The Tokyo subway and train system is massive; as someone who could not read/write/speak Japanese, I found its a little daunting at first. However, with the following three techniques, I quickly found it very easy to get around.
1) Print out this PDF of the subway map on a *color* printer. Or download the official Tokyo Metro Android app. If you plan to travel by train outside Tokyo, I found this app really helpful.
Carry it always! I found it invaluable when lost, asking for directions, or even just trying to confirm if I was on the correct train going the right direction. When language barriers get in the way, pointing politely to a printout map does wonders!
2) Learn the codes for your planned route.
On the subway map, each route has a different color. Also, each station has a name in Kanji, a name in ASCII, and a letter-plus-two-digit code. For example, in the bottom left corner of the map, you can see the station “Nishi-magome” is on the red “Asakusa” line, and has the code “A01”. To be precise, its really one code per line per station, so some bigger stations have multiple codes: for example, Shibuya has three subway lines, so the same one station is called “Z01”, “F16” and “G01”, depending on which subway line you are using.
These letter-plus-two-digit codes are clearly posted in every station, and on all maps. I found these codes much easier to remember then the real Japanese names of the stations, so these codes became essential for me to quickly figure out if I had missed my stop, if we were now arriving at my station, or if I was on train going the wrong way.
- from my hotel to the Mozilla office: go from “Z01” to “Z05”.
- from my hotel to Hombu Aikido dojo: go from “F16” to “F12”, change platforms to the “E” platform, where the same station is now called “E02” and take train to “E03”.
- from my hotel to Akihabara “Electronics town”: go from “G01” to “G09”, change platforms, and then go from “H08” to “H15”.
3) Get a commuter ticket.
This lets you avoid the hassle of buying tickets at crowded ticket machines, and having to figure out exact fares on each subway trip. If you are in Tokyo more then a day or two, its well worth it for convenience alone!
There’s two big brands of commuter tickets: “Suica” and “Passmo”. Within Tokyo, either can be used on any subway. I’ve been told they both also work on buses, and can even be used in some shops like a debit card also. If you are going outside of Tokyo, “Suica” can also be used on trains in some other cities, check for details here.
- You can buy Suica or Passmo cards at any train station. Official train company offices seem to want some simple paperwork filled in. Instead I bought my Suica card at a newspaper stand on the west side of Shibuya station. Prices are all the same.
- when entering the subway, wave the card over the sensor in the turnstile as you enter. (This works even if your card is in a wallet/handbag!) As you walk though, the display on the far end of the turnstile shows you how much credit you have left.
- when exiting the subway, wave the card over the sensor in the turnstile. As you walk though, the display at the far end of the turnstile shows you how much the fare was for your trip, and how much credit you have left.
- to recharge your card, look for a ticket machine with the Suica or Passmo logo, press the “english” button on the top-right corner of the display, then just follow the prompts.
- more details, and photos here.
4) Note carefully which station entrance and exit you need.
I never really thought of this before Tokyo, but the train stations are huge – multiple city blocks. If you come out the wrong exit without paying attention, you can be very lost, and very far from where you were going. In frustration, I’d find myself walking back to the station, reentering, and then walking around inside the station until I found the correct exit. Save yourself this headache by looking for the name of the exit before you start your journey.
5) Note carefully the platform marking, and follow those instructions.
The overhead signs were bewildering to me. However, the color coded markings on the tile floors were really helpful. Follow what others are doing, stand in the right color coded platform area, and you will be perfectly located when the next incoming train stops and opens its doors. Every time. Yes, really.
With a map, a memorized series of station-codes and a commuter card, I found getting around Tokyo on the metro super easy and super efficient.
(UPDATED to add references to the new Tokyo Metro official android app and the Hitachi national rail app. joduinn 25mar2015. Fixed broken links 10apr2018)