Tokyo Metro: The Complete Guide

Untangling Tokyo's twisted subway system

Metro train traveling on the elevated rails of Yurikamome Line

AaronChenPs / Getty Images

The world's busiest underground transportation system, Tokyo's metro network facilitates 8.7 million rides per day on 13 lines of two operators: Tokyo Metro and the Toei Subway. If you've never been to Tokyo (or have navigated to this article during your first trip there), the map of this system can seem confusing, appearing to be little more than a mess of twisted spaghetti. However, riding the Tokyo metro (not to mention, the rest of the city's extensive rail system) isn't difficult at all.

How to Ride the Tokyo Metro

Keep these basic facts in mind to ensure that you can ride the Tokyo Metro as harmoniously as Tokyo's tens of millions of residents do.

  • Fares: Rides on both the Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway (which are two separate systems, but share a common design language, which makes the system to which most stations belong indistinguishable) cost between 170-310 yen for a one-way ticket, while a one-day pass costs 600 yen. Importantly, the Japan Rail Pass does not cover travel on either the Tokyo Metro or the Toei Subway.
  • How to Pay: Cash is the only way to buy a one-way ticket from a machine. However, if you have an iPhone with NFC technology that has its "region" set to Japan, you can enter both the Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway using ApplePay. If you have a Pasmo or Suica stored-value card, you can use a credit card to refill these, though many machines only accept cards issued in Japan for payment.
  • Routes and Hours: The Tokyo Metro has 9 lines, while 4 lines operate under the management of the Toei Subway corporation. Although the majority of Tokyo's underground rail lines operate within the city's central wards, many subway lines extend out into the suburban and even rural prefectures surrounding Tokyo. In spite of Tokyo's reputation as a 24-hour city, rail service only operates between approximately 5 a.m. and midnight.
  • Service Alerts: Download the official Tokyo Subway Navigation application from the AppStore or Google Play.
  • Transfers: Generally speaking, free transfers are only available for journeys that stay within either the Tokyo Metro or Toei Subway systems, though Pasmo, Suica and ApplePay users can transit seamlessly using their electronic payment devices. If you're paying with cash, with very few exceptions, you will need to purchase two separate tickets if you journey involves travel in both the Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway systems.
  • Accessibility: Tokyo's metro system is one of the most accessible in the world, a fact that largely owes to Japan's rapidly aging population. Every station is accessible via elevators, and both station staff and local residents are more than happy to make way for disabled passengers, even during rush hour.

Notable Tokyo Metro Stations

Certain Tokyo metro stations are more ubiquitous or worthy of noting, for a variety of reasons. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Ginza: Located beneath one of central Tokyo's most upmarket commercial and cultural districts, this transit hub accommodates passengers of the Ginza, Hibiya and Maranouchi lines.
  • Otemachi: At Otemachi station, meanwhile, four lines interchange, making this station in central Tokyo's Chiyoda ward the city's most important underground transit station. Specifically, you can transfer between the Chiyoda, Hanzomon, Maranouchi and Tozai Lines at Otemachi.
  • Kokkai Gijidō-mae Tameike-Sannō: Four Tokyo Metro lines also intersect beneath this station: Chiyoda, Ginza, Maranouchi and Namboku.
  • Nagatacho: An essential station for accessing Japanese government buildings, including the National Diet, Nagatacho is also an infamous station. A transit point for the Hanzomon, Namboku and Yurakucho lines, it was one of the stations targeted during the 1995 Sarin gas attacks.
  • Shinjuku: Although Shinjuku Railway Station is one of the busiest in the world, the "Shinjuku" station of the Tokyo Metro serves just one line, the Maranouchi Line. If you plan to spend time in Shinjuku while in Tokyo (which is likely) keep in mind that you might end up accessing the district via other stations, such as Shinjuku-Sanchome, which is served by both the Fukutoshin and Maranouchi Lines.

Other Tokyo Public Transit

Did you know that in spite of how busy Tokyo's metro system is, only 22% of rail journeys in Tokyo take place on the Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway? This is because literally dozens of other train lines run through central Tokyo. These are largely operated by Japan Railways (aka JR, which is also the operator of Japan's Shinkansen "bullet" trains) but also by private operators like Tobu, which runs service from Asakusa to the popular tourist destination of Nikko, and the driverless Yurikamome train.

Although your JR Pass isn't good for travel on the Tokyo Metro or Toei Subway, you can use funds from your Pasmo or Suica to travel on the JR Lines, assuming you don't plan to use a JR Pass. You can also use your Pasmo or Suica to access Tokyo's many bus lines, and the various rail services to Haneda Airport (the closest one to Tokyo's city center). Notably, if you wish to travel to Narita Airport, which sits far to the east of downtown Tokyo in Chiba prefecture, you will need to purchase a reserved seat on either the Narita Express or Keisei Skylinen.

Taxis and Ride Sharing Apps

Taxis in Tokyo are extremely expensive, whether you hail a ride one of the city's white-gloved taxi drivers, or use an application like Uber or the homegrown Japan Taxi. With rates that start at 730 yen for the first kilometer and 80-90 yen for each 300 meters thereafter, it's easy to see how cost can add up.

Taxi drivers in Tokyo don't speak much English, though they should be knowledgeable about major tourist destinations and hotels. Additionally, one of the benefits of the high price you pay to use taxis in Tokyo is their incredible safety and reliability.

Notably, Tokyo is the only city in Japan where the Uber application works, although rates are essentially identical to what you'd pay hailing a cab. On the other hand, there is one benefit to taking Uber: Doing so allows you to pay by credit card, which often isn't possible in taxis in cash-centric Japan, in Tokyo and otherwise.

Renting a Car in Tokyo

Driving is wholly unnecessary in the center of Tokyo, both due to the traffic that plagues the city for most of each day, as well as the various tolls and tariffs necessary for driving in the Tokyo city center. However, if you do happen to rent a car in Japan (likely for traveling in the larger Kanto region around Tokyo, or elsewhere in the country entirely), there are a few things you should keep in mind.

Documentation wise, you absolutely must carry an International Driving Permit (IDP) to drive in Japan — your US driver's license won't work on its own, unless of course you also hold a Japanese one. You can apply for an IDP at your local AAA office; you must do this before you depart for Japan. Other practical things to note are that the Japanese drive on the left side of the road; fuel is also relatively expensive, at a local equivalent of about $4.24 per gallon as of April 2019.

Japanese people are extremely law-abiding, which means that it's difficult to exceed speed limits (which tend to be set rather low — less than 50 kph in cities and often around 70-80 kph on highways), even if you're inclined to do so. Additionally, even some of Japan's busiest expressways only have one lane on each side, which makes passing difficult to impossible.

Tips for Getting Around Tokyo

Regardless of whether you take the Tokyo Metro, Toei Subway, JR Lines or any of the other transportation options listed here, these general tips for getting around Tokyo will serve you well:

  • Tokyo's center is flat and walkable. Presuming you don't need to go from one Tokyo ward to another (more on that in a second), walking in the city is pretty easy, due to how flat it is. For example, the Tokyo Imperial Palace is a pleasant 15-minute stroll from Tokyo Station of the Maranouchi Line, which makes walking a preferable alternative to transferring to a bus or another subway line.
  • Tokyo is a city of neighborhoods. Rather than consisting of one "downtown" surrounded by suburbs and exurbs, Tokyo is several small (well huge, by American standards) cities next to one another. In general, while neighborhoods like Shinjuku, Shibuya, Asakusa and Ginza are walkable within their district borders, you'll want to ride the Tokyo Metro or Toei Subway to travel between the city's wards.
  • Taxis aren't cheap — but are sometimes the only option. As noted earlier, taxis are very expensive in Tokyo, with prices that can easily exceed 2,000-3,000 yen for journeys that last only a minutes. Unfortunately, since Tokyo's underground lies dormant between midnight and 5 a.m., a taxi is usually the only option for a night owl (or salaryman who has to work late!)
  • Transport staff can usually speak basic English. And those who can't will usually go out of their way to help you. Most of the English names of stations and attractions are identical to how they're called in Japanese, so if your pronunciation is close, you shouldn't have any problems.
  • The Tokyo Metro is ground zero of Japan's #MeToo moment. Several years ago, there was a scandal in the Tokyo underground, whereby businessman discreetly snapped "up-skirt" pictures of unsuspecting women commuters. As a result, the first and last cars of Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway trains are "women only" during peak hours.

Tokyo Metro is the world's busiest, but it's surprisingly easy to use. Local schoolchildren, after all, ride both the Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway alone — it obviously can't be that difficult! As far as how to spend your time in Tokyo, once you've gotten the metro figured out? Make sure to check out this guide to the top things to do in Tokyo, which is as useful for making sense of Tokyo as a whole as the post you've just read is for understanding its transport.