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Tokyo Travel Talk: Transportation

by Sami, 05/27/2012

I’m not one to often brag but one thing I’ll happily brag about is my knowledge of Tokyo. Through the past 3 years I’ve developed an extensive bank of memories of Japan and specifically Tokyo. These days when someone wants advice on traveling there, they find me, if not by knowing me directly then by being referred to me by someone who does know me. Each person does have different reasons and ways to experience Tokyo but when it comes down to it, there are always common things that we want to experience going there. Any one is always welcome to send me an email about what to do. Many people have but I thought I should blog about it too to cover certain things so people have a point of reference. Of course, if there’s something not covered or if you have any questions, always feel free reach out!

It started 3 years ago during my first trip. I published some posts back then but they weren’t lengthy. After all, I was on vacation and blogging was the last thing on my mind. I plan to publish 5 or so posts for the next few months to hopefully help guide traveling souls planning on going to Japan and specifically Tokyo. I only hope that it’ll help open your eyes and show you the reason I’m in love with the greatest city in the world.

I’ll come back to this original post and add links of the newer posts so that this one can act as an outline for things that are covered in other posts.

Narita Airport Sign Welcoming


Flying to Japan is not cheap, I’ll be the first to admit. The first time I went there I spent countless hours watching deal sites like Kayak and Orbitz to see how the price fluctuates from day to day to week to month. I also visited airlines’ sites directly after I noticed that Korean Air offered an incredibly cheap price that wasn’t in the search results for Orbitz. After about 5 weeks I realized that the price wasn’t changing much. This was about 3 months before my flight. I got very very lucky because Korean Air was having a sale and scored an unheard of price on one of the nicest airlines out there so always check out more than one outlet for a good price. Sometimes travel agencies like IACE will have last minute extremely cheap deals so keep an eye for those in case you’re not the type to plan months ahead.  $1,200 seems to be the average for a round-trip ticket from USA, being cheaper if you travel from west coast. If you score a ticket for less than $900 then you’ve got yourself a good deal.

I assume you would be buying economy. After taking more than few international flights I realize that all airlines are not created equal. Delta being my least favorite and Korean Air my most favorite that I’ve taken.


Language Barrier:

Of course it’ll help if you know Japanese or have a pocket phrase book but it’s not very necessary to have a great time in Tokyo.  Most people (especially the younger crowd) in Tokyo will speak English but theyʼre always shy about it. They always think their accent doesnʼt sound good even though itʼs just fine. So never feel that no one would understand you. Just try to speak slower . Not like youʼre talking to a dumb person, but like youʼre talking to someone who canʼt understand fast English well.

All of the main signs will be in English. Even the announcements on most trains will be in English. If you stick to the main neighborhood, you’ll even be able to score an English menu by asking for it. That said, a pocket phrase book will go a long way in helping you enjoy your Japan trip.

Side not: I really recommend you see Lost in Translation if you have the chance. It’s a wonderful film and, in my opinion, gives a very good impression of what Tokyo might hold for a stranger.


Transportation – from Airport:


NEX Train in Tokyo, Japan travelAt this point I’m sure you’ve come across JR-Pass. Here’s what I think of JR-Pass: If you’ll only stay in one city then it’s not worth the money you’ll be spending. If you’ll be visiting cities far from Tokyo, Kyoto for example, then I urge you get that JR-Pass because then you’ll be able to take the Shinkansen (bullet train) at a reduced price than what you would pay if you paid separately for it and your other transportation costs. Keep in mind, JR is one of many transportation companies. The JR trains will take you pretty much any where in the city but you might have to take other rail companies like Metro, for example. In that case then the JR pass won’t get you a free ride and you would have to pay for your ride.

The reason I just explained above is because JR-Passes need to be purchased outside of Japan, before going on your trip. Allow plenty of time to account for mailing, etc. Once you get to the airport then you can exchange a document you’re mailed with the actual JR-Pass. After that you’ll be able to purchase trains to go from the airport (Narita is main one in Tokyo) to the city.

The fastest way to get to Tokyo from Narita is to talk the NEX train. It’s an express train that goes from Narita to Tokyo Station and few stops after that in case your hotel is close to other main stations like Shinjuki or Shibuya. If you have the JR Pass then it will cover NEX cost. If not then you’ll have to purchase it separately at the station.

You have 2 options when you purchase NEX. You can buy it alone or you can buy what’s called a NEX/Suica combo. Suica is a Public Transit Card. In Japan, the fare depends in how long you go and it can get complicated to calculate your fare but if you have a Suica card itʼll take care of that for you and all you have to do is scan the card when you enter and when you leave a train station. When you get the combo you get a special deal and save about $15.

Another transportation option available from Nartio to Tokyo is the Airport Limousine. They stop in most hotels and can be a great option especially if you’re traveling with heavy luggage and want to avoid the intimidating public transportation system, especially if you’ve never experienced it before. Check their website for more details.


Transportation – around town:

Regardless of where you’re located, it’s hard to get around without taking the train and that’s why getting a Suica card is most likely your best option. I have never had the need to take the bus and doubt that you will too. Trains are very efficient so if you missed another train then don’t worry because another one must be coming soon. If you can, try to avoid taking it during the morning rush. For a lack of a better phrase, it’s a nightmare!

A friend told me about this website before my first trip and it life so much easier. With this free service you can enter your starting station and your end station and it will show you how to get there and if you need to make any transfers.

Another thing to keep in mind is finding out what exit you are coming off once you arrive at your station. For example, the Shinjuku JR station has more exists than I can remember and each one can be as far as a mile from another exit.

Trains do stop running around 11:30pm 12:00am so make sure you know the time of the last train where you need to get back to your hotel or where you’re staying.


Cabs are pricey! So unless youʼre about to cry because you just canʼt take it anymore with the crowds of public transportation then try to avoid them. A 10 minutes cab ride normally would cost $15-20 so itʼs not that bad. Iʼd rather you spend money on shopping or food! That said, taking a cab can be a treat. It’s not usual to drive around Tokyo and it can give you a glimpse of the city you can’t get from walking or being on the train. I remember my favorite views of Tokyo Tower were taken while being inside a cab.

That about covers transportation. I wanted to add general information but this post is already long as it is so there will be another one with general tips.




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