Congratulations! If you’ve made it past the hustle and bustle of Narita Airport – not to mention all of the formalities – then welcome yourself to perhaps one of the most unique cities on Earth, not to mention the 11th most populated on earth: Tokyo. Once you’ve settled in to your hotel, it’s time to head on out and travel around the city to the places that you have marked on your to-do list.
Japan is renowned for it’s transportation system, and Tokyo is certainly no exception. Among the many elevated and underground train lines that criss-cross the center of the city like strands of spaghetti is a very important line – one that you should consider using frequently during your visit around Tokyo, especially the first. That line is the Yamanote Line, Tokyo’s loop line operated by Japan Railways (JR). The Yamanote Line makes a circle and stops at a total of 29 stations – all of which are important areas of the city.
Trains on the Yamanote run in both directions, and for the most part run continuously without terminating until late at night. The trains are the outer (clockwise) loop are classified as sotomawari, and inner (counter-clockwise) loop trains are known as uchimawari. A complete circuit of the Yamanote takes about one hour, but in general you should not have to travel more than 30 minutes or so to get to your destination (simply travel in one direction or the other).
The Yamanote Line is so important to Tokyo, that about 3,550,000 people use it every day – making the Yamanote Line the world’s busiest. All but two stations (Shin-Okubo and Mejiro) provide a connection to another JR Line, subway line, or private line. An American author who wrote about his visits to Japan put it thus: “When the Yamanote Line stops, Tokyo stops.”
Remember, since the Yamanote Line is operated by JR, access to the line is free if you have a valid Japan Rail Pass or JR East Rail Pass.
As with other metropolitan areas, it’s best to avoid the rush hour when the Yamanote Line trains become standing room only… in fact, two of the train’s 11 cars have seats that fold up to permit more passengers on board. Travel during the afternoon rush is just a little lighter but still very crowded.
Trains are easily recognizable by their green color, and there are automated station announcements in both Japanese and English.
The Yamanote’s major stations include: Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shibuya, Harajuku, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Nippori, Ueno and Akihabara.
To travel around Tokyo easily and quickly, the Yamanote Line is usually your best bet. However, if you’re a little more advanced, there are two other JR-operated train lines that bisect the Yamanote Line Loop: The Chuo Line Rapid is the fastest, cutting across the loop between Tokyo and Shinjuku in about 15 minutes compared to 30 on the Yamanote. The slower Chuo Line local runs a little less frequently than the Yamanote Line and bisects the loop between Akihabara and Shinjuku in 17 minutes compared to the Yamanote’s 25.