Part 1 of my guide to Tokyo on the cheap focused on where to go for good inexpensive food. Although I can’t make your travel in the Greater Tokyo Area (GTA) cheaper, I can provide assistance in getting around the GTA a lot easier.
I never want to own another car again. This coming from the man who loved the So Cal import scene in the late 90’s and early 00’s. I use to love zooming up and down the 5 and 405 freeways in my rice rocket (’91 Honda CRX). Then I grew up and upgraded to a Honda Accord Coupe, later an Acura TS. But I never lost my love of speed and the cars that go, “Vroom!”
Something has happened to me since though. I lost the love of driving, especially driving fast. In So Cal, you needed a car to survive. I am no longer in So Cal. I live in Japan and here, an automobile is not necessary. No high gas prices to pay, oil changes to get, car washes (although I mix the relaxation and joy I get from washing my car) or high insurance premiums. I’m spoiled by trains and buses that take me just about every where I need to go, when I need to get there.
Public transportation in Japan is highly efficient, clean, safe (unless you’re a schoolgirl wearing a short skirt standing shoulder-to-shoulder on a crowded train), moderately affordable and fast. In this post, I will give you tips and advice on using public transportation in the Greater Tokyo Area (GTA). The GTA consists of the prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa, Saitama and Tokyo (more than 35,000,000 people).
JR or Keikyu
In the GTA there are two main intercity train lines- JR and Keikyu. I’m mainly familiar with these two because I live south of Tokyo and I rarely go west of where I live or north of Tokyo. JR Line trains are slightly more expensive than Keikyu lines and they have less stops. The JR Lines also appear to be more along the seaside, so if you’re traveling to any of the beach towns (Zushi, Yuigahama) in the GTA region, you’ll need a JR train.
In the GTA, both train lines and all the local and subway lines accept both the PASMO and SUICA cards (these cards cannot be used in Osaka, Kyoto, Fukuoka or other regions I’ve been though. Those prefectures have their own card systems.). Although purchasing these cards does not give you a discounted fare rate, they are very, very convenient. Particularly so because oftentimes you may get confused with the rail map and find yourself staring it for tens of minutes, while trains are passing you by. With the cards (they are pretty much one in the same and both can be used to purchase products in vending machines and stores inside train stations), you can just get on the train you need and study the route map inside the train, making your trips more speedy.
I highly suggest getting either card. I believe it costs 1500 yen to purchase your first card (500 yen as a flat fee, the rest can be used as your fare).
Back to the trains now.
Many visitors to the GTA will want to explore Tokyo and visit Kamakura. Even President Obama made a stop to see the Amida Buddha in Hase (Kamakura) when he was in Yokohama for an Asian summit. If you’re coming from Tokyo to Kamakura, you will need to take the JR Line at Shinagawa going towards Yokohama/Yokosuka. The Kamakura stop is after Yokohama and before Zushi beach.
Once you are at your stop in Kamakura, I suggest exploring the surroundings at that stop first. There is a lot to see in just a 15-minute walking radius of the train station. You have amazing temples and shrines, a great street filled with shops and restaurants. I often go to Kamakura from Yokosuka simply for the food and shops because it is an area filled with Italian and German cafes, a Belgian chocolatier, an amazing grocery store to purchase international foods at and one of the coolest designed Starbucks I’ve seen.
Inside the Kamakura Station is where you will find your transfer to the Enoden Line. This local line (accepts PASMO and SUICA) is how you will get to the Amida Buddha in Hase (unless you want to walk, and it is a pleasant, sight-filled walk). The Enoden Line is a very nice small train. After seeing the Amida Buddha, if time permits, take it further to Enoshima. Enoshima is a nice, man built island that has its own unique cuisine and lots of sights.
I mentioned this station in the previous paragraph. Shinagawa will be your primary hub if you’re traveling inner city in the GTA. One of the main train lines you will find yourself taking here and using while in Tokyo proper is the Yamanote Line. This is the line that connects Ebisu-Shibuya-Harajuku-Shinjuku. Those four cities/wards are where you want to do your main Tokyo sight-seeing, especially when it comes to people watching, partying, eating and smoozing. When it comes to other must-sees and dos while in the GTA; Asakusa, Tsukiji and Odaiba are high on the list.
Expect to spend time in Shinagawa though as you transit between GTA cities/wards to get on more local lines.
-aside from New Years, nearly all trains, subways and buses stop at or close to midnight, seven days of the week. The trains begin around 05:00. If you are enjoying a night out in GTA, expect to be out all night until sunlight unless you want to pay a fortune for a taxi ride (cost 720 yen just to sit in the cab, about 80-90 yen every few kilometers after).
-during early morning hours and certain hours in the afternoon, a few cars on trains and subways throughout the GTA are set aside for women only. This is an attempt to prevent the Chikan. You can tell which trains are for women only by looking for the pink painted areas on the floor and the pink signs at eye level where those cars will be stopping.
-the public transportation is rarely late. Only in cases where an accident has occurred or a person has jumped in front of a train are the trains and subways late. If the ticker says the train will arrive at 10:00, it will be there at 10:00. Be mindful of that if you are watching your time. At each station, you can see displays showing you the frequency of the lines.
-the electronic ticker at the stations and on the trains are in English and Kanji. Look at these for train times, where the train is going and which stop is approaching. On most trains, while you are on it, an intercom will announce in English the next stop.
-trains have three different colors (red, green and black), subways have two (red and black). Black indicates that the train is a local line. That means it will stop at every stop along the way to your destination. Red lines are local express. They will stop at less stops. Green lines are express and only stop at major stops. You’ll want the Green Line for instance when traveling from Tokyo to Yokohama. On the subways and JR lines, they typically only use red or black lines.
-the best English website to use for train travel is Hyperdia. I used this when I first moved here and it was very helpful. Type in which city or station you are coming from and where you want to go to and Hyperdia will tell you exactly how to get there in the shortest amount of time. You may often find yourself changing multiple trains to get somewhere, so a website like this is highly useful. Hyperdia has an app for smart phones.
-if you have a smart phone, download the Tokyo subway map for free at the AllSubway app. This app gives you subway route maps for cities across the world. I use the Tokyo map all the time. It is even more convenient because you can view the maps whether you have a wifi/3G connection or not.
-The buses in the GTA also accept the PASMO/SUICA cards and are good for shorter routes that you want to take that sometimes may require changing trains more than once. For instance, getting to Roppongi from Shibuya is easier by bus than by train.
-Don’t let the rudeness on the trains effect what you think about the Japanese people. I must stress this fact. When I moved here, I was not accustomed to it and for awhile I let that affect how I felt about Japan. You will be shoved (not pushed), you will have people step in front of you, you will have people rush to sit in a seat you have your eye on, men will not offer you their seats, you will wonder why people are okay with being packed like sardines, you will have to push people on a crowded train to depart at your stop. Take it all in with a breath and a laugh. You’re in one of the most densely populated places on Earth.
-On the subject of crowded trains, avoid train travel between 8-10:00 and 16-19:00 if at all possible. These are the rush hour times, even on weekends.
-Rarely will you see people eat, drink and talk loudly on public transportation. It is okay to drink on the trains but be respectful of those around you. Eating is strongly prohibited. Talk to others in a respectful tone of voice.
-If you find that you are lost, look lost. With a map in hand or a confused look on your face, you will instantly find a stranger is offering to help you. If communication becomes an issue, it is polite to write down what you want to say. Although some Japanese citizens may not be comfortable speaking English, many can read it.
-You are very safe on Japan public transportation. Even people who are drunk and falling asleep will not be of any harm. Rarely do you hear about people getting their pockets picked and belongings taken. In fact, I’ve heard many people say how they have left valuables on the trains, only to have them returned in full.
-At each station, there may be multiple exits. Look for the signs (in English also) that tell you what landmarks, hotels, parks, etc.. are near that exit. These are very helpful and save you a lot of time.
If I remember anything else, I will add to this blog. In the meantime, I hope this is helpful to any of you traveling to this wonderful region. If you have any helpful hints, feel free to leave them as a comment.
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