Travel Tip: Tokyo Trains

I am just back from my first ever trip to Tokyo, and it was a very interesting experience. I am very impressed by the Tokyo train system, and I cannot understand why some foreigners seem to avoid it and use taxis instead. All stations have signs in English (at least all that I visited in Tokyo), and the system is mostly very reliable and predictable. There are some things that I would have like to know before I came there, however, which were not entirely obvious.
Here are my tips for Tokyo travelers, what I would have liked to know when I arrived:

  • The Tokyo trains are all owned by a variety of operators, but that does not matter in practice. There are good common travel cards that makes the ownership invisible from travelers.
  • Use the passcard systems! There is something called the SUICA card which is a contactless travel card that works on all trains and subways in Tokyo (I tried it on Japan Rail trains, as well as the Tokyo Metro and the Yurikamome private monorail). You simply swipe it over the machines at the entrance to the stations, and then again when you leave. The appropriate fare is deducted automatically from the card at the destination. If there is not sufficient money on the card, you can top up in the appropriate machines.
  • The PASMO card works supposedly like SUICA.
  • SUICA and PASMO are much more convenient than using tickets bought for cash.
  • From a business travel perspective, you can also get receipts charging the cards, while individual tickets do not get receipts and are “swallowed” by the pass at the end of the journey. Leaving no printed trail of the transaction.
  • SUICA cards are issued by Japan Rail (JR) and are charged at machines mostly found in JR stations (longer-distance regional trains). PASMO cards are issued by the subway system and charge machines are mosty found in the subway stations. Depending on where you tend to go most often, select the card biased towards the subway or the trains.
  • suicaplusnexI got my SUICA card as a special deal for a ticket for the Narita Express (N’EX) train from the airport. For 3500 Yen you get the trip to the city, as well as 1500 Yen on a SUICA card. The SUICA card is a special souvenir edition, keep it or return it for a 500 Yen refund when leaving. All of this is done in the JR Ticket Center at the bottom floor of the airport, not on the higher-up floors. Note that this gets you into Tokyo, you still have to pay for the return trip to Narita at the regular fare.
  • The N’EX is the fastest way to the city, some 60 min to Tokyo station. Note that it does not stop at very many stations, so be prepared to change trains to get to your final destination (or walk or take a taxi from the station). All other alternatives take 80 minutes or more it seems, but some buses stop at the gates of hotels (which is convenient). Also, N’EX only leaves every 30 minutes.
  • The SUICA card worked on trips as far away as Yokohama and beyond, up to 90 minutes away from Shiodome. Think it is the same for PASMO.
  • You can use SUICA to pay for refreshments in teh vending machines on most stations, and at some places outside of the train stations.
  • Never ever do a loop trip and get off at the same station you got on, the system does not like that and the nice people at the JR ticket office get very confused and embarrased. Always go to a different station and make sure to go out the gates. We did this the last night in Tokyo, took the Yurikamome monorail from Shiodome out to Odaiba, never left the platform, and went back to Shiodome (to see the view from the Rainbow Bridge). Took ten minutes to sort out when we refunded our cards.
  • If you have money on your card when you leave Tokyo, go to the JR office in the bottom floor of Narita and get it refunded. Handling charge is 210 Yen, quite reasonable to pay if you have on the order of 1000 Yen on the card.

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