Ever wondered what it might feel like to be a sardine in a can? Well you may have that opportunity in Tokyo. Tokyo has one of, if not the best, metro systems in the world, and it deserves that title. There are two main systems that run throughout the whole of greater Tokyo, one is the Tokyo Metro, and the second is the Japan Rail (JR) line. In addition to these two there are smaller train lines located in different parts of the city and its suburbs that are privately owned and have their own routes.
I have had the opportunity to ride both the JR line and the Metro and ridden on one of the smaller lines when I was on a visit to an elementary school. When I first arrived in Tokyo and looked at the maps for the JR lines and the Metro lines I was definitely intimidated and very worried about navigating through the system. The first thing to take note of is whether you want to ride on the JR line or the Metro and where your closest station is. I have been asked by a few foreigners about trying to find a station and discovered that their confusion often stems from looking at the wrong map. Some of the larger stations, such as Shinjuku, Tokyo and so on will serve as stations for both many JR lines and many Metro lines. What is convenient, though, is that every station has almost everything in English right beside the Japanese, so that if you lack Japanese reading skills, you can still navigate where you are trying to go in the station. While on trains as well they will announce what stop there are arriving at and where they are bound in English as well.
There are many lines both on JR and on the Metro. The Metro lines seem to have only select stations and their platforms clearly labeled and separated from each other. However, JR, which I use for my daily commute, and also has many lines, may sometimes share the same platform as another line in a station. If you are using JR, be wary of this fact and also be wary that not every train on the same line will have the same final destination. Sometimes some trains do not go to the very last stop as the subway normally does. Some lines also separate and go off into two different directions after starting in one direction, thus you need to make sure the one you are getting on is the right one. Every platform will have posted on some of the pillars the stations that a train on that line stops at. You will find the station lists for individual lines on platforms only where they stop at. Hopefully this has not lost you yet, and does not sound too confusing. It may seem kind of intense, but as long as you have a map with you, and take a couple minutes to look at the overhead displays that announce when trains are coming and going, then you should be fine. Unlike in America, trains in Tokyo are very specific about being on time, however there are delays from time to time.
Tokyo is a huge city, and thousands upon thousands of people live here. Many of these people use these trains for the daily commute and there are always people using them to visit friends or go shopping and get other places. During rush hour, the stations, particularly the larger ones, and the trains, can be a bit overwhelming. Large stations like Shinjuku, Ikebukuro and Tokyo have thousands of people passing through them on a daily basis and peak hours are when it they are most crowded. There will be constant crowds and large waves of people coming and going as they rush to get off one train and on to another, or to their next destination. It is best to just remain calm and be prepared to dodge people who are running from one train to the next. Since many people are in a rush, they may seem a bit pushy or even bump into you, but it is best to not take any of it personally and to shrug it off. No one is intentionally trying to bump you or run into you, it is just a part of being in a crowd. By that same token though, be careful that you are not pick pocketed during these crowded times. While Tokyo is a very safe city there is still some crime and it is better to be safe than sorry.