The first time I flew into Tokyo I was quite nervous about the Tokyo train system…. It is very extensive. Greater Tokyo, in fact, has the most extensive urban rail network in the world. According to Wikipedia, it has 158 different lines, 48 operators, 4,715km of track and 2,210 stations…. Slightly overwhelming.
I needn’t have wasted my energy worrying. Japanese public transport is the most efficient and easy to navigate system I have seen, even if you speak NO Japanese. Firstly, it is colour coded. This makes it quite easy to make sure you’re on the right train. Secondly, there are smartphone apps, which are excellent and easy to use. They tell you how to get from one place to another, including where and when to change trains, and even if you need to change platforms. The one I found to be the best is Navitime. Thirdly, all the JR (Japan Rail) staff are excellently trained and most speak English. They are very knowledgeable about how to get places, and are very helpful and friendly. Lastly, and most importantly, Japanese trains ALWAYS run on time. The are SUPER efficient. The margin of error is generally under 20 seconds! Usually, the train will pull out from the station at the exact time it is meant to do so.
My favourite line in Tokyo is the Yamanote Line. This is a loop line train that basically circles the inner suburbs of Tokyo. There are 29 stations over about 35 kms. The Yamanote caries around 3.7 million passengers a day. Almost as many as the entire New York Subway (469 stations) and more than the London Underground (275 stations). It runs every 2-4 minutes, from 4:30 in the morning until 1:20 the next morning. It has something of a cult status and as you can see from the photos, it is well merchandised. The Yamanote line stations have special jingles, and you can even buy a CD of the platforms jingles, and even ring tones for your phone (I may, or may not have one of these 😳).
As far as tickets go, for most train lines in Tokyo, a Suica or a Pasmo card is the go.It is easy to top up, and you can even pay the difference if your card does not have enough money on it when you reach your destination. Look for the “FARE ADJUSTMENT” signs. These cards can also be used to pay for goods in many kombini (convenience stores) and even fast food venues, much like a debit card.
All JR trains are free to travel on with a JR Pass. I highly recommend a JR Pass if you are travelling around Japan. You must buy it before you go. You can not purchase these once you are in Japan. Tokyo Metro and Toei lines are not covered by JR Pass, but you can use the Suica or Pasmo.
If you plan to ride the Shinkansen (the bullet train), and well, you are in Japan, right… JR Pass is essential, if you plan to go as far or further than Tokyo to Kyoto and back. It is an economical, super easy and very fun way to travel long distances and it is so efficient, as you travel to the closest Shinkansen station (Tokyo or Shinagawa), and jump on the train. Generally the travel time rivals internal flight times, partly because the trains go so fast (around 285km/hour) and also because you don’t have to travel to the airport and get there an hour before boarding, etc. etc. I absolutely love travelling on the Shinkansen. You have designated seats, a fold down table, you can buy food and beer, there is power outlets and some have free wi-fi. And… The bathrooms are awesome!
The photos are the Narita Express, Harajuku station, Yamanote train, speed-o-meter on Shinkansen, Shinkansen, to scale Lego model of Kyoto station, Yamanote and assorted maerchandise, Tokyo station and Kyoto station. You can follow links to see video of a local train in Tokyo and a Shinkansen arriving at Himeji station.