9/4/07: How to take the train in Tokyo

Suppose you are an American tourist in Tokyo and you want to visit a museum on the other side of town. Here’s how to do it. Keep in mind that at all times there will be Japanese people bustling purposefully in every direction around you.

  1. Find your destination on the large system map posted above the ticket machines. This may be harder than it seems because in some stations all the station names are shown in kanji. In this case you will have to coordinate the wall map with your map in English.
  2. The map tells you what the fare is to get there from here. Buy a ticket for that amount from the ticket machine. Ticket machines come in two flavors: video (usually with an English option) and button-based. The button-type machines will not do anything until you put some money in. As you insert coins (or bills, they take up to a $100) more and more buttons light up. It’s pretty opaque until you’ve seen it in action, but once you understand how it works it’s not bad. Alternatively, just buy the cheapest ticket and then use the “tell me how much more to pay” machine at your destination, but that’s for wimps.
  3. Use the map to determine which line or lines you need to take to get there. Carefully note any transfer points. Note that the ticket you just purchased is not going to tell you anything more than how much you paid and which end to stick into the turnstile. The good news here is that the colors of the various lines are consistent on all the maps and signage. The bad news is that because there are so many lines, from several diferent companies, the colors can be on the obscure side (“Did we want the brick line, or the rust?”).
  4. Pass through the turnstile and proceed to the platform for your line by following signs on the walls and/or electronic reader boards. Note that local and express trains for the same line may be on different platforms.
  5. Determine which track of the two on that platform goes the appropriate direction, by consulting wall signs on the platform or before it (varies by station). In many stations there is a large sign saying “this is station X, the next station in each direction is Y (this way) and Z (that way).” In other stations you have to find a route map posted on a pillar, and coordinate that with the real world.
  6. Determine which train you want on that track. There may be express and local versions and/or different branches of the same train, and even entirely different trains, sharing the same platform; you want one that actually goes to your destination. Use the timetable, route diagram, and/or overhead electronic signs at or before the platform. There’s not a lot of consistency in how this information is presented.
  7. Determine which car you want. Depending on the train, there may be reserved-seat-only cars, plushy “green” cars, and spots on the platform corresponding to no car at all. Sophisticated riders will select a car that winds up near the correct stairway at the destination. Stand in one of the marked lanes for the selected car. The train will stop right there.
  8. Board the train when it arrives, exactly on time. Exiting passengers have priority; passengers waiting to board wait to the side. Don’t dawdle, there’s another train coming in three minutes.
  9. On the train, use in-car electronic signs (often in kanji, kana, and romaji), route diagrams, announcements in Japanese and sometimes English, platform signs at the stations you pass, and/or the map clutched in your sweaty paw to track your progress. Alternatively, work Japanese picture puzzles and leave that part to your paranoid husband — after all, you know exactly what time the train will arrive at its destination.
  10. Leave the train when it arrives at your destination. Again, don’t dawdle.
  11. Repeat steps 4-10 for each transfer.
  12. Find the station exit nearest your destination. Most stations have several exits and they may be blocks apart. Some stations are effectively huge multi-level shopping malls. There may be a map to help you figure out how to get out. Good luck.
  13. Repeat steps 1-12 for your return trip.

Jeez, no wonder we’re exhausted.

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