As I held the map of Tokyo metro, I spaced out and ended up gaping at the rainbow fireworks exploding before me. It’s a rainbow web. It’s a constellation of stations.
I have no idea what I’m going to do with the map.
I questioned my survival skills in the urban jungle.
Technically, I only had 48 hours to tour Tokyo because my flights to and from Japan are late afternoon and midday. I had to make the most out of my stay and make sure I soak up sakura season and understand the whys of its popularity. I must cross Shibuya, see Hachiko’s statue, and try to squeeze in time for Nikko.
But how the heck am I going to accomplish even the most basic task of reaching my hotel, from Narita airport, if I have no idea how to survive the Tokyo metro?
I ended up praying that, at some point, Japanese hospitality will be my fallback no matter what happens, as my underground adventures started with…
The NEX episode
Narita is an hour-and-a-half away from Tokyo. There are many ways to reach Tokyo, but the one that thrilled me was the Narita Express or NEX because it’s the newest airport transfer service from Narita. They have a special promo for foreign tourists that entitles you to buy roundtrip tickets for 4,000 yen, provided you’re coming back to Narita within the next 13 days.
To use the return ticket, you need to present it first at the ticket office in Tokyo Station. You don’t have to pay anything, the sales person will simply book you a seat on the schedule you prefer to ride the NEX back to Narita. So make sure you allot an extra hour to do this because you might need to queue depending on the number of fellow passengers, purchasing tickets out of Tokyo. Better yet, accomplish this at the same day you arrive at Tokyo station from Narita.
Unlike Hong Kong, which had separate railways just for the Hong Kong Express, NEX runs on the same JR line used by other trains to snake around Japan. But you don’t need to worry about riding the wrong train. The NEX has a very unique design that would definitely get your attention and would be hard to forget. It looked like an autobot waiting to transform, and is one of the reasons that made me curious to ride it.
Inside, NEX has its own Wi-Fi, has plenty of leg room for you to stretch, a neat tray table, and a space to keep your luggage secure during the ride. It’s very clean inside and it reminded me a lot of Taiwan’s High Speed Rail.
Navigating the Tokyo metro
I bought NEX tickets to and from Tokyo station–my subway point going to my accommodations in Akasaka. Tokyo’s metro reminded me of Taipei’s MRT, they looked kinda the same maybe because the Japanese helped build the Taipei MRT.
It was a lot to take in, and I took it as a warning that most locals still consult maps themselves when riding the lines. It was a labyrinth of connections, but the great thing about it is that they’ve combined both colors and the English alphabet to label each line. I thought my experiences in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan would’ve prepared me for it but, N to the O to the P to the E, NOPE.
BUT, here’s an essential tip: If it’s your first time to ride the Tokyo metro, make sure you have Internet connection. Google Maps saved me during most of my metro trip. All I did was input my destination and Google Maps would accurately tell me which line to take, complete with time and directions!
It also helped me track how many stations before reaching my destination.
It would also be best if you’ll get a SUICA or PASMO card to ride the metro. They’re almost the same, but I decided to buy a PASMO card because it’s newer. It works like an EasyCard/Octopus card which can be used for convenience stores and other outside-the-metro purchases too. They’re easily replenished using reloading machines in any metro station.
Speaking of convenience stores, I was surprised to see that drinking (not sure about eating though) is allowed in the Tokyo metro. I’ve gotten so used to being a law-abiding citizen of the Taipei metro that it was such a shocker for me. Despite the ability to drink-all-you-can, I noticed that most passengers still don’t eat nor drink in the cars, and that the cars are kept neat and clean, without a tad of ickiness, despite being worn and yellowed due to much public use–which is just as it should be.
A special Tokyo Metro experience
Aside from the overwhelming experience of riding the most complex subway I’ve ever tried, there’s another reason why I decided to blog about the Tokyo Metro.
I was able to experience a jampacked train ride, Monday night, from Shibuya to Ginza. The experience was surreal. When I entered the car, I was almost carried along by fellow passengers to go to a space that can be occupied. I ended up staying next to the right door. Seeing our sardine-like situation, I resigned myself to just getting off when the crowd thins, nevermind if I miss my stop when the train opens by the left door. Turns out I can still get off at the next station, no matter what.
As soon as the train stopped at the next station, the sardined passengers arranged themselves in such a way that miraculously parted the black sea of business suits to make way for people who needed to get off the car—including me. All I had to do was face the left door, and wait for the lady in front of me to make her way out of the car. And soon as the door opened, the passengers from outside made way for us, didn’t move an inch, and let everyone go out first before making any attempt to go inside.
And the most mind-blowing thing is that NOBODY SAID A WORD TO PLEASE LET THEM THROUGH. NOBODY REMINDED ANYONE OF WHAT THEY’RE SUPPOSED TO DO. They acted so civilly, so naturally, like they’re simply breathing. Sure, there were urgent prodding to move along as we didn’t have all the time in the world, but all you need to do is follow movements of getting out, and to decide that you needed to get off, AND YOU WILL. UNHARMED.
A final tip
Though the Tokyo metro has its merits in terms of convenience, genius connections all over Japan, and most of all, witnessing Japanese discipline in action, all of these greatness come with a price—price of effort, that is.
Like Singapore and Hong Kong, there’s also a lot of walking involved in the Tokyo metro. Sure, it’ll show you the distance in “m” but instead of meters, that “m” seemed to represent “minutes” left for you to walk the walkathon of your life. Glad to see 250 m on the sign? Be vigilant, don’t let your guard down, stop chillaxing your muscles and just move. You might end up walking for 25.0 minutes instead. or 250, depends if you get confused and lost.
So, while the Tokyo metro is the best way you can travel around Tokyo, like a local, and reach other places in Japan, you must prepare yourself for a lot of walking. And I mean A LOT, inside and outside the subway.
And prepare to get lost. Because chances are, you might. But that’s going to be part of your travel adventure so, why not? 😉