How to use the Tokyo Subway if you do not understand Japanese

Tokyo Subway travelersOn some of the big travel sites like Trip advisor I had read that the Tokyo subway was difficult to use if you don’t speak Japanese. But there is a logic to it if you take a moment.

Tokyo Subway signIt was the end of our trip, we were jet lagged and since we were on culture change overload we nearly did not even attempt it but I am pleased we did, as, if you read the map carefully, stop, think, and observe, you can negotiate the Tokyo subway lines quite easily.

The first thing you need to know is what the subway signs look like as in some cases the stairwell that takes you to a station can blend in to the cityscape. It sounds crazy but we did manage to walk past one station twice before we spotted a small doorway between the shops leading to some stairs.

Tokyo Subway stationThis is a well signposted station for English speaking people. As you can see it has a set of escalators. Unlike many other subway systems where you have a recognisable station, it is easy to walk past these. The signage is easily seen from across the road but if you are under that sign, dazed and watching all the activity that is Tokyo, believe it or not it is easy to miss it! One clue however, is those yellow lines on the pavement and in the station.

Tokyo subway mapHaving located a station, the next task is to read the map. Just remember that the thick coloured lines are the Tokyo Subway system. The thin lines are private lines and you will need to top up your fare if you use them. We only used the Tokyo Subway as it was all we required to get to where we needed to go. It is all done with colours, letters and numbers.

Like most subway systems the train lines on the system are each a different colour. The station junctions are a square or rectangle – and each has a number as well as a name.

Tokyo Subway mapStations are marked with a letter and a number. The letter stands for the subway line. So for instance the letter G stands for the Ginza Line, the letter H stands for the Hibiya Line. The only tricky ones are the letter Z standing for the Hanzomon Line, the letter E standing for Oedo, and the letter I standing for Mita. The number stands for the train station.

Tokyo Subway map keyThere is a clear key to the map in the bottom right corner.

Tokyo Subway ticket map Working out your fare can be tricky. Once in a station look near or around the ticket machines for a map that illustrates the fares you need pay. The station you are at is marked in red and says “This Sta”. As the train stops move away from the station you can see the fare prices increase. Choosing your destination is not hard as you can see both Japanese and English place names are on the map. You find the point you want to depart your train and that is the ticket fare. If you are travelling as a family the Adult prices are in black and red prices are for children.

Tokyo Subway ticket machineNext you need to buy a ticket. Some ticket machines offer an English option. Some we encountered did not. The buttons on the left side have clearly marked ticket options. So you select the price of the ticket on the screen.

Tokyo Subway ticket machineFrom the left hand side panel choose the number of people traveling, in our case it was 2 adults that wanted a ticket. We actually memorised the buttons we had to push as we did occasionally encounter machines with no English options.

Tokyo Subway ticket machineNext follow the arrows to the train that will take you in the right direction. Usually the side of the platform you need to stand on are clearly marked.

Tips for while you are in the train.
If you try and read the train station stops and you have no Japanese you will quickly lose confidence. Train stations do have the english equivalent in small letters underneath but reading travellers stories I think people get so dazed that they don’t see them. I did not attempt to read the English place name particularly when one place name can sound similar to another to my ear. I found it just lead me to confusion. Instead I counted the stops. In most trains stations the numbers are clearly seen but there is always the odd station where they are not. So keep it simple and count the stops as you go. Most have the name in Japanese, and an English version underneath in smaller letters, as well as a number. When looking from the train, the letter + number are set in large font, with a smaller letter/number on either side – this indicates the direction of travel so you know very quickly if you are going the right direction.

Tokyo Subway signageWe did not travel in peak hour but I really can’t see why so many people report finding this system confusing as with a bit of thought and attention to your surroundings it is an easy, cheap and interesting way to travel around Tokyo.

I hope people who are thinking of visiting Tokyo find this article useful.