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Your Guide To Transportation Around Tokyo

Generally, when one thinks about transportation around Japan, the metro or subway system is the first thing that comes to mind. And rightly so! The metro, both underground and above, is a sprawling spider web of lines, trains, and railways. Sorry to say, but there is absolutely nothing simple about it. Even the locals get confused from time to time — though if you ask for directions, they’ll never tell you that. Whether out of politeness or embarrassment, it’s a tossup.

As a foreign exchange student, getting used to public transportation in Japan can be daunting. Especially in the mega-city of Tokyo. The train systems are convenient in that you can usually find a stop somewhere in your general vicinity. Also, all the signs have English on them! However, there are some things that foreigners should be aware of concerning both financial and personal situations. So, here’s our guide to transportation around Tokyo!

The Stuff Everyone Thinks About: Money

The most common form of payment to use on buses and trains is a transportation charge card. In Tokyo you can buy these for 1000 or 2000 yen (about US$10 or US$20). The price depends on which card you decide to buy, either PASMO or SUICA.

The cards themselves are extremely convenient. Instead of continually buying a ticket for each train ride, you can charge whatever amount you like beforehand. To use, you simply tap the scanner to go through the turnstile at the metro or on the bus. Having one of the cards is honestly a real time-saver.

However, it is important to realize that when using these cards, though it will get you almost anywhere you need to go in the greater Tokyo area. Outside the metropolis, the usage is less certain. Another cool feature is that your IC card can also be used as payment for vending machines, in most convenience stores, and some shops!

The card itself is convenient time wise — not to mention it is a cool keepsake since you can get your name printed on it. But keep in mind, it generally does little to actually save money for the user unless they purchase a commuter pass, which is only for work or school purposes. So, in the case of IC cards, the fare is the same as ticket prices, which is pretty expensive.

To be fair, transportation prices in any big city are usually high. Since you generally have to take public transportation everywhere in Tokyo, it really is a wallet-drainer. Now, if you’re thinking about taxis, Uber, or Lyft options, they are ten times more expensive, if not more.

However, since the trains stop running at around midnight, be prepared to spend the night away from home. Or be willing to spend the exorbitant amount for a taxi.

The Stuff Not Everyone Thinks About

Something else that people should keep in mind is the physical and emotional toll that using public transportation can have. Since the trains and buses are so easily accessible, almost everyone uses them. This then leads to the dreaded rush hour, especially in Tokyo.

Experiencing it is intense and the pictures that are on the internet are not exaggerations but daily occurrences. You are pressed up to complete strangers with absolutely no room to move. It is suffocating and you should avoid it at all costs if possible.

And that is at peak rush hour. Even surrounding that time during the work week, certain lines will remain crowded. If you’re claustrophobic, I would recommend doing more research into Tokyo busy times, just to not be caught off-guard.

Another thing to keep in mind besides involuntary intrusion of your personal space, are those on the train who will do so with malicious intent. In Japan, there is a widespread and serious issue with groping on public transportation. Chikan — perverts/gropers—are disturbingly common in Japan, particularly on the trains in Tokyo.

Often those who are targeted are high school girls in uniform (disgusting, I know). However, it is not uncommon for other women to be purposefully and inappropriately touched, if not more, on the trains. Concerning this, I don’t mean to frighten or discourage anyone from visiting or studying abroad in Japan. Yet it is definitely something that people, especially women, should be aware of when in the country.

Transportation in Japan can be very convenient. However, it can also be daunting and unfamiliar, especially if you are not used to big city life or are simply unacquainted with public transportation.

When traveling abroad to Japan, make sure to do thorough research on all modes of transportation and what to expect. Again, I do not wish to deter anyone from traveling to Japan due to any of the negatives I have mentioned. However, I do think it is important to give a more realistic outlook on what you may face. But if you keep these things in mind, you got this.

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Sam Schommer

Sam is an International Affairs student at Northern Arizona University. Currently, she is studying abroad in Tokyo, Japan at Waseda University for the duration of her third undergrad year. As an international affairs major, she feels it her duty to be up to date about culture (particularly memes), politics, and social issues both in her home and abroad. An Arizona native, Sam has lived in America her whole life and her year in Japan is the first time she has been out of the country more than a few days. To see what she’s been up to in Japan as well as some other interesting places, check out her Instagram and Twitter!


2 comments

  1. You are so on point with this! I experienced everything you mentioned (including that dreaded rush hour jam. Awful.) I only wish I’d put more research in when it came to fares and IC cards…Tokyo (nevermind that, Japan in general) is so expensive! If I knew then what I know now…

  2. If you are staying for a short period of time invest in a JR pass! They got me all around Japan and I was able to avoid the craziness in some places that were JR pass exclusive!

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