1. Get a Suica or Pasmo card for a quick and smooth passage through ticket gates – this small card can be bought in train stations, and recharged in most ticket machines. Suica is the JR card and Pasmo is the Tokyo Metro one, but they’re interchangeable. There’s a 500 yen deposit which you can get back when you return the card at the end of your trip. Then you’ll be able to go through the ticket gates by just touching the blue space with the card. You can also use it to pay in some shops and restaurants.
2. Use a a timetable and route search website to avoid bad surprises – there are numerous benefits of using a site such as hyperdia. In addition to the transfers, travel time and total cost, you will also get the name of the train line and final destination, helpful in locating your train in major stations. If the train has reserved seating, the dropdown menu on the right will show you the additional fees.
3. Get a reserved seat to avoid standing during long-distance trips – if you don’t find a seat in the non-reserved section, “jiyuseki”, chances are that the reserved seat section, ”shiteiseki”, will also be full, especially when travelling on the weekend or during a holiday. So instead of taking the risk of standing the entire trip, it’s preferable to purchase a reserved seat from a ticket machine before boarding – the price difference is not that great. If you choose not to reserve a seat, make sure you sit in a non-reserved train car.
4. Get a good seat by standing in the correct line for your train – there are many different types of trains in Japan, and sometimes several will share the same platform. Because of this, there are markers on the platform that tell you where to line up, so that you’re near the door of your train. Check the exact name of the train you’re boarding, and then try to find the matching marker – ask other travellers or the station staff to help you. Being in the right place will enable you to board quicker and get a better seat.
5. Save time by boarding the carriage closest to the exit at your destination – Japanese trains can be very long and it can be a hike to get out of the station if you happen to be on the wrong part of the train. Look around on the platform while waiting for your train – there is usually a map indicating the position of escalators, elevators and exits relative to the train cars, for every station on the line. This can be very useful if you are running late or have a tight transfer.
6. Don’t panic but look for an open/close button if the door remains shut – when you start to move away from the center of Tokyo, the doors on some lines remain shut even after coming to a stop inside a station, and you’ll need to open them manually by pressing the button next to the door. It’s a smart power saving device, since less people get on and off at smaller stations, and it also allows you to close the doors during long stops when it’s cold in winter. On some lines, only one door will open (usually at the front of the train).
7. Pay later when there is no automatic ticket gate or the station is unmanned – some local stations on private lines still don’t use suica or pasmo so you won’t be able to touch your card and pay for your trip. In that case you’ll receive a ticket from the station attendant. Hold on to it till you have to enter a station again through an automatic gate, and before you go through, hand it to the station attendant who will adjust your fare. If the station is unmanned, when you next use a manned station, you’ll need to tell the station you travelled from and the station you travelled to previously.
8. Travel in peace and quiet in a first class “green” car – travelling first class can be a good deal for long trips. I recommend buying a first class, or green car ticket (as it is called here) using your suica / pasmo card from the ticket machine. Once you’ve purchased it, the trickiest part is actually confirming your green car seat: choose a seat and press the suica or pasmo card on the designated space above your head – the light will turn from red to green. A person selling drinks (including alcohol) and snacks comes by once in a while.
9. When in a hurry buy the cheapest fare ticket – if you are in a rush to catch your train and can’t figure out the fare for your destination, just buy the cheapest ticket. You can adjust the fare after arriving at your destination, either using one of the usually yellow-coloured fare adjusting machines inside the ticket gate or asking the person at the ticket gate.
10. Enjoy some personal space by avoiding the morning rush hour (7am-9am) – If you have lots of luggage or you’re travelling with small children, you might want to consider taking a taxi. If you really have to travel during rush hour, be prepared to squeeze your way onto the train, be squashed during the ride and finally squeeze your way out at your destination. The final cars of most subway lines are women-only (from first train till 9h30am) – they’re slightly less crowded so it’s good if you are a female traveller. Male travellers may be politely asked to get off at the next station.
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