It's not a secret - I really appreciate a cool car, much more if it is my own car. On the other hand I'm a girl from the city, and as a smart metropolis hiker I know that moving by car is not always the best option. That's why it often happens that my friends spot me somehow "hooked" to a daladala around Dar Es Salaam. Or challenging floods with garden boots.
Some days, I remember the time I was complaining about Italian public transports as a daily nightmare. And I just smile, because I didn't know about the Tanzanian ones - a huge sense of humor is required more than a regular ticket, in this case.
Just some weeks ago I stated that I came back from Japan unexpectedly relaxed, despite my continuous moving from a place to another every single day for the whole trip. One of the reasons is the efficiency of the train system, indeed. Nevertheless, the idea of Tokyo's public transports made me quite paranoid for months... before leaving!
Instead. I found a place where having a car can be considered 100% just luxury. And honestly, the idea that, for instance, in Tokyo you don't need a car to move easily is quite attractive - and from my perspective, my dears...
This doesn't mean that I never made a mistake during my transits by metro or railway. But I learnt some tricks to prevent them and enjoy my tour around Japan... avoiding any kind of "lost in the underground" panic attack.
The biggest and more busy railway system in the World
Let's start saying that, just the Tokyo metro network is practically the most used suburban transports network in the World. It is managed by different companies, not necessarily partnering - so the subscription to a line managed by the JR, for instance, doesn't work for a line managed by Toei. 13 lines and almost 300 stations, totally. That's it!
One more note. If you move by train out of Tokyo, to another region, the railways management will change - you won't notice the difference if you're traveling with a Japan Rail Pass, but if you're paying as you go with a commuter card bought in Tokyo (Suica, Pasmo, etc.)... it will stop working as soon as you'll be, for instance, in Kyoto or in Osaka.
Train vs. metro. The most frequent misunderstanding
At the beginning, the most annoying mistake that might make you loose a lot of time, is confusing the metro and the train lines. Considering just Tokyo, to simplify the matter, the metro stations and the train stations are not at the same place - even if the name of the stop is the same!
In other words. Let's take a random stop: Shimbashi. You'll find this name on 2 different metro lines (Ginza and Asakusa), on the Yamanote (which is a JR train) and as terminal of the private line Yurikamome. You'll find the Ginza and the Asakusa lines quite one next to the other, but if you need to switch to the Yamanote you have to get off from the metro, look for the green logo of the JR and go there. If you want to take the Yurikamome, you'll pass from underground to a floating platform, which is in another place and even looks quite different. And this is just a small station. Full stop.
One station, many gates. Don't miss yours
Second big mistake, the best way to get lost in Tokyo. A station has different gates, some stations have tens of gates grouped in sub-groups. Until you stay underground, everything is easy: there are signs everywhere, you just keep your track and follow it - you'll never fail.
But. If you're in a rush, or anxious to get off, and you just spot the nearest gate and take it... are you sure that you're going to the place you want? The reply is no. Stations are wide. Gates are all over.
Just one example: Ikebukuro. A traumatic welcome, for me. The station crosses the area like a bridge, the only difference is that it is under the ground - so it looks more like a barrier. You can get off on the East or on the West side, and you'll be in two completely different environments. Both called Ikebukuro, of course (if you're looking for crazy shopping, go straight to East, by the way).
In > Move > Out. Logically strict
Right in Ikebukuro, I made the worst mistake possible. It took me almost one hour to fix it, and an amount of money otherwise good for a yummy breakfast, a crepe or a club sandwich! I explain you what happened. My mind (the mind of most of us) is used to foresee and accept the possibility of human incoherence. Well, human incoherence doesn't find place in the Tokyo public transport system.
I saw an empty space looking like a shortcut - just matter of getting into the gate of a certain Tobu line, cross the corridor, and get off from the opposite gate. Fail! Basically, it doesn't make sense to get into a gate and not getting a train - so if you slide your Suica on a sensor located at the entrance, then you slide it on the exit of the same station, you'll see the barriers closing on your face. Next to an awkward "beeeeep" alarm. If you slide your Suica, you're paying a ticket. So you're supposed to take a train, before getting off. Logically strict!
That time I had to jump random on the first Tobu train passing by. Which accidentally, was going very far. Without stops in between. Get off, pay, get in again. Back to Ikebukuro, and pay once more. What to say... shortcut? Mwahahah!!!
Japan Rail Pass. Yes, no, maybe
Tourists can do this magical-expensive-overall-mega-ticket that allows to move all around Japan with any kind of train, shinkansen included. The temptation is to buy that for all the period of staying, without thinking much.
Fail! It is convenient just in one case: if you need to take more than one shinkansen in a week. Otherwise, just by metro and local trains, you'll never reach that amount. I did the calculation. Do it as well... if you trust the JRP marketing strategy more than the blonde blogger traveling alone!
So basically, if you plan to visit all the biggest cities of Japan in a week, buy a JRP. If you're doing a route like mine - Tokyo, Kyoto, Koya-san, Tokyo - in 2 weeks, let it go.
You have all the time to get used to the railway system, and you can move on the long distance using highway buses and traveling overnight. Lot of Japanese people do this way, to save money. But everybody can do, because it's easy and convenient.
If you search a bit with Google, you'll find at least one private company that offers interesting combos at quite good prices, with the possibility of booking online. I found it perfect! I don't want to advertise on the blog, but if you're interested just drop me a mail and I'll give you info.
Going to adjacent areas just walking. I tried it in Kyoto, it was seeming to me much feasible - well, don't do that. You'll waste a lot of time, many of the must-see venues are located in towns nearby. Plus, out of touristic spots you'll find nothing interesting.
But trust me. City hiking around Tokyo, even if it may sound weird, is really worthing. In certain situations, walking between adjacent areas is... just cool! Because you see lot of different landscapes, amazing corners where you don't expect.
The walks I liked more? As first, from Asakusa to Skytree - it's lovely, switch off the gps, spot the tower, go there. Skytree to Kappabashi Dori, on the way back. Tsukiji to Shiodome, passing by Hama-rikyū Teyen - not so long, good also for newbies. Inside Roppongi, from the Mori Tower to the Tokyo Tower - here again, switching off the gps and spotting the target.
An unusual one: around Odaiba, from Oedo Onsen Monogatari to Tokyo Big Sight - best early morning, in a sunny day it is amazing to see the golden Big Sight shining on the landscape. The most typical one: from Shibuya to Harajuku, passing by the Gymnasium and Yoyogi Park - then up to Omotesando Dori.
Life buoy. For orientation dummies like me
Just to be clear. I'm literally a disaster with orientation in wide spaces. For instance, it took me six months to learn how to get around Dar Es Salaam, where the interesting areas are much less extended compared to Tokyo.
Nevertheless, I found Tokyo (and Japan in general) easy. Ok, maybe it's normal to find easy any kind of place after two years in the city where I live. But it doesn't mean that at the beginning I wasn't a bit confused.
Technology made the difference. I spent part of my budget to get a data sim for my tablet: Google Maps, plus other few applications about trains, places to go, and so on... kept me on the right track, even when my brain was completely tilt!