October 21, 2006

Trains in Japan: Cheap and Easy (Part 1)

Trains are a great way to travel around in Japan, but they can be confusing and expensive. I'll share in the next couple posts how I cut 3383 yen (about US$30) per month from my family's Sunday train fare. We live in Shiki, a Tokyo bedroom community, and go to church in Ochanomizu, downtown Tokyo. At first we took the Tobu Tojo line to Ikebukuro and transfered to the Marunouchi line, which stops at Ochanomizu. It takes about 40 minutes and costs 490 yen one way. This adds up to 7840 yen per month, just to get to church and back. It's a little expensive, but definitely worth it. After a few months we checked out some online "fare and course search sites" (kind of like MapQuest but for trains), and found a better way to go. It takes about 5 minutes longer, but if we use the Yurakucho line instead of the Tobu Tojo line for part of our trip, the one-way fare is only 390 yen or 6240 yen per month. Plus the Yurakucho line is less crowed so we almost always get a seat.

You math smarties are probably wondering where the rest of the savings is. I'll tell you in the next post. For now, I'll offer some instructions on using the fare search sites.
  1. Find a site you like. I use Yahoo!'s because I'm used to it and I've found it to be fast, configurable and accurate. It's all in Japanese though. If you want one in English, then hyperdia.com looks good. There aren't as many search options, but at least the translation of the help documents will make you laugh. Other sites are optimized for mobile phones. I always check from my PC, so someone who uses a keitai for this might be able to help out in the comments.
  2. Enter your starting point and your destination. Here is where the search tool can be helpful. If there is more than one similarly named station, it will give a dropdown menu (Ochanomizu, Shin-Ochanomizu). If more than one station works for you, run the search multiple times to find out the fastest or cheapest way.
  3. Enter the date and time. This can be the time you want to depart or arrive. Also you can tick the last train ( 終電) button to find out the the last train you can catch at night to make it to your destination.
  4. Sort your results. Depending on the search site, results can be sorted by travel time, number of transfers, and price.
  5. Choose the best route and go! Don't forget to think about things like walking to and from stations, buying tickets, and how crowded particular trains might be. It can help to try taking different routes at different times. Also cars on the same train are heated and cooled differently and may have more or fewer people in them. If you are a woman, many trains now have "Ladies Only Cars" during rush hour.
Next time I'll write about the various discount tickets that are available.

[Photo Credit: "Twilight Yamanote" by Kappuru]

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