Navigating Tokyo: What They Don’t Tell You About Taking the Trains

As we welcome visitors to our little city called Tokyo, we have found one of the most common questions is “How do you find your way around this place?” Granted, with over 500 stations across the Tokyo Metropolitan area (and more being added all the time), navigating Tokyo can be a bit tricky. And if getting between two places isn’t hard enough, there are some other factors that you have to take into account as well. Fortunately, there are some solutions out there to make your next rail ride across (or under) town a little less painful.

Things They Don’t Tell You about Taking the Trains

But first, let me digress and explain some of the difficulties of getting around Tokyo that most guidebooks will not tell you about. First of all, though there are often several options to get from point A to point B, there is often a BEST option. This is because every option will vary on three counts: time to destination, cost, and number of transfers. Those are the variables that are easily quantifiable; you can also consider how crowded the train is, how deep the destination station is underground (some stations can take 5 minutes or longer to reach the exit), and many other factors. But let’s consider those variable we can track.

Time to destination is pretty straightforward…or so you would think. The difficulty comes when using trains rather than subways. On a given train line, there are often several different types of trains from local (stops at every station) to limited express (stops at very few stations). There are also various levels of express trains which stop at different stations. Of course, an express train reaches its destination faster, assuming of course, your destination or transfer point is one of its stops. Knowing what type of train stops where and when it passes through each station is an exercise that rivals the highest levels of Sudoku.

Cost is one of those factors which is very difficult for non-residents to understand and plan for, so most guidebooks do not mention it. Basically, the Tokyo train and subway system is operated by several companies including JR, Toei, Keio, Seibu, Tobu, Odakyu and others. If you are able to go from point A to point B using the train or subway of one company, it will always be the cheapest fare. If you need to transfer to another company’s train, it’s going to cost more. In some cases, you might use 3 or even 4 different company’s trains, in which case, your trip is going to be extremely expensive, sometimes 2 or 3 times more than using a single operator’s system.

Japan Rail (JR) is the largest and least expensive of the train lines in Tokyo. Also, if you have a rail pass, you can use the JR system for free. But JR routes are not always the fastest ways to get to your destination, so you have to weigh the cost versus the convenience. Some destinations can’t be reached by a JR train at all (though you probably could use the bus to get to many of those places). Locals learn which companies own the different train and subway lines so they can make a quick estimation of the cheapest way to get somewhere when faced with several options.

Number of transfers is also a big consideration. Besides the potential cost implications previously mentioned, there is also the walking distance between transfer platforms.  Transferring to another train can be as simple as waiting on the same platform for another train or as difficult as navigating a maze of stairs and hallways to get to the transfer platform. Some stations that share the same name can have transfer platforms over 500m (over a quarter mile, for you Americans) from one another. Until you are familiar with all the major stations you use in Tokyo, you won’t know how easy or difficult a transfer will be until you try it. So best bet: keep the number of transfers to a minimum, especially when dealing with luggage.

Tools of the Trade

Back in the day, we used to carry around little books with the maps of all the subway stations and transfer points. Without these books, we were pretty much dead, and even with the books, the likelihood of us taking the most economical route in terms of time or cost was pretty low. Thanks to smart phones (which no sane person who comes to Tokyo should be without), there are two applications that are a huge improvement on paper maps or books: Google Maps and Hyperdia.

First of all, you should know how to use a smart phone when you come to Japan from outside of the country. There are two options, only one of which I have used and can vouch for. This is the mobile WiFi device which you can rent online and pick up from the airport when you arrive. The company of choice for us was Global Advanced Communications, which has provided good devices and offers outstanding service. My only connection with this company is as a satisfied customer and we recommend it to anyone coming to Japan for any length of time. You can connect up to 10 devices to the mobile WiFi and at the time of this writing, it has no limit on data. However, I now understand there is a cheaper way to get Internet service in Japan, which is a SIM card you can purchase for about $40 from one of the big electronic stores. You pop it into your smart phone and it provides you with 2GB of wireless data, which is enough for about a month if you don’t stream video or music. For a single person, this might be the cheapest option though for a couple or family, the mobile WiFi is probably still cheaper.

Now that you have Internet access, you can use the tools. Both Google Maps and Hyperdia are available for iPhones or Android devices. Before we arrived, I was convinced that Google Maps made Hyperdia redundant, but after a couple weeks, I changed my mind. I’ll explain.

Both Google Maps and Hyperdia can give you point to point navigation between two train stations. Of course Google Maps can give you point to point navigation between any two places, but you can tell it you want to take trains (or public transportation) and it will tell you which station is the closest and how to get there (that part of the navigation is considered “beta”, or not completely reliable). Both tools can suggest several options between two stations and tell you how many transfers and how much it will cost. You can also set both tools to tell you what train you need to take to arrive at your destination by a specific time, which is very important because you often are not doing real time searches.

The advantage I found with Hyperdia is the way it displays information. Hyperdia gives you up to 5 options which you can quickly scroll through and see exactly what trains you need to take and where to transfer. It also summarizes the time to destination, cost and number of transfers at the top of each option. Google Maps requires you to select each option one by one to see the details. It’s actually quite a pain and take much longer to figure out what the best option is and sometimes you need to quickly decide if you should jump on a train or not. Another minor complaint about Google Maps is that it is harder to tell what type of train you are taking because the train type (local, express, etc.) is shown in Japanese, not English. If you’re a quick study, this might not be a big deal. But having to look at each option’s details one by one is a big deal and the main reason I still use Hyperdia for 90% of my searches.

One of the main advantages Google Maps has over Hyperdia is that Maps tells you how many stations you need to travel on a specific line (and will expand to give you the names of the stations), so it’s harder to get lost or wonder if you missed your station. Another advantage of Google Maps is that Hyperdia is very picky about how you spell a station name, so if you leave out a space or a dash, it might say it can’t find the station you’re looking for. Google Maps, as you might expect, is better at searching for station names you are not sure exactly how to write or spell.

Are there other apps available out there? Yes, I’m sure there are, but these are the two we have had the most experience and success with. A contest is now in the works ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics for someone to design a new application that is even more user friendly, but I suspect it will be a few years before we see anything. For now, with a smart phone and these two apps loaded up, you should be prepared to go anywhere around Tokyo and beyond without fear.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s