Getting Around: A Survival Guide to Transport Japanese

Richard Webb

With all the awesome free and cheap events happening every week in and around Tokyo, you’ll no doubt find yourself trying to navigate the often confusing train, subway and bus networks. Following on from last month’s guide to restaurant Japanese, in this article, we’ll look at some useful Japanese questions and expressions that will help you find your way around this vast metropolis.

Finding your Way to your Destination

The first thing that you might need to ask when trying to get from A to B is how to get there. A simple way to ask that question is:

English (E): How do I get to…?
Japanese (J): douyatte … ni ikimasu ka?

E: Where is the train/bus to…?
J: … yuki no densha/basu wa doko desu ka?

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Of course, it’s not much use asking the question if you can’t understand the answer! It’s impossible to cover every possible expression that a person might use to give directions, but here are a few useful words and phrases that you will likely hear:

E: To ride or take (a bus/train etc.)
J: norimasu / notte (the te-form, often used to give commands, such as directions)

E: Transfer
J: norikae

E: Change trains/buses at …
J: … de norikaemasu / norikaete (te-form)

E: Get off at …
J: … de orimasu / orite (te-form)

E: Platform number …
J: … ban sen

E: The … line
J: … sen

E: Bound for …
J: … yuki

E: Towards …
J: … hōmen

So, if you were in Shibuya and asked someone how to get to Roppongi, they might say something like the following:

E: Please take the Yamanote line towards Shinagawa, then change to the Hibiya line at Ebisu.
J: yamanote-sen wo shinagawa hōmen ni notte, ebisu de hibiya-sen ni norikaete kudasai

Complicated directions might be a bit much to take in, but if you have trouble understanding someone, just ask them to repeat slowly (say “sumimasen, mō chotto yukkuri onegaishimasu”), and then focus on key words like station and line names, “norikae” and “hōmen”.

Asking for Additional Information

When moving around, there’s a good chance you’re interested in how much the journey to your destination will cost, and how long it will take. Here’s how to ask those questions:

E: How much does it cost to go to…?
J: … made wa ikura desu ka?

E: How long does it take to go to…?
J: … made wa dore kurai kakarimasu ka?

The answers to these should be quite straightforward, but you’ll need to know your numbers. These will be used with the “en” counter for yen, and the “fun” or “jikan” counters for minutes and hours, respectively.

Buying Tickets

For most buses in Japan, you simply pay as you are either getting on or off the bus, but trains of course require a ticket. The most common word used to refer to train tickets is “kippu”, although if it’s easier to remember, “chiketto” can also be used. To ask where you can buy tickets, say this:

E: Where can I buy a ticket?
J: kippu wa doko de kaemasu ka?

One thing to be careful of at larger stations with multiple train lines run by different companies is that in most cases, tickets for one line will not work on another, so you need to be sure you use the right ticket machine. The machines are usually well-marked, but not always, so just be careful and if you’re not sure, ask someone. To do so, you can make the above question more specific by specifying the line, or “sen”, like so:

E: Where can I buy a ticket for the … line?
J: … sen no kippu wa doko de kaemasu ka?

The word “sen”, by the way, can mean a number of things. It can refer to the platform number, the train line, such as the Yamanote-sen, or even the train company, such as the JR-sen. Unless you’re buying tickets for the shinkansen (bullet train) or a limited express with reserved seating, you normally only need to make sure you’re buying tickets for the right company – they’re not line-specific.

Making Sure you Catch the Right Train or Bus

Before you get on a train or bus, you can save yourself a lot of time by checking you’re not getting on something that will take you in completely the wrong direction. Try asking the bus driver, a station attendant or another traveler one of these questions:

E: Is this the bus/train to…?
J: kore wa … yuki no basu/densha desu ka?

E: Does this bus/train stop at …?
J: kono basu/densha wa … ni tomarimasu ka?

If all else fails…

You can always take a taxi. These are pretty straightforward, as the driver only has one question, and your answer needs to be nothing more than the address or landmark you’re heading to. However, taxis in Japan, especially Tokyo, are not exactly cheapo-friendly, so if you want to be sure you’re not going to need to donate a kidney when you reach the other end, it may be wise to ask something like this before jumping in:

E: I want to go to … About how much will it cost?
J: … ni ikitai desu ga, ikura kurai kakarimasu ka?

You shouldn’t expect their answer to be too precise, but it will at least give you an indication as to whether or not you’re better off seeking another means of transportation.

And that’s about it! Now you should be able to find your way to all the best Cheapo events like a local.  For more basic Japanese lessons, stay tuned for another language guide next month, and be sure to check out my upcoming Japanese language book, 80/20 Japanese.

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4 Responses to “Getting Around: A Survival Guide to Transport Japanese”

  1. hasselbladsnapper

    Having just returned from Japan to Australia, it was good to have the tips from TOKYOCHEAPO! .. the best was regarding eating at the rail stations, worked well across the country.
    Navigating the rail stations and underground was indeed a problem. What seemed to work for us was to talk to the staff at the ticket booth next to the electronic gates, that often worked, and they at least had some level of English to understand which station we were heading to. Another tip, is to have a map in your hand and look lost!, often very kind Japanese with some level of conversational English stopped to see if they could help, and often did, a big thanks to all of them!. I guess the worst aspects were, working out where you were in the very large or multi level stations, and additionally making sure we were heading in the right direction …. that’s where the station gate staff were a real help.
    The other thing we found out, there are often ” other” stations that are not marked on the general ” tourist” handbill maps that are available, can cause confusion by making you think the next station is ” the one” but the ghost stations can trick you!. All in all it is possible to navigate around, but if you have large luggage and it’s a complex route, take a taxi, a 6/8 km trip was around $20, and well worth it.

    • CheapoGreg

      Thanks for the feedback! One of the great things about Tokyo is that looking lost and clueless usually gets you help rather than getting you mugged! Travelling with luggage during peak hours on the train can be a real nightmare!

  2. Yasmine

    I am new to Japan and Tokyo and I found an app called 乘換案內 by tosehide (free from Google play) really useful. You type in the time, departing and arriving station and the app gives you three type of routes: the fastest; the less transfer; and the cheapest. The bonus about the app is it covers the different train companies and the cheapest route can be less than half of the obvious route in some cases. It even tells you the platform numbers. All you need is an IC card to swipe in and out of the station. Highly recommended!

    • CheapoGreg

      That’s a good app – I use it all the time. Great if you can read Japanese, but not so useful if you can’t. Apparently the co. behind it (Jorudan) has an English app but it’s not free – it costs 300yen. Or you could just use the website for free ->

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