Fully Explained: The ever confusing metro systems of Japan

The subway systems of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto were mindblowing. Where I’m from (Toronto), our metro system is hated by all, and operated by a government agency called TTC.

Image result for ttc subwayThe Toronto subway system. It’s 2 lines with 2 tails that aren’t really lines…Emergency stops and trains breaking down all the time.

20170223_181708.jpgContrast that with the subway map of Tokyo. A maze.

The Japanese metro systems are a mish-mesh of lines run by different railyway companies and municipal transit agencies. The lines run by these individual companies have their own fare pricing, ticket machines, and entrance/exits. It sounds like chaos, but it’s the most well-oiled system I have been on, on par with my experience in Germany.

Regardless of which company was running the stations, they were all very clean, well-staffed, on-time, and tourist friendly.

20170227_080543.jpg Stand behind the yellow line.

Thankfully, all subway stations and trains in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto had ceiling/wall signs in English. Not always, but it also had Korean and Chinese. The staff also speak enough English to help you out.

However, not all ticket vending machines have English service programmed into them. In that case, you’ll have to ask the staff or consult Google Maps.

20170227_081213.jpgThe screens on all the trains provide Japanese and English service like the above, so just be alert and there’s no reason for you to miss your stop.

You pay by the distance, and there will be several denominations of ticket prices (170 yen, 230 yen, etc.) for you to choose from on the fare machines, depending on how far you ride. This is a very fair and efficient system, but of course, it’s very tricky for tourists. The denominations of ticket prices will also differ based on the line. Some lines have tickets starting from 130 yen, some start from 170 yen, etc.

If you switch companies/transfer from, let’s say, a JR line to a municipal line, you’ll have to exit the JR line and purchase a new ticket and enter through the municipal line entry machines. Most of the times, you can transfer lines easily by following the signs in the underground walkway, but sometimes, you have to get out of the station entirely, cross the street on ground level, and enter another building.

Do not throw out your ticket. When you put it through the entry machine, it will spit it back out the other end of the machine. Grab it, hold it close to you, because you will need to put it in a machine again when you exit. Otherwise, the jaws of life will clamp on you and block you from getting out. Only when the machine takes your ticket and doesn’t spit it back out, you know you’ve reached the end of your trip (assuming you paid the right amount of fare in the beginning, when you first bought the ticket. Sheesh).

Should it happen that you paid too little and the exit machine won’t let you exit, you can correct yourself at a Fare Adjustment machine that is always situated at the exits.

20170312_135232.jpgBought a 170 yen ticket when you should have bought a 220 yen ticket, and can’t get out? No worries. Head to the Fare Adjustment machine, insert your ticket, and put in the amount of money that the machine asks for, which is the amount you were short for; there is no penalty fee or anything tricky like that. It will spit out a ticket and you can now exit legally and proudly.

If you buy a ticket from the wrong company, for example, you wanted to buy a ticket for the Toei line but accidentally bought a JR line ticket (The machines look very similar!), you can easily get a refund from the personnel stationed at the gates. They’re very used to tourists making these kind of mistakes.

Ticket machines don’t all work the same, and are different by companies. The machines are all touch-screen, but some don’t let you select any button until you put the money in first, like what I first experienced in Osaka. Other machines make you pick on the screen first, and then prompt you to pay. Some machines have English service. Some let you search by the station name or number, and tell you how much you need to pay (like in Tokyo), but some just expect you to know how much you gotta pay to go where you want to go. Some machines are dedicated to recharging IC cards, and you cannot buy one-time fares from them.

In short, it was very confusing.

So how did I figure it all out and successfully navigate all over the cities in my 30 days? Google Maps. Buy him dinner. Give him a massage. Take him out to a movie. He is your best friend.

Screenshot_2017-03-22-08-21-22.png In this case, you are changing lines, but both lines are run by the JR company.  Google Maps tells you which company runs which line. It matters what company the lines are run by, because they have separate ticket vending machines. You cannot get through the a non-JR line entry machine with a JR ticket. I tried to pick routes where I don’t have to change companies, but it is sometimes unavoidable.

Screenshot_2017-03-09-21-42-10.png It can also tell you all the names of the stations that you’ll be passing. When it says “Ride 8 stops”, it means you are getting off at the 8th station from where you got on.

But even the fantastic Google Maps has some limitations.

Screenshot_2017-03-22-08-21-31.png Notice the total cost of 660 yen at the bottom-left of the screenshot. Google Maps will tell you the total cost of your trip, with no price breakdown per ticket. If you need to buy two tickets to get somewhere, it will not tell you the separate prices of those tickets. In those cases, I changed the destinations in Maps to break the trip down into smaller trips so that I could get the price of each ticket. Or you could just ask an actual person who works at the station…that’d be good too.

20170315_095515.jpgGoogle Maps will always assume that you are taking the Limited Express train whenever possible. The circles represent a stop. As you can see, a Local train (black) stops at all stops. The Limited Express (red) stop only at major stations. The pink one (Rapid Limited; RAKU RAKU) stops at even less stops than the Limited Exp further down this map, and I believe it requires a separate, more expensive ticket. Never had to use that one. 

In Kyoto, it was very common to have different types of express/non-express trains. As long as you pay attention to the signs on the ceiling and on the trains, you’ll know which one you’re getting on. If you take a Local train (black, in the photo above), you may stop at 7 stations and take 8 minutes, as opposed to if you take the Rapid Express (red) and only stop at two stations. Google Maps will assume you are taking the Rapid Express, and tell you “2 stops, 4 minutes”.

Note that there may be special discount fares for tourists, and weekly/monthly passes, but I was moving around so much that it wouldn’t have saved me much money and would have just given me a headache. For that, you’ll need to do research.

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One thought on “Fully Explained: The ever confusing metro systems of Japan

  1. Pingback: Fully Explained:How to ride the Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train) | Travel and Food Blog

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