Monday, 18 April 2016

JAPAN - Tokyo Part 1

::: First Impressions :::

This is the first post on a series to come about Japanese metro systems as I have just started a 1-month tour across the country to see all subways, monorails and peoplemover systems. The final kick to get me to Asia finally was the fact that, together with Andrew Phipps from London, I'm preparing a series of three books covering all urban rail systems in Japan; the first volume is almost completed and will be released in June 2016: "Metros & Trams in Japan: Tokyo Region".

First impression when you get into Narita Airport T2 station, shared by JR and Keisei

Most Japan trips probably start in Tokyo by default. And not knowing what to expect, I thought, I'd just spend a few days here to settle and recover from the jetlag, which after all wasn't too bad anyway, and in case I get too exhausted as I usually do after a few days in New York, I can get away and take the slow approach to this country, entirely new to me (and I hadn't been to anywhere proper in Asia at all!). Starting with a weekend in this megacity probably helped to actually find it a rather relaxed city, in terms of traffic, etc., so I actually didn't feel the need to move on already, but that's the itinerary chosen some months ago, and here I am on way to Okinawa. But I will be back in the Tokyo area for a full week in two weeks.

When I arrived on Friday, 15 April, from Narita Airport I took the Keisei Sky Access train into the city because it left me quite near my hotel. The railway station at Narita Airport T2 is quite a chaotic thing for a first-comer, as there are several options to head towards Tokyo, luckily the internet allows you to make your choice at home, otherwise it could be quite confusing, especially as JR and Keisei operate from the same shared station, but still somehow separate from each other. Even the endless platforms are split in the middle. The Sky Access train is pretty fast, but only runs every 40 minutes, whereas slower trains run more often but via Chiba. The streamlined Skyliner goes directly to Ueno. So I had quite some time to wait for the next one and thus to watch other trains run through the station in the meantime.

Typical ticket machine with fare chart above, here on the Toei Asakusa Line

But before taking a train, one has to get a ticket, of course, which brings us already to one of the big advantages in Japan. You just get a PASMO or SUICA value card, add some money to it and you can use it virtually all over Japan and don't have to worry anymore about all those fares. Buying one (it has a 500 Yen deposit) is quite straight-forward, once you switch the ticket machine to English, everything is on the screen. And then you just tap in and out as you go. But after my horrible experience with the Oyster Card in London, I would still recommend a day ticket for metro explorations within Tokyo, but an IC card (the generic name of all those standardised value cards) is necessary anyway for all other transport not covered by the limited day passes. Those pay-as-you-go cards tend to get confused if you do too many weird rides we rail enthusiasts normally do, or might not allow you back into the station just after leaving etc.

Diagram for different services on the Keikyu system, with through running on the Toei Asakusa Line and on to the Keisei system - just one of some 10 S-Bahn systems...

Back on the Sky Access train, this service is also a typical case for Tokyo railways, in the positive sense, that it runs through into the city, suddenly becomes the Asakusa metro line, before becoming a Keikyu suburban train on its way south to Haneda Airport. So, in principle, this through-operation is great, but what I don't like about it is the confusing presentation of those services. The term "line" in Tokyo (and a few other Japanese cities) does not mean a service from A to B operated by a certain company, but rather a "section of route" belonging to a certain operator. So, for example, the train I took, runs from Narita Airport to Haneda Airport, but uses lots of different "lines", first the Keisei Sky Access route, which is partly single-track, because the other track is used by 1067 mm JR trains, then the Hokuso Line, then the Keisei Oshiage Line, then the Toei Asakusa Line, and finally the Keikyu Main Line and the Keikyu Kuko (Airport) branch. We would probably just call it S1 or so, and depict it is a single line on maps. But Tokyo, besides the maps covering the two subway companies, doesn't really have proper all-rail maps showing all services on one map (which would be quite a challenge anyway), instead the network is extremely fragmented, especially the railways not purely metro-style. So while there are basically two metro systems, Toei's and Tokyo Metro's, there are some 10 different S-Bahn systems, including JR! Luckily, they have introduced line coding for most routes, and even JR has just announced to do the same for its Tokyo suburban railways, the Yamanote line, for example, will carry a JY code.

Out of 13 metro lines, actually only 3 are proper metro lines by global definition, whereas all others are interlaced with suburban lines, some with a few through-running trains, others to an extreme that they are actually more a "Passante" or "S-Bahn" trunk line, like the Asakusa Line. On the other hand, some suburban lines, like the Saitama Railway, in the rest of the would be simple metro extensions into the suburbs, as they don't operate a separate service anyway, with all trains running through to the Namboku Line, in this case.

So to make things more European (if anybody thought this is necessary), what is defined as "subway" could be described as "zone 1" of an overall rail system, just that JR services are still apart. But especially those private lines connected to the metro lines have quite a different fare structure, although through-ticketing is available everywhere. And that's where you'll need an IC card anyway. There is no day ticket covering all railways within this virtual zone 1, although there are combined tickets for Toei, Tokyo Metro and JR.

On the next two days, I therefore bought a combined day ticket for the two subway operators (yes, each of them also has their own day ticket!) for 1000 Yen (8 EUR), which allowed me hassle-free exits and entries into the system, and in case I wanted to get on a JR train, I would use my PASMO card. When I return in two weeks, I will have a valid JR Rail Pass and that is also good for local travel within Tokyo.

Typical ticket barriers, mostly open but closing when you pass without having your ticket checked.

By the way, ticket gates may appear to be open (like in Russia), but you are always meant to tap in or slip your day pass through the machine, otherwise it may suddenly close. The machines react very fast, compared to many I have seen in Europe. There is usually also a station officer next to the barriers. The same gates may function for entry and exit, so avoid collisions! In case you don't have the correct ticket, there is always a fare adjustment machine near the exits.

Generally, the metro stations look very clean but rather cramped. In many stations, although the platform is wide, staircases and pillars obstruct the view and often the platform gets as narrow as just one metre on those sections where the stairs are. While many stations now have a lift (which may be difficult to locate on the surface as it is often hidden in some building), the overall number of escalators is below what you would find on other metros of that age. So you end up climbing lots of stairs, which the Japanese do in a rather relaxed pace. Information inside stations is plentiful, almost too much. So if, like me, you think that the Moscow Metro could do with some additional information panels, then Tokyo could maybe do with less, especially as it is often mixed with excessive adverts (even inside the trains, adverts are omnipresent, hanging from the ceiling between straps).

Line panel on the Hanzomon Line depicted position of nearest exists for swift transfers.

But there are also information details other metro system may want to copy from Tokyo, for example a station list which shows which car is best for which exit or transfer, etc, and even for toilets. Yes, toilets, the great thing on the Tokyo subway, in every station, clean, and free of charge! A paradise! In Germany I spend a fortune on toilets and then they are very scarce!

Narrow entrance at Kyobashi on the Ginza Line right in the city centre

Designwise, the stations are all very plain and functional, could be anywhere in the world and built during the 1970s/1980s. I haven's seen much of the new Oedo Line yet, though. In fact, you can't really tell by their look when they were built. What's quite striking is the narrowness of many accesses at street level, only comparable to some entrances in New York. Many accesses are located in a small niche in a row of houses and if it wasn't for the logo, they would be hard to identify as such. 

Hardly recognisable entrance to the Hibiya/Yurakucho station complex

Toei and Tokyo Metro use a common logo with a subway train, additionally each has its own company logo. Toei's logo is actually that used for other municipal services, too. I wish the two metro systems could at least be unified properly, no matter who the operator behind the different lines is. The Tokyo Metro logo would make for a nice logo for the entire system:

"Tokyo Metro" logo, just good for 9 out of 13 subway lines

Most cities with separate metro companies ended up merging them, those that come to my mind still with different companies being Seoul and Singapore, although these two have quite a unified appearance for the customers. In Japan, such mergers seem very unlikely as all those companies set up to build suburban extensions to the actual metro system are complex entities with various shareholders, so unless they are forced they would probably not see this as a main goal. In Europe, I guess Switzerland is the country with most private railways, but here it has been achieved that for the passenger, at least within urban and suburban areas, it doesn't really matter, who owns and operates which line. One may argue, however, that our fully integrated systems in the end are quite expensive for the passengers, while single journeys in Tokyo have quite a reasonable price, but it adds up if you have to use different trains or even a bus to get to your destination.

Back to useful information given in Tokyo but not available normally in Europe: on newer trains, the screen inside the train also shows where you are on the train and where exits etc. will be located at the next station. Through-running trains also have information panels on the ceilings of all possible routings, but this tends to be very complex. At least, within the proper metro system, those trains that run a long way out, tend to run as 'local', but in some cases they may skip some stops. Unfortunately this is not displayed in a London fashion with "Calling at....", but you need to check the huge panel displayed somewhere along the long platform. And although spoken English is very limited, or people are too shy to use it, all written information is given in English, too, so that helps a lot. I think in most European cities, among them Berlin, we should be much more visitor-friendly and use English more in information systems. We take it for granted when we travel to other places, but don't provide such an international service to our visitors.

Japanese politeness is world-famous, and indeed for a standard westerner often seems exaggerated and servile. But things become much less friendly when you ride a metro train. The Japanese suddenly become quite global in their behaviour, some rush into the train before people get off. This morning going to the airport, I had the chance to see a bit of rush-hour traffic, and it was a bit surprising how selfish those friendly people suddenly get. I managed to squeeze into the train with my luggage at Ningyocho and was happy that at the following stations the doors opened on the other side. But it was rather weird watching all the uniformly dressed people how they ignored the fact that other people get on and off the train, all just staring at their mobile devices and not taking into consideration at all that they may be in the way nor moving a bit to let people pass. On the other hand, at Shinagawa, when the train suddenly filled up again, I observed how orderly they were queuing outside on the platform. By the way, what did the passengers do while riding a train before the age of smartphones? At least they are not talking loudly on their phones while on trains!

In general, all trains like the entire system are well-kept, but for a tall European, the seats are far too low and more of the London-style cushion type, so I almost need the grab-poles to get up. They are also rather narrow, but that probably fit the average Japanese. Otherwise the cars are spacious and offer a smooth ride. Surprisingly the Oedo trains with their linear motors seem less modern, their motors sound like our old 477 or 485 S-Bahn trains.

Yurikamome passing the "Big Sight" Expo Center

So while during this short first stay I managed to ride on every metro line, I also explored the Yurikamome extensively right on the first day when the weather was absolutely perfect. It's a rubber-tyred guided transitway, but feels like a proper metro. It does get pretty packed, so it could run more often, especially when a fair is being held at the Expo Center. You can get very nice views and the ride across the Rainbow Bridge with its loop-like approach is fun. If you're lucky, you can grab the "driver's seat" in this driverless train. The ride is pretty smooth, though a bit slow in curves compared to rubber-tyred VAL systems. The elevated alignment through new developments make one think of the London Docklands Light Railway, of course, although the white trains on rubber tyres reminded me a bit of Marseille. As the stations are equipped with platform screen doors, you can only take pictures through a glass window at the end of the platform, but this being Japan, the windows are all quite clean. For the Yurikamome you can get a day ticket for around 8 EUR if you want to get on and off along the line, otherwise an IC card will be the best choice as even on this isolated line the fares are distance-based.

Yurikamome on its way across the Rainbow Bridge

That's it for today - next stop Okinawa for the Naha Monorail!

And check back soon for the second part about Tokyo!


Tokyo Metro (Official Site)

Toei Subway (Official Site)

Yurikamome (Official Site)

Tokyo urban rail systems at UrbanRail.Net


  1. Loved Tokyo, and Japan.
    Barely even used the Metro - the Yamanote and Chūō-Sōbu lines took me to most of the places I needed to get to in Tokyo! I also loved the way that the Japanese are very accommodating to the railfan - with glass looking out the front, excellent museums and so much to see!

    And the JR Rail Pass is a revelation to a non-Japanese speaking railfan like me. So easy to stroll onto a Shinkansen, without having to buy tickets etc. I travelled the country for a month with no stress.

    Enjoy the various (bizarre) people movers across Japan - I think the Nagoya Linimo has one of the longest station names I've ever seen - "Aichikyūhaku-kinen-kōen"!

    Have a great time.

  2. Make sure you visit Nagano and the often overlooked underground Nagaden commuter line.

  3. Make sure you visit Nagano and the often overlooked underground Nagaden commuter line.

    1. Nagano should be in the second volume of our series, but I won't be visiting the place myself on this tour, Andrew has it on his next tour schedule.

  4. If you any info or photos of some systems let me know. I have been to many rail system in Japan, but still have more to go

  5. You have to go to Osaka that's for sure.

  6. I am curious what you think of excessive passenger crowding like in the following video. Not only is it extremely uncomfortable, but I'm not sure it even adds capacity, due to the lower headways that result. As far as I know, other cities like Beijing, Moscow, and NYC do not tolerate anything like this. Is it common in Tokyo? On suburban trains only, or also on regular subways? Is there any way of avoiding it besides massive construction?

    1. First of all, that video is nine years old. Instances of crowding at that level are not as common anymore as more trains have been introduced in conjuction with better timetable management. You are always going to have to accept a degree of overcrowding in an urban agglomeration the size of Tokyo (the largest in the world), where rail mode share is dominant.

  7. I've just recently returned from a train trip to japan (rode 51 systems!) and I have very much enjoyed reading your blog posts. The Yurikamome was one of my favourites.

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