For most people in Tokyo, the train (or subway, or automated driverless train, or monorail, or tram) is the absolutely easiest way of getting around. There are buses that interconnect the train lines where they are far apart, and there are taxis which can take you from place A to place B, if you can give them an address or a well-known landmark to navigate to. Most taxi drivers do not know the city all that well, which is not very strange since they usually only travel part of it. Taxi rides in Tokyo are normally quite short, ten minutes or so. Drivers are happy to pick you up in the street (if the light on the top of the cab is lit, they are free). And taxis in Japan are also exempt from the normal requirement to use car seats (or booster seats) if the child is below six years of age. If trains and buses were not free for children under the age of six, it would be an economical option for big families. While few taxis have more than three actual seats, you can usually squeeze in a fourth and maybe fifth person in the back seat, in particular since the taxis are also exempt from the requirement that all passengers wear seatbelts. The driver will usually ask you to wear it if you go into the front seat, though.
You may wonder why, as opposed to Bangkok for instance, people do not drive themselves. The roads of Tokyo are excellent, and Japan has an excellent highway system, even if the roads are toll roads so you have to pay for using them. It is not very expensive, about 650 yen for a family car a normal distance.
But you need a car. You can rent one, but it costs about 10000 to 12000 yen per day, and then there is the cost of gasoline. If you rent a hybrid, or even an all-electric car, the gasoline cost will be less. How much depends on where you are going.
Free Under Six
However as I mentioned, trains are free for children under six. Given that most trains, not just the famous bullet trains, drive considerably faster than 80 km unless they are local trains in central Tokyo, the train will almost always get you there faster than driving anyway. There are no traffic jams on the rails either.
This is why most people take the train when they want to go anywhere. Sometimes there are so many of them that they push themselves onto the trains, so if you are bringing your children, avoid rush hour. If you start your travels a little late, you might be alone on the train.
Automatics And Antiques
Tokyo is crisscrossed with trainlines - and below them, there is a network of subway lines which connect the train lines. Many of the train lines are private, connecting central Tokyo with commuter destinations and tourist attractions in what used to be the surrounding countryside. Tokyo also has a number of transport options you are unlikely to find in other cities. The monorail to Haneda Airport would probably be classified as an antique in other countries, as it was built for the Olympic Games - in 1964. And there is the driverless Yurikamome train in futuristic Odaiba, which is actually automatic.
Yamanote All Around
All this means you can usually get anywhere you want in Tokyo on a train. And where there are no trains, there are buses. There is simply no reason to use anything but public transport in Tokyo.
The trains run mostly in either north-south or east-west direction, much because in southeast the city borders on Tokyo Bay. The biggest exception is the mainstay of Tokyo transportation, the Yamanote line. It runs in a rough circle with the Imperial Palace in the lower right quadrant. Two trains run clockwise and counterclockwise on parallel tracks, literally inside and outside, meeting at almost every station.
The Yamanote line connects the centers of Tokyo. The Japanese capital does not have just one center, it has several where the train lines intersect and the corporate headquarters and shopping centers are distributed. Ikebukuro, Ueno, Akihabara, Shinagawa, Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Tokyo are all connected through the Yamanote line.
There are more stations on the Yamanote line, destinations in their own right, but maybe not places which you would go to as a tourist. But the Yamanote line is extremely convenient, something that is reflected in how many people use it. Especially early in the morning. From seven AM until 10 AM, do not even think about bringing your kids into the train. The Yamanote line is incredibly packed at rush hour, as I have written about before. Avoid taking trains in rush hour not just on the Yamanote line, but all trains in Tokyo.
Rush And After Hour Accidents
That is when accidents happen. Well, and late on Friday nights and in new years party season, when people are so drunk that they fall off the platform. The cleanup after accidents is not a pretty sight, especially if the person got under the train. But the Japanese station crews are amazing at cleaning up, starting with putting up blue sheets to hide whatever is going on from the sight of travelers. Which is a good thing since the sight of someone run over by a train is enough to turn anyones stomach.
Four Reasons To Be Late
Accidents is one of four things which can make trains in Japan late. Customers becoming sick on board is another. Japanese companies care a lot about the welfare of their customers - customer care in Japan means that companies care both for and about their customers, as long as they are customers. It is not a myth that the driver apologises when the train is late - I have heard them apologizing when the train was 10 seconds late. And you get a little printed card that you can give to your company to prove why you were late.
The other two things which can make trains late in Japan are weather and earthquakes. Both happen frequently in Tokyo. While earthquakes can not be reliably predicted and will happen every once in a while, there are a few times of year when weather can be a concern for train travelers.
The first is late January to early February, when temperatures can drop below zero degrees centigrades and there can be heavy snowfall. Think ten centimeters or more in a day. That is enough to slow down trains anywhere, and Tokyo is no exception. Heavy snowfall in Tokyo will slow down the trains, make the railroads cancel some of them, and cause chaos in the stations. It only happens every three years, and usually the snow melts in a day (although not this year).
Typhoon Winding Down
There is another type of weather event that can screw up the train system of Tokyo. Not rain, although Japan gets much more than its fair share in the rainy season (which happens during june). It is high winds, and specifically typhoons. Japan gets several typhoons every year during the season, which lasts from late July to early October. Typhoons are hurricanes in the Eastern hemisphere, and if you look at a satellite image you will see that it is a whirlpool of air. The eye is actually calm but then the winds start again. They are actually strongest a bit out, so if you sit right in the middle of the typhoon the winds are not as strong as a near miss. Usually they are accompanied by rain but the winds are dangerous enough. Even if they are not strong enough to blow the train off the rails, the danger that they could blow something else onto the train is enough to make the train companies stop operation. Japan is extremely safety-conscious, and that mentality is why you are so safe in Japan.
No Timetable Worry
For most trains, you never have to worry about the time tables. If there are no trains every five minutes, they will come every tenth. But in case you want to go to the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architecture Museum, on a Sunday you want to check when the express trains are running back to Tokyo, since they take less than 15 minutes. A regular train will take twice the time. There are specialized search engines like Hyperdia, but the Japanese edition of Google Maps also makes a good job of recommending different routes and trying to find the fastest way, and since the underlying information is the same, the result is usually the same (and if you type in an address it will recognize that, whereas Hyperdia only works with station names).
So if you want to plan a trip inside Tokyo, the tools you are used will be enough to help you. If you are planning a day trip, even to Kamakura where there are frequent trains, you will be better off asking a travel agent or using the train line website.
Hop-On Hop-Off Trains
But normally, trains in Tokyo are hop-on hop-off and you do not have to care overly much for timetables. There is no search engine that takes the extra time required with a stroller into account anyway. The only thing you can be sure of is that the time Google, or Yahoo, or Navitime or any other navigational search engine thinks it will take you to go through the station is almost certainly too short in reality. So do not worry. And do not rush, because that is the easiest way of making a mistake and either causing an accident or becoming one.
Cost, Route And Time
When you look up the time tables in your favorite navigational app they will also tell you the cost of each leg of the trip (not Google though). It gives you grounds for comparing the different ways of getting to your destination. But you may be less interested in saving 20 yen or 2 minutes, if you can figure out a way that lets you get there without changing trains. Toddlers may love to jump around on the seats and watch the surroundings rush by through the windows, but if your kid is still in a stroller she will quickly be fast asleep.
Complainers On Trains
If you are bringing toddlers onto the train, try to remember some basic Japanese train etiquette. Children in a stroller generally does not cause people to raise their eyebrows. As long as you do not try to squeeze onto a packed train, the child in the stroller will be out of the way. As long as they are not noisy.
Many Japanese people still have the idea that children should be cute and quiet. This is a country of old people, after all, with a quarter of the population over 75, and more dogs than children. They tend to give noisy children dirty looks, but they are too well-mannered to complain. Those who will complain are their children. And they may complain both loudly and rudely once your children pass their percieved threshold. Not that they can do anything more than their parents, and train rides rarely last long enough for people to get past dirty looks however noisy your children may be. Because in Japan, you are supposed to care about and be mindful of others. The basic tenent of the society is that you are dependent on others, and they are dependent of you. And since everyone is interdependent, you are expected to keep your children quiet. And take off their shoes when they climb up into the seat, so the people coming after them will not get their behinds dirty (and the cleaning staff will not have to vacuum the seats).
Basic Child Rules
Keeping quiet, not drawing attention, taking off your shoes so as not to dirty someone elses clothes or effects, those are all basic rules for getting along with other people on the train. Like not running around the train cars and bumping into other passengers, or playing or singing in loud voices.
Be especially careful when you are getting on or off the train with a stroller or small kids. There is a huge gap between the train and the platform in some stations. Big enough for a child to fall through if you are not careful. And always let people get off before getting on.
Don’t Toe The Line
While you are waiting for the train, always stand behind the yellow line. Or sometimes white. Or occasionally dotted. Anyway, there will be a line for you to stand behind. Stand with your stroller at an angle pointing the face of your child in the opposite direction the train will be coming from, especially on rainy days. Even more important if there is snow. The reason is that if they are passing trains, especially express trains, they will push a wavefront of rain or snow ahead of them. While trains passing platforms usually do not run fast enough to cause damage, getting a wavefront full of stinging snow in your face is hardly pleasant. Better face away from the oncoming trains. And while you are at it, back off half a meter from the yellow line. At many stations, the train and subway companies are putting in platform doors which close when the train leaves and open when the train has stopped. The idea that a train should not stop exactly at the marks where the doors are supposed to be will sound strange to a Japanese. In Japan, trains stop exactly at the correct spot, at the exact time. Not a second early or late. Such precision is normal in Japan, and they regard trains in Europe and America who miss the platform with surprise and astonishment.
How To Pay
The navigation and mapping apps may be able to tell you how much you should pay for the trip, but not how. And unless you have a particular desire to fumble around with coins, there is only one option: The Suica card (also available from private railways, subways, and bus companies under the Pasmo brand).
Using the Suica or Pasmo card is very easy. To pay, just touch it to the plate. The Suica and Pasmo cards can be used interchangeably by the way, everywhere you use one you can use the other. The only difference is who issues them.
Touch The Plate
When you touch the card to the plate (actually, it is sufficient to hold it about a centimeter from the reading plate) the sum required is deducted from the card. If you do not have enough money on the card, you can pay with coins or bills. You need one card per person, since you can only charge one trip per card. But standing in the door of the bus and fumbling to find coins that cover the sum required is much less convenient than using the card at all.
You can get a Suica or Pasmo card in the card machines in the stations, or the manned ticket offices. While there are English instructions on the machine screens, they are machine translations and understandable if a bit clunky. The staff at the ticket offices have no requirement to speak any other language than Japanese, and are likely to be embarrassed by not being able to serve you. There is often an international information office where people can help you, but it may be at another entrance.
If you arrive at Narita airport and you plan to take the Narita Express train to Tokyo, you can get a combination ticket with a special tourist Suica card. Not only do yo get a discount on the ticket, JR (Japan Railways) also forego the 500 yen deposit fee.
Charging The Card
That the price of the ticket is charged to your card every time you pass through the the ticket gates also means you have to fill up the card when it starts to run low. The balance on the card is shown when you go through the ticketing gates. Check it and if it starts to run below 500 yen, fill it up. You can get the balance on the card and the 500 yen deposit you made when you got it back when you leave Japan.
To fill it up, you either use the machine inside the station, or the charging machine outside. The charging machines outside are slightly more convenient - you just activate the machine by pressing the screen, put your Suica card in the aperture to the lower right, press the key on the screen that shows the amount you want to put on the card, put in the bills in the money slot, and wait for indication on the screen that the card is charged. You can also use a credit card to charge the Suica card. It may not work with all cards, especially not foreign cards and probably not prepaid cards either.
In other parts of Japan the cards may have different names, but they work the same way. And the price for the train rides are about the same as well.
This post is one in my ongoing series on how to navigate Japan for travelers with children. I have written before about the Japanese travel year and the Japanese travel day (for most people heavily centered around taking the train). I have a couple of articles on buying diapers in Japan and buying baby goods in Japan. I have written about how to figure out where to stay in Tokyo and how much you should budget for your trip to Japan. And I have written about whether you will be safe in Japan. And of course, since I have three kids, I have written a lot about Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea. And lots more.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.