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I consider myself an above-average public transit user. Although I don’t personally live in a city that has a subway system (thanks Great Depression!), I have traveled on public transit and subways a lot of times. I took a bus in Morocco to avoid cheating taxi drivers. I’ve lost a kid on the subway in Barcelona. I have even written articles on this site about things like detailed steps on how to take public transportation from Manhattan to Newark Airport that have helped countless travelers (if the comments are to be believed).

But after spending a few days in Tokyo in 2023 – I am not ashamed to admit that… I am a bit confused.

Tokyo’s Subway System

Here’s a look at Tokyo’s subway system map, downloaded from the official site.

a map of a subway system

As you can see, the Tokyo subway / rail / public transit system is quite large. That’s not a problem for me at least – I am well-versed in reading the maps, and it’s not a problem for me to figure out where we are, and how to get where we need to be. Plus, Google Maps is super helpful in this regard as well.

My Journeys On The Tokyo Subway System

We took the Tokyo subway on a number of journeys during our few days in Tokyo

a white train on the tracks

3 Things That Confuse Me About The Tokyo Subway System

Okay, so like I said, I thought that I was pretty knowledgeable about how to travel the Subway System, but here are 3 things that I still don’t understand about Tokyo’s subway:

How Much Rides Cost

The first thing is trying to figure out how much a particular ride is going to cost. I believe that Tokyo operates under the model where rides cost a different amount, depending on where you enter and exit the system. This is similar to the Washington DC subway, and in contrast to the New York City subway, where all rides cost the same flat amount. I was never really sure how much a ride was going to cost – we just scanned our Pasmo card and hoped there was enough on it to cover the ride. This led to a nearly-awkward moment at the end of my journey where we were JPY1000 short of being able to exit the subway system at the airport, and we didn’t have any yen left to refill our card. Thankfully Google Maps was again super helpful here as it would usually tell us, but it would also give different price amounts for a trip, depending on which lines you took.

Multiple Systems?

One thing that confused me at the time that I think I have figured out since is that there are multiple different lines. There is the Tokyo Metro as well as the Toei Subway system (and maybe some Japan Rail as well?). All of the lines are shown on the Tokyo subway map, and they are all connected as part of the large station complexes, but they’re not the same. I think that is probably related to my confusion about costs. There were a few times on my journey where I think that I swapped between different systems and didn’t realize I was doing so (driving up the costs)

Trains That Magically Switch Lines

Another thing that confused me was that several times, Google Maps would say something like “switch to the ABC line (stay on the same car)”. And sure enough, we would stay on our same subway car, but all of a sudden the in-car screens would switch colors and we were on a totally different line. In Osaka, we had a situation where based on what car you were in, at a certain station the train itself would split and you’d go to two different locations. Again, we just followed Google Maps and it all worked out, but I’m still not quite sure how that worked.

The Bottom Line

I don’t know – maybe it’s just me. Like I said, I feel like I have quite a bit of experience with public transportation and subways specifically, but I definitely left Tokyo feeling a bit confused about what was going on. It was mostly just “scan my PASMO card and pray”, and thank goodness for Google Maps transit directions!

Now it’s your turn – have you ridden the Tokyo subway system? Are you just as confused as I am? Or have you gotten it all figured out?

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