Planning a Trip to Tokyo – Understanding the Yamanote Line

I wrote in my previous blog entry, “Planning a Trip to Japan – Transportation“, I am planning a trip to Japan in April – May 2017 with some family members from the U.S. This article is part of a blog series explaining what and how to plan a trip to Japan. In this article, I am focusing on getting around Tokyo in public transportation, especially on JR (Japan Railways) trains.  I think the information in this article will be very useful to the first time travelers and independent travelers to Tokyo.

Tokyo’s public transportation system is seriously like a maze. I have visited other metropolis areas such as New York City or Paris, but Tokyo’s system is far more complicated in my opinion. I am a native of Japan, and lived in Tokyo for 5 years in 1980s, but I still can get lost trying to get to a new location in Tokyo. Here is the map of subway lines in Tokyo. Isn’t it totally overwhelming?

Picture 1:Tokyo Subway Route Map

Even for people who understand the language, figuring out how to get from one place to another can be very frustrating in Tokyo unless you have the basic understanding of the layout of central Tokyo. You can cut through the maze of transportation system by finding and understanding one simple JR line – YAMANOTE line ( 山手線). Yamanote line is a JR East line that circles the central part of Tokyo.  There are 29 stations in this bidirectional loop, and traveling the whole loop takes about 1 hour.  Most of the Yamanote line stations have connections to underground subway transfer stations.

Picture 2: Yamanote Line map

How to find Yasmanote Line on a map

Whenever you are looking at a transportation system map in Tokyo, the first thing you need to do is to find the Yamanote line loop to orient yourself. There should be a black and white striped Yamanote loop in each map of central Tokyo. If you go back to the first map in this blog (Picture 1:Tokyo Subway Route map), can you find the black white stripe of the Yamanote loop in the center of the map? If you are going to be in Japan, and looking for a destination in Tokyo, you will be doing this exercise of locating the Yamanote line on a map many times.  It’s not too early for you to start practicing this skill!

How to find the Yamanote line trains

The Yamanote line trains are always color coded in light green as you can see in the above picture. The loop is always running in 2 opposing directions. Trains which run clockwise are known as sotomawari (外回り, “outer circle”) and those counter-clockwise as uchi-mawari (内回り, “inner circle”). Either way, you should find your current station and your destination station on the Yamanote line map, and decide which direction is the faster way to get there.

The JR train stations in Tokyo have signs in English. You just need to pay close attention to follow the correct signs.

Picture 3: Yamanote line sign

In the above picture (Picture 3:Yamanote line sign), you can see that the Yamanote line is in light green, platform 4 and 5. Once you get to the platform 4 and/or 5, you need to decide which one to take. In the Japanese train system, the direction is always notated by the major stations that the train is heading to. Please see the picture 4: Yamanote line Platform below. I have never seen trains saying going to the direction such as North or West in Japan. For example, let’s say I am at Subuya station. (You can locate Shibuya station close to the right bottom of the Picture 2:Yamanote line map.)  The Yamanote line running clockwise will say  for “Shinjuku” and “Ikebukuro”, in this case, going north from Shibuya station. The Yamanote line running counter-closkwise will say  for “Shinagawa” and “Tokyo”, in this case going south from Shibuya station (see picture 4 below).

Picture 4:Yamanote line Platform

How to rescue yourself if you get totally lost in Tokyo

The beauty of the Yamanote line is that it is a loop. If you somehow get on the wrong direction, you can either keep riding the long way around, or get off at the next station and find the opposite side loop route to back track.

If you are desperately lost in central Tokyo, and you try asking directions and fail to get English speaking help, here is what I recommend you to do. If I were in that situation, I would get in a taxi and ask the driver to take me to the closest Yamanote station. From there, you can reorient yourself and find your next destination.

If you are an expert Tokyo traveler, and can navigate the subway stations and transfers, you can have the taxi driver to deliver you to your favorite subway station if you are lost However, navigating the subway system can get very complicated for novice travelers.  I recommend sticking with the JR lines, especially to the Yamanote line until you are more comfortable in the city.

Nice to know things when using the Yamanote line

When you are going From Tokyo to Shinjuku (or vice versa), you can save time by taking the Chuo line (color coded in orange in picture 2 :Yamanote line map).

You can save money when traveling in central Tokyo by using either Japan Rail pass (covers all JR lines in Japan for 7, 14 or 21 days), or JR Tokyo Wide pass (another multiple day pass) or Tokyo Metropolitan District 1 day pass (Tokunai pass). I will be writing another blog article about Japan Rail Pass and other multiple day JR traveling passes in the near future. I would like to explain how the Tokyo Metropolitan District pass works here. This is the best way to get around Tokyo and Yamanote line in one day. You can hop on and hop off the Yamanote line as many times as you would like in one day for one price (750 yen – about $6.50). You can buy this pass for today, or for tomorrow, or even for a month in advance.

The valid area of the Tokyo Metropolitan District pass is 23 special Wards in central Tokyo. The Yamanote line and its connecting lines are covered as long as they are within the 23 Wards. The suburban Tokyo areas, such as Narita Airport (in Chiba Prefecture) or Kamakura/Yokohama (in Kanagawa Prefecture), are not covered by this pass. It’s important to plan your day to maximize your usage of the pass within the valid area. There are a lot to do within the Yamanote line area, and I will be writing another article on that topic in the future.

Here is the leaflet for the Tokyo Metropolitan District pass for you to study.


One last thing to note about Yamanote line (or any other JR or subway lines in Tokyo). You should avoid getting on the train in the morning rush hour, between 8am to 9am. They are extremely crowded, and in some stations, the station workers will push people to pack them into the train. Especially, if you are traveling with large luggages, it will be impossible to get in and out of the train.

Trying to close a door in rush hour

That’s all for now. I will be writing another article soon about where to visit in the Yamanote line to start off your trip in Tokyo.


5 thoughts on “Planning a Trip to Tokyo – Understanding the Yamanote Line

  1. That’s a good catch. We’ve navigated around using a mix of the Yamanote line and the Metro. And indeed it is true the Yamanote can be used as a “backbone” where you can branch off as needed.


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