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The Tokyo Metro is a modern wonder of efficiency. It has some of the most-trafficked train stations in the world - by some estimates, Shinjuku station ushers through over 3 million people per day. At the same time, trains are almost always on time; conductors make repeated announcements apologizing when a busy subway is running one or two minutes late.
Don't be intimidated, though. Despite the sheer number of trains and volume of people, Tokyo’s subway and train system is surprisingly simple to navigate. Though there are technically three different train systems in Tokyo, you can ride all of them seamlessly with a single card, which you can buy as soon as you arrive and recharge with cash at a machine in any station. Simply tap the card at the turnstile on your way in and out. All station signage in the city will have English as well as Japanese.
One trick for making your trip as simple as possible is to know your exits. Zoom in on the map of your destination until you see small exit numbers appear around the station. (Paper maps and the large color maps inside the train station will have the exits marked, too.) Bright yellow signs within the stations will point the way to each numbered exit. Stations are sometimes so vast that going out the right exit can mean the difference between ascending to street level right at (or even inside) your destination or walking a quarter of a mile on a busy street to find what you’re looking for.
Tokyo’s a city of superlatives, and the Metro system is no exception. It reportedly deals with more passengers per year than any other city subway. And though there aren’t any stats to support the claim, it must surely be the most punctual system, and its riders the most civil.
On the very rare occasion that a train is late, you’ll find staff at the exit handing out delay certificates to get you off the hook with your boss, teacher or angry date. These days you can even download electronic versions of the excuse slips to your mobile phones for several days after a delay.
Ten years ago, the Metro officials decided to make things easier for tourists by numbering the stations. You no longer have to remember the name Gaienmae - you can just look for G-03 (third station on the Ginza line). And you don’t need to worry about figuring out the fare - just buy the cheapest ticket, and then stick it in the yellow Fare Adjustment machine at the destination. Or better still, buy a PASMO or Suica rechargeable IC card. You’ll have to pay 500 yen as a deposit, but you can get that back when you leave town.
In terms of etiquette, there are just a few rules. Don’t eat on the train, don’t charge into a carriage and compete for a seat, and gents should watch out for the women-only carriages. They only come into effect at peak times on certain lines, but there’s nothing worse than standing in a carriage and gradually realizing why 50 pairs of female eyes are staring sternly at you. Look for signs on the platform and train windows.