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.

Tokyo Skyline – Dealing with time travel

The interesting thing about hurling your body from one side of the planet to the other is that your body clock gets out of synch with the solar day. From France to Tokyo is about a 12 hour flight, but it is also about ten hours further around the globe. Novelist William Gibson referred to jet lag as waiting for your soul to catch up. And it can feel like that!

So how do you deal with it? Well, there are the practical things like ‘drink lots of water’ or ‘stay awake until dark’ – which is generally good advice. And I do all those things and usually adjust within a couple of days. In the meantime you have a wonderful opportunity to take photos that no-one else is awake for.

If your body is ten hours out, you will be quite nocturnal for a while. And let’s face it, late night TV is pretty boring – especially if you can’t understand a word of it. So you look out the window.

In our case, we were on the 16th floor of a hotel and had a great view over the city. This is a great opportunity to take a time series around the day-night cycle. And it goes like this:

First, you’ve unpacked, found some green tea or milk for your coffee, and it’s now late-ish afternoon.

Tokyo afternoon

Tokyo afternoon

Then you have some dinner and lie down exhausted at sun down. By now you are talking gibberish and – in the case of Tokyo – struggling to comprehend the fast array of controls that operate the loo. By 8.pm you are asleep.

You wake at 1.00AM and your body is refreshed and ready for the…um… day. Even in Tokyo the shops are closed. It’s time for a glass of water – while the light streams in the window from the myriad lights stretching off to the horizon. Time to grab the camera.

Tokyo night

Tokyo night

Don’t forget the circular polarising filter – otherwise you will take great shots of your room reflected in the window. The filter won’t get rid of all reflections, but it will enable you to reduce them. Turn off the room lights – all of them if possible, after setting up your tripod and attaching the remote trigger – now you can do some long exposures and really pull out some detail from that amazing skyline.

Tokyo blimp

Tokyo blimp

Then you lie down again hoping to sleep some more.

Around 4.00AM you are wide awake again. Don’t waste it – grab the camera and check out the pre-dawn light. Now that makes it all worthwhile!

Tokyo dawn

Tokyo dawn

By 6.00AM you are ready to see the city come alive – take the camera and step outside for those big city, deserted streets shots. And the street sweepers, and the setting up of the market stalls and… the possibilities are endless. I’ll do another post on street photography soon 🙂

How do you deal with jet lag? Let me know in the comments 🙂


A visit to the Zojoji Temple Tokyo

Zojoji Temple Jizo statuesOur visit to the Zojoji Temple left me with one of my most lasting impressions of Tokyo. To be honest, it was not the temple itself that moved me – despite the beautiful peaceful gardens – so much as the serene rows of little statues each standing with a peaceful expression.

Zojoji Temple Jizo statues TokyoThe Jizo statues each held a toy wind mill and were dressed with a red crocheted baby cap. These statues are said to protect and calm the souls of stillborn infants.

Zojoji Temple Jizo statuesThey are like the Buddhist equivalent of an angel that watches over the child’s soul.

Zojoji Temple Jizo statuesIn Japan there is a ceremony for those who have had a miscarriage or still born child.

Zojoji TempleEven though the Zojoji temple was badly damaged in World War II and was reconstructed in its original style in 1974 it is well worth visiting because it is a living Temple. People still worship and leave prayers written on strips of paper.

Zojoji TempleTo be honest, seeing these handwritten prayers beside the little Jizo statues – one for an Australian child – brought tears to my eyes and I had to leave and calm my emotions in the gardens. Jerry was subdued too, and he mentioned a friend who had recently experienced this.

The Zojoji Temple is a place that impressed me greatly so I thought I would share this and Jerry’s photographs with our readers.


Silbury Hill, Wiltshire

Silbury Hill stands out in the landscape like nothing else. The largest man-made mound in Europe, we encountered it as we left Avebury. You couldn’t miss it. That it was made around 2500BC is doubly impressive. It was dated by the broken antler picks left behind by its builders – that means it was built around the same time as Egypt’s pyramids. And to this day it remains a mystery.

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill

It stopped me in my tracks so that despite the rain I just had to stop and grab a photo. One thing I found remarkable is that although I was probably close to a mile away (1.6km) on a road leading over an adjacent hill I saw an indent near the top which suggested that a previous top – now a terrace-like feature – would have placed the hill top at that time in direct line with the horizon line from where I was standing. That is some serious engineering and surveying!

It was long assumed to be a larger version of the burial barrows in the district – but no burial chamber has been found despite three tunnels being dug through its centre.

  • The first tunnel was built in 1776 by a team of miners hired by the Duke of Northumberland and Colonel Drax. They sank a shaft from the top of the hill.
  • Then came an Archeological Institute dig arranged by Dean Mereweather in 1849. This tunnel went in from the side.
  • And finally, in 1968 the BBC and Cardiff University dug another tunnel close to the second one.

Assuming it was a burial chamber for a great chief, they were each chasing treasure – hopefully on an impressive scale. But to date none has been found.

What has been discovered is how it was built. First a layer of gravel covered in soil and surrounded by a ditch. The hill was raised several times, with each successive phase filling in the ditch and recutting in around the new base.

Today the base covers more than two hectares – 5 acres – and as the hill was enlarged, the soil was stabilised with sarsen boulders from the district incorporated into the soil.

Unfortunately, there is no public access to the site as it is unstable – in 2000 a portion collapsed into the first tunnel which had not been properly filled in.

But as a triumph of human ingenuity and tenacity to build something greater than themselves, the Silbury Hill is an impressive piece of work.