Asia Destinations

How to Travel on the Train in Tokyo and Kyoto

If you plan to travel on the train in Tokyo and Kyoto, you can feel intimidated. Don’t worry. The train lines are not too difficult to navigate. Even if you have zero experience taking trains, it is possible to navigate the Tokyo and Kyoto lines. (Check out my New York subway post and Seoul subway post.) Let’s start!

The train lines confused me at first because the lines have names instead of colors, numbers or letters. Then there are above ground JR (Japan Rail) trains as well as Tokyo (or Kyoto) Metro underground subway trains. These all connect.

And you use a combination of both above ground and below ground trains to get around. The image above is of a below ground subway station in Kyoto. Below is an above ground JR train in Tokyo.

#1 Tip When You Travel on the Train in Tokyo and Kyoto

My first tip is to become familiar with the main train line near where you are staying. For instance, I stayed at a VRBO rental near the JY Yamanote Line in Tokyo. Each station on that line is labeled with an abbreviation of the line name and a number. Knowing the numbers helps you go in the correct direction.

When using Google Maps, it will tell you which platform to board and which direction to go in. If you do not have internet, follow the signs for your train line (JY Line in my case). Then look at the station numbers. Tokyo station is JY01 for example. The Shin-Ōkubo station is JY16.  If you are at station JY16 and you need to get to JY01 make sure the next station is JY 15. Then you’ll know you’re headed in the right direction. Based on the image below, we are going the wrong way to get to Tokyo Station (JY01).

It is similar with the Kyoto train lines. Just like Tokyo, there are the JR (Japan Railroad) line that is above ground and the Kyoto Metro underground subway lines. As I noted earlier, you will use a combination of both to travel on the train in Tokyo and Kyoto.

When you need to transfer, follow the same rule. Look for the line you will need to transfer to. Then the name and number of the station. If you have internet, Google Maps can do this for you. See below, where we are transferring from the Karasuma line to the Tokaido line in Kyoto.

Local and Express trains

Some train routes don’t stop at every station. These are express trains that will only stop major at stations. Choose a local train if you’re not sure if your train station is a major one. If you know you are going to a major stop and it is many stations away, save time by using the express train.

There are even rapid express trains, depending on what line you are on. Signs on the train platforms tell you if the train is express or local. I noticed the express trains were shown in red.  And the local ones were in white. The displays on the trains themselves also show whether the train is local or express. The train in the image above is an express train traveling in Kyoto.

IC Cards

An IC card is essential when you travel on the train in Tokyo and Kyoto. It’s a card that you put money onto and use to pay your fare. The card works on buses too. It can also be used to buy items at convenience stores like 7-Eleven. If you are familiar with the New York City subway, think of it as a Metrocard or OMNY card.

Depending on where you are, the name will change. In Tokyo I used a Suica card. (My card was the Welcome Suica card, designed especially for tourists.) They also have what’s called a Pasmo card. In Kyoto they use the Icoca card. However, my Suica card worked in Kyoto too. I believe the Pasmo card works there too.

Each time you swipe your card at a station, you are charged the fare. Also, you see your remaining card balance. There are machines where you can load cash onto your card. It is not possible to add money to your card with a credit card or debit card. If you need cash, use an ATM in a place such as 7-Eleven.


Each station has a bathroom. These are clean and well-maintained. I’ve included a few pictures below.

Many stations include the high-tech toilets that Japan is known for. These include bidets and music that can play to give you privacy. The stalls are large and have doors that go all the way to the floor (This is so different from the U.S.). The women’s bathrooms also include a place to check your face or reapply makeup (below).

Shopping in the Subway

I did not experience the subway shopping I did in South Korea. Some stations had shops. Others were connected to above ground shopping malls. However, there were not the same number of small shops I saw in the Seoul subway. It’s possible I was not at the stations that had those type of shops.

I hope this guide helps you travel on the train in Tokyo and Kyoto with ease. This is the first of many Japan posts I can’t wait to share with you!

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