded with the colour of the train lines. It makes it really easy to spot and tell whether or not you are taking the right train line. For example, the Yamanote Line train is always green and the Sobu Line is yellow and Chuo Line is orange as shown in the image below.
Before my first visit to Tokyo, I did a lot of research on the different type of trains and subway systems that operate in Tokyo and found them to be extremely helpful and useful to help me navigate around the city and get to my destinations. I'd highly recommend visiting the JR East official website which is actually in English and provides really detailed information on train timetables, fair and passes, routes and maps, destination spots and customer support and even a guide on how to purchase tickets, pre-paid IC Cards (Suica) and how to read tickets and insert them at the ticket gates. You can learn more about JR train lines and find very useful information on their official site: http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/ticket/station.html
Tokyo subways are operated by two companies, Toei subways with 4 different train lines and Tokyo Metro with 9 train lines. Together, they densely cover central Tokyo, especially the area inside the Yamanote circle and the areas around Ginza and Shitamachi.
Tokyo Metro subways are very easy to spot as they have a blue overhead sign with the letter "M" as shown in the picture below.
A lot of the times you'll often see a board above the station on the stairway down to the subway, usually with 3 circles (sometimes with more or less depending on the station) in different colours with a letter symbol and and number like shown in the image below.
Confusing right? What does the letter symbol mean and what does the number mean? I was very confused at first too when I was looking at them but it's actually very simple and easy to understand. As I mentioned earlier, Tokyo Metro subways have 9 different train lines and each one uses a letter symbol to represent its respective train line and the number below it means the number of that station on the train line. For example, in the image above, the station is Ginza. Ginza station is the 9th stop on the Ginza line and it is the 8th stop on the Hibiya Line and the 16th stop on the Marunouchi Line. It doesn't really mean anything as to what station those train lines takes you to, it is more of just showing the different train lines you can take on the Tokyo Metro that will take you to the same station, which is Ginza in this case.
To make it a little easier, here's a list of the 9 different train lines and its symbol on the Tokyo Metro subway.
I have taken the Tokyo Metro subway on multiple occasions when I was taking shortcuts to get to different destinations. The subway trains are also colour-coded with the colour symbol of the line so it makes it really easy to know if you are taking the right train line or not. For a more detailed guide, please visit their official website: http://www.tokyometro.jp/en/index.html
Toei subway (Bureau of Transportation of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government) is a local public corporation managed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Toei Transportation provides Toei subways, Toei buses, Toei streetcars (Toden), Nippori-Toneri Liner, and other public transportation services, which play an integral role in urban life and activities in Tokyo.
I have taken the Toei subway (on the Oedo Line) once when I was in Tokyo and it runs very deep down in the ground! I had to walk many escalators and stairs to finally find the platform to ride the subway train. One important thing to know is that Tokyo Metro and Toei trains form completely separate networks. While users of prepaid rail passes can freely interchange between the two networks, regular ticket holders must purchase a second ticket, or a special transfer ticket to change from a Toei line to a Tokyo Metro line and vice versa.
Toei subway has 4 different train lines: Asakusa line, Mita line, Shinjuku line and Oedo line which is also colour-coded so it is convenient and easy to know which line you are taking when you see the train.
You can read more about Toei subway and how to ride it on the official website: http://www.kotsu.metro.tokyo.jp/eng/index.html
So now that I have covered all the different type of trains and subway transportation systems in Tokyo. Looking at the whole Tokyo subway route map with all the train lines doesn't look so crazy, does it? Lol. (Click on the image to view map in full size)
Or are you still confused and don't understand a thing about how it works and how to take the trains in Tokyo? As you can see, all the train lines are in different colours on the map and on the right hand side at the bottom, there is a legend with all the different train lines (JR, Tokyo Metro, and Toei) operated by each company. If you are still confused, don't worry. In my next post I'll be showing you a very convenient and useful transportation app and website for Japan that will make taking the trains and subways in Japan a smooth and easy task with no headaches! So please stay tuned for my next post. =)