Tokyo’s World-Class Transit/Shinkansen System: A Three-Tier Overview

Tokyo is renowned for its technological advancement, and its public transit system is no exception. Tokyo’s Transit System is the largest in the world, reflecting Japan’s Shinto-centered obsession with cleanliness and efficiency. The three-tier system consists of underground subways, local trains, and Shinkansen bullet trains. The railway and Tokyo Metro are renowned for their punctuality, cleanliness, and comprehensiveness. Together, these options provide seamless connectivity to almost every corner of the city and its surrounding areas. We LOVE the personal high-touch service of Tokyo’s public transportation network and feel this to be just another example of Japan’s service-oriented, forward-thinking culture.

Below, you’ll find an overview of each transit tier: the Tokyo Metro subway system, the JR East above-ground local railway system, and (perhaps our favorite!) the Shinkansen bullet train system. 


1) Tokyo Metro – Underground Subway Trains

The Tokyo Metro is an underground subway system with nine lines, each color-coded for convenience, connecting 190 stations. Most commonly used for travelling between north and west Tokyo to eastern neighborhoods across the Sumida River, the Tokyo Metro network covers the area inside the Yamanote loop as well as areas surrounding Ginza and east of this loop. With modern amenities and user-friendly signage, navigating the Tokyo Metro is an integral part of the city’s transit fabric. Of special note are the “women-only” cars, which operate during morning rush hour (starting around 9:30 AM) to provide security for all women and young children. These cars, along with designated boarding areas, are clearly marked with the “women-only” signage. 

Navigating the Tokyo Metro is relatively simple as each station is conveniently labelled by number. Station numbers consist of a color-coded circle (representing the subway line), station number (shown on the subway route map), and alphabet letter (abbreviated symbol of the line name).

Tokyo Metro Service

All subways operate from 5:00 AM – 12:00 AM. On major lines during rush hour, trains come every 2-3 minutes. Though there are many different ticket options depending on route and use duration, the best option for travelers is the Tokyo Metro 24-hour ticket, which allows unlimited rides across all lines for the day. These can be purchased using ticket machines at all stations at the rate of 600 JPY (about 4.00 USD) for adults or 300 JPY (about 2.00 USD) for children.

Popular Stations

The most commonly travelled Metro stations are Ginza, Asakusa, Meiji-jingumae (Harajuku), Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ueno, which all provide easy access to some of our favorite stopover destinations:

Ginza Station: Shopping in Ginza District (!) with our favorite, Ginza Atoya

Asakusa Station: Sensoji Moss Temple

Meiji-jingumae Station: Meiji Shrine, Harajuku District, Omotesando Area

Shibuya Station: Shibuya Crossing

Shinjuku Station: Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

Ueno Station: Tokyo National Museum, Ueno Zoo

Major JR EAST Lines & Stations
Suica Card Reference

2) JR East Japan Railway – Above-Ground Local Railway Trains

The East Japan Railway Company, commonly known as JR East, is the backbone of Tokyo’s transit system. Operated by the JR Group, JR East is the largest of the group’s seven railway companies across the country, with an annual ridership of approximately six billion people. The company was formed in 1987, when JNR (Japan National Railways, the previous railway system wholly owned by the Japanese government) privatized, splitting public transit to individual companies. Though JR East comprises an extensive network of 23 lines spanning the greater Tokyo area, the Yamanote Line is definitely the primary route visitors and locals use for getting around the city. On a map, Yamanote appears as a green loop connecting the city’s major hubs, including Tokyo Station, Shibuya, Ginza, Akhabara, Shinjuku, Harajuku, and more.

Local Railway Service

Trains run from approximately 4:30 AM – 1:00 AM in two-to-four minute intervals. With few exceptions, trains primarily operate above ground. Though there are many different ticket options depending on route and use duration, the best option for travelers is the basic fare ticket, which allows access to all local train lines, though price varies depending on travel duration. Alternatively, for repeated use, we suggest a reloadable Suica (IC) card, which is a basic fare ticket that you top off beforehand. These can be purchased using ticket machines at most stations.

N700 Shinkansen - Fastest Shinkansen Train Operating!

3) JR East Japan Railway – Shinkansen (Bullet Trains)

The Shinkansen (bullet) transport system is part of the larger JR East transit system, which also includes conventional local railway lines and limited express trains. We consider Japan’s Shinkansen transport system to be an apt manifestation of the Kodawari sense of quality and attention to detail; refreshingly efficient, immaculately clean, very fast, and completely reliable. If only we had Shinkansen in the states! Established on October 1, 1964 (nine days before the Tokyo Olympics), “the superexpress train of our dreams” is on the precipice of nearly 60 years of service! Japan’s Shinkansen can rightfully boast of having the best safety record on the planet, having served seven billion passengers without a single passenger fatality due to collision or derailment. Following the tragic January 2024 earthquake in Noto, the JR East Line, which runs through the areas majorly affected by the earthquake, resumed nationwide operations less than 24 hours later!

An amazing feature of these trains is the “tilting” technology which you will experience on the route curves. In addition to our love for the First Class N700 Green Cars with their ergonomic seating and unbelievably smooth ride, we look forward to riding the brand-new E8 trains, introduced in March 2024, which connect Tokyo with destinations in Yamagata Prefecture. Of future excitement is the Chūō Shinkansen line with Japan’s new Maglev trains! Expected to connect Tokyo with Nagoya and Osaka in under one hour (half the current duration), the model will reach unprecedented speeds using Magnetic Levitation technology. Superconducting electromagnets on the train cars interact with magnetic railways to lift the train four inches above the ground and push it forward, eliminating friction and allowing for higher speeds. Currently in its testing phase, we anxiously await the estimated 2027 inauguration of the Chūō Shinkansen!

Shinkansen Service

The importance of punctuality in Japanese culture can be witnessed in its impeccable train schedule, with departures and arrivals on time down to the second. It is known that you can actually tell the time simply by noting when a train is departing, no need to find a clock! It is so rare for a train to be behind schedule, that if it ever happens, it is assumed there was a natural disaster or similar circumstance involved to cause such an odd occurrence. To ride the Shinkansen, all travelers will need to purchase a basic fare ticket in addition to a (limited) express train seat ticket (reserved or non-reserved). These can be purchased via ticketing machines at train stations, at travel service centers throughout Tokyo, or by pre-reservation online at

Baggage Guidelines

Luggage storage space on Japan’s Shinkansen (bullet trains) is quite limited. Unlike Europe, there is no porter service available in Japanese rail stations to help store bags. We respectively suggest you plan to travel light in Japan, utilizing laundry services at hotels along the way and packing small-style duffel bags/ “wheelies” and backpacks.

Please note the current Japan Shinkansen luggage suggestions:

  • 20 in x 22 in x 12 in
  • No heavier than 30 pounds

Based on our many travels throughout Japan, we recommend the following bags (or bags with similar dimensions) from the AWAY brand:

  • Regular size: Carry on FLEX: 22 in x 14 in x 10 in (RL and Jay Xu’s favorite!)
  • Larger size: Carry on FLEX: 23 in x 15 in x 10 in (Bev and Zen’s favorite!)

These dimensions are ideal for SHINKANSEN and will fit as a carry-on bag for all major carriers.