Tokyo, Japan: The Amazing and Complex Rail System of Tokyo

Tokyo’s rail system is the most extensive and most used network in the world, carrying about 40 million passengers a day.  There are 882 rail stations in and around the wider Tokyo area; 282 of these stations are subway stations located underground.

When I first came to Tokyo I put off using the trains for about a week.  I knew it was complex and when I had visited Tokyo the previous year, I had guides who helped me use the subways.  But I found that once I actually started using the subway system it was pretty easy to understand.  In fact, being able to take the public transportation and riding the trains everywhere has become one of my favorite things about living in Tokyo. (I never liked driving back in America.)

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Map on the right is for the Tokyo Metro while the map on the left is for the Toei Subway 

Instead of buying a ticket every time you need to ride the train, you can pay for a Pasmo or Suica for only 500 yen and load money onto the card.  These cards have become so widely used that yo ca use them all throughout Japan.  They can be used to pay for goods at the convenience stores and some grocery stores.  Even most vending machines have a card option where you can scan the train card.  Using the card will also save you time, so you can make your train on time as well as save you about 3 yen per ride.  That’s a whole 3 cents.

Shinjuku Station is Tokyo’s main hub. Without a doubt you will have to transfer through the station, or even harder, attempt to leave to visit the Shinjuku area.  The station is the world’s busiest transportation hub, with 12 train lines intersecting, and carrying a total of 3.6 million people a day.  Luckily I live within a 30 minute walk from Shinjuku, so if I can avoid the station I do.  With over 200 exits from the station, it’s certainly easy to find a way out.  The real challenge though is finding the exit you actually need.  If you exit the station on the west side, when you actually need to be on the east side, it’s a long and not-so-straightforward walk around the station to the other side.  There is an underground tunnel but good luck finding it.

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Just some of the exits at Shinjuku Station

Although the Tokyo subway system is extensive, it does not run in the dead of the night.  With most last trains leaving around 12:30 and the first train to leave in the morning usually around 5 am.  Trains tend to come every 5 minutes but about 20 to 25 minutes before the last train the trains won’t come with their usual frequency and there is a massive rush to get home on the last one.  This is especially apparent at Shibuya station.  Shibuya is known as Tokyo’s entertainment city and has tons of bars, clubs, and good night life.  So the last train leaving from Shibuya station is always very crowded as well as the last trains arriving to Shibuya at just past midnight.

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Shibuya Crossing.  Not the rush for the last train but it’s pretty accurate.

So, what can you do if you miss the final train?

Just take a taxi, right? Except the problem is that a 25 minute taxi ride home around midnight might end up costing you around 60 to 70 dollars.  Here are some other solutions:

In Japan, especially Tokyo,  there are a number of internet cafes that are open where you can rent a tiny private room just big enough to rest in.  These are not actually cafes but sort of like mini hotels that cost about 15 dollars for 3 hours.   At an internet cafe the room is big enough to move around in and the whole floor is a mat.  There is usually a TV in the room and an area outside of the room where you can check out comics and books to read while you are there.  A lot of internet cafes have a grooming station as well, with all sorts of supplies you would want in order to freshen up.

However, if you are a study abroad student without a job for a year even those internet cafes are more money then you want to spend for a night out.  In that case, we often take the last resort:  walking home. 🙂 It takes about 2 hours to walk home from Shibuya to our dorm 🙂 But Tokyo is a super safe city, and on a nice night the walk is beautiful and never dull.

The rail system in Tokyo (and the bus system as well) is so extensive that most people living in the inner city don’t have cars.  College students especially don’t have a need for cars, and many don’t even have a driving license.  I’m coming home in a month and I’m not looking forward to having to renew my license and getting used to driving again.  But, maybe I’ll get a Tokyo subway scented air-freshener for my car, to bring a little of the city back with me. 😉

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