Your most frustrating moments in Tokyo will probably occur when you find you're totally lost. Maybe it will be in a subway or train station, where all you see are signs in Japanese, or on a street somewhere as you search for a museum, restaurant, or bar. At any rate, accept here and now that you will get lost if you are at all adventurous and eager to strike out on your own. It's inevitable. But take comfort in the fact that Japanese get lost, too -- even taxi drivers!
Another rule of getting around Tokyo: It will always take longer than you think. For short-term visitors, calculating travel times in Tokyo is tricky business. Taking a taxi is expensive and involves the probability of getting stuck interminably in traffic, with the meter ticking away. Taking the subway is usually more efficient, even though it's more complicated and harder on your feet: Choosing which route to take isn't always clear, and transfers between lines are sometimes quite a hike in themselves. If I'm going from one end of Tokyo to the other by subway, I usually allow myself anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, depending on the number of transfers and the walking distance to my final destination. The journey from Roppongi or Shibuya to Ueno, for example, takes approximately a half-hour because it's a straight shot on the subway, but a trip requiring transfers can take much longer. Traveling times to destinations along each line are posted on platform pillars, along with diagrams showing which train compartments are best for making quick transfers between lines.
Your best bet for getting around Tokyo is to take the subway or Japan Railways (JR) commuter train to the station nearest your destination. From there you can either walk, using a map and asking directions along the way, or take a taxi.
For all hotels, ryokan, restaurants, sights, shops, and nightlife venues listed in this guide, I've included both the nearest station and, in parentheses, the number of minutes' walk required to get from the station to the destination.
Taxis are shamefully expensive in Tokyo. Fares start at ¥710 for the first 2km (1 1/4 miles) and increase ¥90 for each additional 288m (950 ft.) or 40 seconds of waiting time. There are also smaller, more compact taxis for a maximum of four persons that charge slightly less, but they are fewer in number. Fares are posted on the back of the front passenger seat. If you're like me, you probably won't shop around -- you'll gratefully jump into the first taxi that stops. Note that from 10pm to 5am, an extra 30% is added to your fare. Perhaps as an admission of how expensive taxis are, fares can also be paid by all major credit cards (though some companies require a minimum fare of ¥5,000).
With the exception of some major thoroughfares in the downtown area, you can hail a taxi from any street or go to a taxi stand or a major hotel. A red light above the dashboard shows if a taxi is free to pick up a passenger; a yellow light indicates that the taxi is occupied. Be sure to stand clear of the back left door -- it swings open automatically. Likewise, it shuts automatically once you're in. Taxi drivers are quite perturbed if you try to maneuver the door yourself. The law requires that back-seat passengers wear seat belts.
Unless you're going to a well-known landmark or hotel, it's best to have your destination written out in Japanese, since most taxi drivers don't speak English. But even that may not help. Tokyo is so complicated that taxi drivers may not know a certain area, although many now have navigation systems. If a driver doesn't understand where you're going, he may refuse to take you.
There are so many taxis cruising Tokyo that you can hail one easily on most thoroughfares -- except when you need it most: when it's raining, or just after 1am on weekends, after all subways and trains have stopped. To call a major taxi company for a pickup, try Nihon Kotsu (tel. 03/5755-2336) for an English-speaking operator, or Kokusai (tel. 03/3505-6001; Japanese only). Note, however, that you'll be required to pay extra (usually not more than ¥400) for an immediate pickup. I have rarely telephoned for a taxi -- as in the movies, one usually cruises by just when I raise my hand.
By Public Transportation
Each mode of transportation in Tokyo -- subway (with two different companies), JR train (like the Yamanote Line), and bus -- has its own fare system and therefore requires a new ticket each time you transfer from one mode of transport to another. If you're going to be in Tokyo for a few days, it's much more convenient to purchase a Suica, a contactless prepaid card issued by JR East that automatically deducts fares and can be used on virtually all modes of transportation, including JR trains, private railways (such as the Rinkai Line to Odaiba or Minato Mirai Line to Yokohama), subways, and buses in the greater Tokyo area (including trips to Kamakura). It can even be used for purchases at designated vending machines, convenience stores, and fast-food outlets that display the Suica sign. First-time buyers must purchase the Suica from vending machines for ¥2,000, which includes a ¥500 deposit. The Suica is rechargeable, at amounts ranging from ¥1,000 to ¥10,000. Note, however, that when you return your Suica to get your deposit back, be sure that the card is depleted, or you'll be charged a ¥210 handling fee for any remaining stored balance on the card. A similar card to the Suica is the Pasmo, which can also be used on various modes of transportation throughout Tokyo. Although there are other options available, including 1-day cards and Metro-only cards, the Suica is by far my favorite. If you're going to be in Tokyo at least 3 days, it will save you a lot of time that you'll otherwise spend trying to figure out your fare.
That being said, if you think you're going to be traveling a lot by public transportation on any given day, consider purchasing a Tokyo Free Kippu (Tokyo Round Tour Ticket), which, despite its name, costs ¥1,580, but does allow unlimited travel for 1 day on all Metro subways, JR trains, and Toei buses within Tokyo's 23 wards. It's available at all JR stations with a Midori-no-madoguchi (Reservation Ticket Office) or View Plaza (Travel Service Center), and most Metro subway stations.
Tips on Traveling by Train or Subway -- Avoid taking the subway or JR train during the weekday morning rush hour, from 8 to 9am -- the stories you've heard about commuters packed into trains like sardines are all true. There are even "platform pushers," men who push people into compartments so that the doors can close. If you want to witness Tokyo at its craziest, go to Shinjuku Station at 8:30am -- but go by taxi unless you want to experience the crowding firsthand. Most lines provide women-only compartments weekdays until 9:30am.
Another thing you'll want to keep in mind are station exits, which are always numbered. Upon alighting from the subway onto the platform, look for the yellow signboards designating which exit to take for major buildings, museums, and addresses. If you're confused about which exit to take, ask someone at the window near the ticket gate. Taking the right exit can make a world of difference, especially in Shinjuku, where there are more than 60 station exits.
Please note that all cellphones should be switched to silent mode (called manner mode in Japanese) on public conveyances.
To get around Tokyo on your own, it's imperative that you learn how to ride its subways. Fortunately, the Tokyo Metro system (which uses a symbol "M" vaguely reminiscent of McDonald's famous arches) is efficient, modern, clean, and easy to use; in fact, I think it's one of the most user-friendly systems on the planet. All station names are written in English. Many cars also display the next station in English on digital signs above their doors and announce stops in English. Altogether, there are 13 underground subway lines crisscrossing the city, operated by two companies: Tokyo Metro (the bigger of the two) and Toei (which operates four lines, including the Oedo Line). Each line is color-coded. The Ginza Line, for example, is orange, which means that all its trains and signs are orange. If you're transferring to the Ginza Line from another line, follow the orange signs and circles to the Ginza Line platform. Each line is also assigned a letter (usually its initial), so that the Ginza has the letter "G" and Hibiya the letter "H." Additionally, each station along each line is assigned a number in chronological order beginning with the first station (Asakusa Station, for example, is G19, the 19th stop from Shibuya on the Ginza Line), so you always know how many stops to your destination. Before boarding, however, make sure the train is going in the right direction -- signs on the platform of each station show both the previous and the next stop, so you can double-check you're heading in the right direction. Tokyo's newest line, Toei's Oedo Line, makes a zigzag loop around the city and is useful for traveling between Roppongi and Shinjuku; be aware, however, that it's buried deep underground and that platforms take a while to reach, despite escalators.
Whereas it used to be a matter of skill to know exactly which train compartment to board if making transfers down the line, diagrams at each station (usually on a pillar at the entrance to each platform) show which end of the train and compartment is most useful for connections. There are also signs that show exactly how many minutes it takes to reach every destination on that line.
Tickets -- Vending machines at all subway stations sell tickets, which begin at ¥160 for the shortest distance and increase according to the distance you travel. Children 6 to 11 pay half-fare; children 5 and under ride free. Vending machines give change, even for a ¥10,000 note. To purchase your ticket, insert money into the vending machine until the fare buttons light up, and then push the amount for the ticket you want. Your ticket and change will be deposited at the bottom of the machine.
Before purchasing your ticket, you first have to figure out your fare. Fares are posted on a large subway map above the vending machines, but they're often in Japanese; most stations also post a smaller map or table listing fares in English, but you may have to search for it. An alternative is to look at the subway map contained in the "Tourist Map of Tokyo," issued by the Tourist Information Center -- it lists stations in both Japanese and English. Once you know what the Japanese characters look like, you may be able to locate your station and its corresponding fare. If you still don't know the fare, ask a station attendant, or buy the cheapest ticket for ¥160. When you reach your destination, look for the fare adjustment machine just before the exit wicket; insert your ticket to find out how much more you owe, or go to the exit, where a subway employee will tell you how much you owe. In any case, be sure to hang on to your ticket, since you must give it up at the exit wicket at the end of your journey.
Because buying individual tickets is a hassle (and vending machines are unfortunately not as user-friendly as the subway system is), I suggest buying either a Suica or Pasmo card . There are also One-Day Open Tickets for unlimited 1-day rides on subways. The ¥710 1-day ticket (¥600 if you buy it at Narita Airport) is for use on Tokyo Metro lines (including the Ginza, Hibiya, Marunouchi, and Chiyoda lines), while the ¥1,000 1-day ticket can be used on all subway lines of both the Metro and Toei companies. These are sold at vending machines and are inserted into the ticket gate at the entrance to the platform, just like a regular ticket, except this time you'll retrieve it when you reach your destination.
Hours -- Most subways run from about 5am to midnight, although the times of the first and last trains depend on the line, the station, and whether it's a weekday or weekend. Schedules are posted in the stations, but most days, trains arrive every 3 to 5 minutes.
For more information on tickets, passes, and lines for the subway, as well as a detailed subway map and brochure, stop by Metro Information desks located at Ginza, Shinjuku, Omotesando, and other major stations in Tokyo. Or check the website www.tokyometro.jp/global.en. Staff at the Metro's Customer Relations Center, tel. 03/3941-2004, speak Japanese only. Information on Toei Subway is available at www.kotsu.metro.tokyo.jp.
Transfers on the Subway & Train -- You can transfer between most subway lines without buying another ticket, and you can transfer between JR train lines on one ticket. However, your ticket or prepaid card does not allow a transfer between Tokyo's two subway companies (Metro and Toei), JR train lines, and private train lines connecting Tokyo with outlying destinations such as Nikko. You usually don't have to worry about this, though, because if you exit through a wicket and have to give up your ticket, you'll know you have to buy another one.
There are a few instances, however, when you pass through a ticket wicket to transfer between subway lines, in which case your ticket will be returned to you if your destination is farther along. The general rule is that if your final destination and fare are posted above the ticket vending machines, you can travel all the way to your destination with only one ticket. But don't worry about this too much -- the ticket collector will set you straight if you've miscalculated. Note, however, that if you pay too much for your ticket, the portion of the fare that's left unused is not refundable -- so, again, the easiest thing to do if in doubt is to buy the cheapest fare. Even better, buy a Suica.
By JR Train
As an alternative to subways, electric commuter trains operated by the East Japan Railway Company (JR) run aboveground. These trains are also color-coded, with fares beginning at ¥130. Buy your ticket from vending machines the same as you would for the subway, but more convenient is the Suica.
The Yamanote Line (green-colored coaches) is the best-known and most convenient JR line. It makes an oblong loop around the city, stopping at 29 stations along the way, all of them announced in English and with digital signboards in each compartment. In fact, you may want to take the Yamanote Line and stay on it for a roundup view of Tokyo; the entire trip takes about an hour, passing stations such as Shinjuku, Tokyo, Harajuku, Akihabara, and Ueno on the way.
Another convenient JR line is the orange-colored Chuo Line; it cuts across Tokyo between Shinjuku and Tokyo stations, with both express (which doesn't make as many stops) and local trains available. The yellow-colored Sobu Line runs between Shinjuku and Akihabara and beyond to Chiba. Other JR lines serve outlying districts for the metropolis's commuting public, including Yokohama and Kamakura. Because the Yamanote, Chuo, and Sobu lines are rarely identified by their specific names at major stations, look for signs that say JR LINES.
If you think you'll be traveling by JR lines on any given day, consider purchasing a 1-Day Tokunai Pass, which allows unlimited travel for ¥730.
For more information on JR lines and tickets, stop by one of JR's Information Centers at Tokyo Station, Ueno, Shinjuku, Shibuya, or Shinagawa or call the English-language JR East Infoline at tel. 050/2016-1603, daily from 10am to 6pm. You can also check its website at www.jreast.co.jp/e.
Buses are not as easy to use as trains or subways unless you know their routes, since only the end destination is written on the bus and routes listed at bus stops are usually not in English. In addition, many bus drivers don't speak English. Buses are sometimes convenient for short distances, however. If you're feeling adventurous, board the bus at the front and drop the exact fare (usually ¥200) into the box. If you don't have the exact amount, fare boxes accept coins or bills; your change minus the fare will come out below. Suica and Pasmo cards are also accepted. A signboard at the front of the bus displays the next stop, usually in English. When you wish to get off, press one of the buttons on the railing near the door or the seats. You can pick up an excellent Toei bus map showing all major routes at one of the Tokyo Tourist Information Centers operated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Or check the Toei website at www.kotsu.metro.tokyo.jp.
An exception to the city buses above is Toei's Tokyo Shitamachi Bus, a user-friendly sightseeing bus that follows a fixed route to seven major sightseeing spots. Departing from the Marunouchi north exit of Tokyo Station, buses stop at Nihombashi's Mitsukoshi Department Store; Akihabara, with its many anime and electronic stores; Ueno Park; Kappabash-dougugai Dori, with its many kitchen stores; and Asakusa before terminating at Ryogoku Station with the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Buses travel in both directions at 30-minute intervals daily between 9am and 6:30pm. The fare is ¥200 each time you board (you can use a Suica card); or purchase a one-day Toei bus pass for ¥500. For information about the Tokyo Shitamachi Bus, including a schedule and map, stop by the Tokyo Tourist Information Center in Shinjuku or Ueno.
Although all tourist destinations are accessible by land transportation, some sights in Tokyo Bay or on the Sumida River are served by sightseeing boat, an enjoyable way to travel and see the Tokyo skyline. Boats depart from Hinode Pier near Hamamatsucho and Hinode stations and travel to Asakusa via the Sumida River; the trip takes approximately 40 minutes and costs ¥760. You can also reach Asakusa by boat from Hama Rikyu Garden, while another route travels between Asakusa and Odaiba. Pick up a brochure at the TIC or call the Tokyo Cruise Ship Co. at tel. 03/5733-4812. A timetable is posted on its website at www.suijobus.co.jp.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.