An excellent public transport system offers the best means of getting around in Tokyo. There's a dense network of interconnected rail and subway lines and extensive bus routes, so reaching anywhere in the city is easy. Navigating the system can be confusing for new arrivals, though. The public transport system is also known for its punctuality.
Public transport can be packed during rush hour, and long commutes to work are common. All in all, most expats agree that dealing with crowds is well worth the efficiency and convenience of Japan's public transport system.
Public transport in Tokyo
In addition to the extensive network of public transportation, Tokyo also offers convenient payment methods to make commuting even more efficient. The city uses two main smart cards, Suica and Pasmo, which can be used on trains, subways, and buses. These cards are prepaid and rechargeable, allowing commuters to simply tap their card on the reader at the ticket gates, eliminating the need to purchase individual tickets for each journey. The cards are interchangeable and can also be used for purchases at convenience stores and vending machines, making them a handy tool for both commuting and everyday life in Tokyo.
Tokyo's railway system is the most popular means of getting around the city. There's an extensive rail network, operated mainly by JR East, as well as several other privately operated lines. The circular Yamanote Line, sometimes called the 'Loop Line', is the main rail line in the city and connects most major city centres within the city limits.
Station names are usually marked in both Japanese and English, which makes it easier for expats still getting used to navigating the city. Trains are punctual and efficient.
For an overview of Tokyo's public transport system, visit the official website of the East Japan Railway Company (JR East).
Tokyo's subway system is extensive, efficient and well connected to the train system. Route maps and fare charts are available in English at each station.
The subway system serves areas both inside and outside the Yamanote Line loop. It also extends beyond the city limits with direct connections to other private train lines, making it a convenient mode of transport in Tokyo.
The Tokyo Metro website provides comprehensive information about the subway and how it operates.
Bus services aren't as frequent as trains, but they are convenient if needing to reach parts of Tokyo not accessible by rail. Buses can also be used for long-distance services outside of Tokyo. Tokyo has many different bus operators, with Toei Transportation being the most prominent. However, bus routes can be more difficult to navigate for non-Japanese speakers, as not all buses have English announcements or signage.
For information on bus services in Tokyo, have a look at the Toei Transportation website.
Taxis in Tokyo
Taxis in Tokyo are plentiful but expensive, though they can be helpful if travelling late at night when most other public transport options cease operating. Taxi drivers might not speak English, so it's a good idea to have one's destination written in Japanese for the driver. It isn't necessary to tip the driver.
Ride-hailing services like Uber are operational in the city, but they can be pricier and scarcer than regular taxis. An interesting feature of taxis in Tokyo is that the doors open and close automatically, so expats shouldn't attempt to operate the door manually – something that may take a while to get used to.
- For traditional taxi services, visit the official website of Tokyo MK Taxi, a popular taxi company in Tokyo.
- Information about ride-hailing services in Tokyo can be found on the Uber Japan website.
Driving in Tokyo
Owing to the city's excellent public transport system, it's unlikely that expats will require a car to get around in Tokyo. If anything, driving in Tokyo can be more of a hassle; navigating the city in a car can be especially difficult due to heavy traffic congestion and the confusing mass of narrow streets, which aren't always clearly marked. Additionally, parking in Tokyo can be expensive and difficult to find.
Those who do wish to drive will generally need an international driver's permit, at least initially. Nationals of certain countries may use their licence from home as long as they have it officially translated into Japanese. To obtain a permanent Japanese licence, practical and written tests may be necessary.
- For car rental services in Tokyo, refer to the Nippon Rent-A-Car website.
- See Transport and Driving in Japan for more about driving licences and laws in the country.
Cycling in Tokyo
Although cycling is popular in Tokyo, amenities for cyclists aren't extensive, and traffic congestion can add to the danger. Many cyclists simply ride along the pavement, as cycle lanes aren't common in the city – so pedestrians should watch where they are going, as accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists are common in Tokyo. While cycling is a common mode of transport for short distances, it's not always the most practical for longer distances or for commuting during peak hours due to the crowds.
- To rent a bicycle in Tokyo, take a look at the DOCOMO BIKE SHARE website
►Learn more about getting around in the country in Transport and Driving in Japan
"A car is not necessary in Tokyo though with children they can be a significant benefit." Read more of Jonathan's thoughts on expat life in Tokyo.
"The railway networks connect you to virtually any point in Japan you can imagine." Read about Joan's expat experiences in Tokyo.
Are you an expat living in Tokyo?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Tokyo. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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