Tokyo’s public transportation system may be gargantuan and labyrinthine, but it’s also efficient, punctual and perfectly maintained. Here is a quick overview: the Tokyoites distinguish the “train” (above-ground trains) and the “metro” (underground trains). Most of the aboveground trains in central Tokyo are operated by JR (which you can use with your JR Rail Pass, if you have one). The metro system, which also operates mainly in central Tokyo, has two main operators: Tokyo Metro and Toei Metro. Then there are different private train lines that cross the Greater Tokyo area.
It may sound complicated enough, but the system works as a seamless whole. In fact, you can access it with just one card!
1. Bullet Trains
Shinkansen is a very quick and easy way to get from Tokyo to other parts of Japan. You can be in Kyoto in less than three hours and even return the same day if you wish. If you’re going to be doing a lot of domestic travel, buying a Japan Rail Pass is probably a good idea. Do you prefer a single ticket? You can easily book shinkansen tickets for the most popular routes online.
2. Trains & Subways
For the uninitiated, the Tokyo train and subway system can seem incredibly complicated. There are two different metro operators (Tokyo Metro and Toei) as well as a large railway company (JR) and a multitude of private line operators. In general, these are inexpensive compared to other big cities. In terms of savings, the less you change between different operators on the same route, the cheaper your trip will be.
If you are staying more than 24 hours, the best idea is to buy a Suica / Pasmo IC card. These are credit card size cards that you charge with credit and can be used on all lines and work all over Japan. This will save you so much hassle that you won’t have to think about which ticket to buy. You can even use them to pay for items from a vending machine and in some stores! Some of the discounted tickets available for Tokyo are a good deal, but read this guide to find out which ones should be avoided (some are only usable on one metro company, making them practically useless).
The easiest way to buy a Suica card is to go to the JR ticket office at a train station – perhaps get one at Narita or Haneda as soon as you arrive. After using the initial credit, you can top it up using any machine in stations – just press the English button to start. And if you’re a cheap one, don’t forget to return them when you leave to collect the 500 yen deposit.
For journeys inside the city, the bus system can be useful for making journeys that the metro does not manage well – like Roppongi in Shinbashi. The rates are inexpensive and you can use Pasmo / Suica contactless payment cards. However, determining which bus goes where and where you should get off is a difficult task. We recommend that you ask a local and tell the driver where you want to go. For long distance trips from Tokyo, road buses are almost always the cheapest (and least comfortable) option.
Taxis have a flag drop of 710 yen, so even if you catch one over 100m, that’s how much it will cost. Once your trip reaches the 710 yen threshold, the numbers on the counter start to spin like fruit on a one-armed bandit. In general, taxis are only a good deal if there are four of you. They can however be useful (and your only choice) if you are stuck after the last train or if you have too much luggage that you prefer not to take on public transport.