London Underground Vs Tokyo Metro

Rachel Holdsworth
By Rachel Holdsworth Last edited 18 months ago
London Underground Vs Tokyo Metro
Photo by Antonio Tajuelo under a Creative Commons licence.

Occasionally, Londonist writers take a trip, and indulge in the excitement offered by cities other than London. And because we're magnificent nerds, that puts us in a grand position to do a subway-off between London and various other cities. Today: Tokyo.

Size

There are nine official Metro lines in Tokyo, but just about everyone would consider the network to include the overground rail lines — including the very popular and indispensable Yamanote line, which does a 21-mile circuit around the city. There are also lines run by private operators, and other lines run by the national operator. It is, in short, a mess (see navigation, below), but it also means the system is huge. Even adding in London's suburban rail services doesn't bring it close.

This is in part because Tokyo is all spread out, with various centres around the city instead of having a London-like compact zone 1 and spreading out in concentric circles. If you want to travel between, say, Shinjuku and the Tokyo Skytree, that's a distance of 11 miles by road and would take 40 minutes on the Metro (a combination of private rail and subway lines). An equivalent distance in London gets you from Finchley Central to Kew Gardens and takes over an hour.

And we haven't even started to comprehend the sheer number of people the Tokyo Metro moves around. The Yamanote line alone carries more passengers per day than the entire London Underground network. 3.5 million people use Shinjuku station every day. Take that, Waterloo, with your 89.4 million passengers a year.

Size result: Tokyo wins

Information and navigation

As we said above, the Tokyo Metro system is enormous. The official map includes the subway lines, Yamanote line, private subway lines and some Japan Rail lines. It makes us want to cry. And even then it doesn't include everything: there was a line we once needed to take to get out to some temple in the suburbs, and we had to find out where it connected by looking it up on Wikipedia because it wasn't mentioned on any English language map. Seriously.

We also find the Tokyo subway map confusing because of how it's attempted to be simple. Each line has a symbol (in English, more or less the letter the line starts with) and each station has a number as well as a name. Except this means that sometimes the same station can have different numbers. Hibiya station is number 09 on the Chiyoda line, 07 on the Hibiya line, 08 on the Toei Mita line and connects up with Yūrakuchō (18 on the Yūrakuchō line). Being used to the most elegant subway map in the world, this feels relentlessly unnecessary.

Once you've worked out where you need to go, however, the system is pretty straightforward. All the station signs are translated into English letters and there are announcements on the train in English. It all gets a bit more complicated when you're not on the actual train, though; Shinjuku station has 200 exits. Station platforms do have handy signs telling you what's at each exit, but still. 200 exits.

Info and navigation result: London wins

This tells you the carriage and door number (as well as spooky alien eyes). That'd be very handy in London, for users of the Station Master app.

Trains

Trains in Tokyo are more like metal tin cans than London's sleek white carriages, but they feel roomier inside (presumably without the constraints of our Victorian deep tube tunnels) and definitely have more standing room. Which is necessary: our friends at the excellent Tokyo Cheapo pointed us towards this document (run it through Chrome's translation widget) which shows how congested rush hour trains are. The Tozai subway line between Monzen-Nakacho and Kiba regularly runs at 199% of capacity. No wonder the stories of station staff pushing people into carriages are true.

But for all that, the experience of riding a Tokyo Metro train is good. You always know where you are, announcements tell you which side the doors open and those other stories of queue lines that the Japanese quietly obey? Absolutely true. No unseemly scrum to board in Tokyo. London commuters could learn a thing or two.

One other thing: the trains play little songs at each station. They appear to be unique to each station and/or line (have a listen to a few: here's one from the Marunouchi line, one from the Fukutoshin line and one from the Yamanote line). Ebisu station uses the theme to The Third Man, because the music was used in Japan on an advert for Ebisu beer. We think this is fricking brilliant — though not everyone agrees.

Trains result: Tokyo wins, for the jingles alone if nothing else.

Décor

Low ceilings, drab colours and, on some lines, waist level barriers that perform the same job as the glass doors on the newer sections of the Jubilee line but without the dignity. A weird preponderance of pillars.

It's fair to say the Tokyo Metro is built for functionality, not beauty. Signage is plain, as is probably only fair when you're trying to squeeze in various alphabets. Even the rather lovely blue Metro logo doesn't make many appearances once you're below street level. But you can always cheer yourself up with spotting the brilliant etiquette signs.

Décor Result: London wins

Tokyo Metro logo, by Cliffano Subagio under a Creative Commons licence.

Fares

Japan's tanking foreign exchange rate makes the Metro a lot cheaper for us Brits than it used to be.

That doesn't make it any less complicated, though. Single fares are calculated based on the distance travelled, between 170 yen (85p) and 310 yen (£1.60). So you're supposed to look at a board like this...

...and work out what to pay. We find it easier to use the equivalent of an Oyster card and let the money be deducted automatically (plus, the fare is ever so slightly cheaper). Even the travelcard system is complicated: there are versions for just the Metro, the Metro plus other private subway lines, those lines plus the JR lines... At this point, we don't even care that the most expensive day ticket only costs about £8. It simply makes our heads explode. Which means that Tokyo may be the only subway system in the world we can go up against and yield this result:

Fares: London wins

Final score

London 3, Tokyo 2. Despite being Londonist we're genuinely surprised at that result, even though we decided the rules ourselves. Disagree? The comments are a mere scroll away.

Last Updated 17 October 2016

Olly Denton

Tokyo's subway isn't perfect - the crowding at rush hour and the perverts are bad. But. But. Compared to the Tube? It's a different world. It's infinitely better in every other way. Cheaper (no one to blame but yourselves if you don't understand it), clean, fast, air conditioned, women-only carriages, quiet, TVs (if that's your thing), places to put bags so they don't clutter the floor, etc. etc. It is better.

fluffy thoughts

I've not been to Toyko yet, but I've been to Seoul, and I loved the metro there, it was perfect, I wonder how it compares to Tokyo...

ceedoubleu

Give Prague a try next!

perhaps

While many good points are mentioned, it's fairer to compare Japanese language navigation in Japan to English language navigation in England rather than English language navigation in Japan to English navigation in England. Apple's and oranges.
I found the Japanese system more intuitive than than that of London which took me a good year to master. I've never had to ask for help in Japan and the equivalent of an Oyster card (pasmo) is alway better - even the London day travel card has restrictions.

Paul Corfield

Not sure you're making a fair comparison because the two systems are really rather different. London is essentially a mass transit railway with tunnel and surface sections. Tokyo has very extensive through running rights between the two subway companies, JR East and the multiplicity of private main lines. Given the amazing scope that gives for simple through journeys without interchange then Tokyo offers something London doesn't. I agree it is vastly complicated but then so it's London's service pattern when you try to put it all together - it's just that we're used to it so we tend not to think about it. Someone has created a Tokyo map in a London tube map style and very nice it is too. https://www.flickr.com/photos/...

I agree the architecture is a bit dull on the Tokyo subway but the trains are decent enough and there's endless variety because of the through running. Tokyo has also kept investing and expanding its network which London hasn't done much of for a long while. I also felt the network was well maintained and looked after and to a higher standard than London.

On the face of it Tokyo's fares are complex but a Suica or Pasmo smartcard makes things very simple indeed. The lack of "jeopardy" in the system from paying a minimum fare and being able to pay the balance at the other end removes a pile of bucreaucratic overhead from penalty fares etc. London has multiple fares tariffs on PAYG, varying caps, and paper ticket ranges and prices. I suspect they're just as bewildering as Tokyo's system if you're not familiar with them.

The Japanese have got reliability off to a tee in Tokyo meaning there's little point in a mad dash on the Metro systems or Yamanote line. I guess Tokyo commuters may well dash for their particular train to the suburbs but I stopped dashing for trains when I was there because there was no doubt another one would arrive in the time stated.

I liked the way the Japanese explain the train layouts, the departure patterns for through trains and the station plans showing lifts, stairs and exits when you're at platform level. I found it pretty easy to get round the network using their wayfinding even when it meant walking through miles of subways that were outside of stations (their version of out of station interchanges).

I'd be tempted to put Tokyo ahead based on one criteria - their amazing ability to carry astounding numbers of people and to do it very reliably and efficiently.

Mr Roshan

Haha

An absolute joke to make London win. A less puerile analysis would concentrate on the fact Tokyo is totally non state subsidized, cheaper, faster, less or no strikes. We could have this in London if people dropped their affair with the state mammary gland.

Kay

The way you have categorized things is naturally very London centric. People in Tokyo might not themselves think ofthe metro along these lines. It serves them well, much much better than our tube serves us. At the end of the day culture plays a massive role here and so does government spending, which in Japan is heavily skewed towards big cities.

ballsintherightareas

A few small points to add (from some who has lived in both cities for several years):

A got as many delays and cancellations in a year in Tokyo as I get in a week in London (literally).

Tokyo's carriages are all air conditioned and quiet.

No contest. Tokyo wins hands down, by a country mile and a landslide.

Tokyo Londoner

I grew up in London and now live in Tokyo so have a good feeling for both.
I love The Tube, but since living in Tokyo I have given up owning a car as I just don't need it. Once you master it (I.e. which train car is best to get on if you want to change etc), the Tokyo metro is beyond comparison.

Nick

The only appealing thing that Tokyo's transport system has going for it is that so many lines are above ground and offer great views. The stations are so drab they make New York's decrepit platforms look charming. The fact that so often lines will cross one another (even belonging to the same operator) and not have a transfer is absolutely infuriating. The fare system is also a mess and only benefits salary men who have their costs covered by their company anyway. Give me Berlin or Seoul's trains any day!

Graham Johnstone

now lets take into consideration, TFL strikes, rude and unhelpful TFL workers, aggressive and ignorant passengers, shockingly overpriced, limited if nonexistent night services....hmmm still think London wins? shameful biased "London is the best" reporting.

Abe Froman

I lived in Tokyo for three years and London for five and I'd take the Tube over the Metro anyway. The Metro is utterly terrifying at rush hour or at the end of the night because it's so dangerously packed. Trains in London, even on the worst days, are nowhere near as full. That's not even taking into account the times I was sexually assaulted (only possible because it's so packed and hard to work out where hands and … other body parts … are coming from.) Tokyo does have very, very, very welcome air conditioning though - although they turn it on and off based on the date rather than the weather and the no talking on phones is nice.

Karim Murji

One great feature for tourists you don't seem to have mentioned is the ability to pay the minimum fare as the exit gates then send you back to a little machine to top up to the right amount. I found this very useful when the fare to be paid was unclear.

Yuki

Please, don't tell us you are earning money by this poor article... You can't read Japanese and don't know the system, don't even make a research what does 'spooky alien eyes' mean. The people who make comments below know much better than you.

A Lanca

So for the New York one they do all the infographics, but for the Tokyo one they rely on subjective feelings like 'decor' (LMAO), uncited Wikipedia hearsay (200 exits at Shinjuku), and unfair comparison between the Oyster card (what Londoners use daily) and the travelcard (targeted for tourists), instead of the Suica card (what Tokyoers use). Sounds like some Anglo-centric, English-only, London-is-where-the-sun-never-sets supremacists unwilling to accept that an Asian country can have a better metro system.

200 exits at Shinjuku - only if you count all the exits in the underground subway that connects three stations: Shinjuku, Shinjuku-3-chome and Shinjuku-Nishiguchi. They build an exit for each building in the area which makes walking on rainy days mighty convenient. Try walking from Southwark/St Paul's to Tate Modern on a rainy day.

For Tokyo they added in all the JR lines and private companies, but for London they only counted the tube, not the Overground, Tramlink, DLR, Emirates Air Line, Crossrail, and Thameslink. In Tokyo they didn't get the suica card which you can use on public transport plus convenience stores, but opted for the metro travelcard (for tourists) and then took a picture of the fare board of JR trains. Then in London they said the oyster card just calculated the fares for you. What about the 9 zones and all the different caps for peak and non-peak hours? Nope, gonna hide that.

And puh-lease, every metro system in a capital city is crowded at peak hours. Being pushed into the train is horrific of course, but you try waiting for southbound Northern line trains at Euston Charing Cross branch at half 7 in the morning. It's just not fair to forget about queuing in claustrophobic tunnels and waiting for three trains on narrow platforms - and then when the train comes it's just pandemonium, those who alight scurry for that one and only exit, but being blocked by all the queues.

Apparently the accuracy of the timetable, the lack of annoying strikes and weekend closures, the professionalism of platform staff and drivers, the versatility of air conditioning in summer and heating in winter, the convenience of walking between compartments, the availability of free wifi, the absence of Mackey D's or dirty Metro (God knows how many people have touched those), the presence of lifts in many stations, count for nothing. Perhaps these Londonists only take the metropolitan line and use Virgin Media.

Manish Prabhune

My experience with London Underground and Tokyo Metro both has been that they are great services, but London Underground can do better with the access to restrooms. We need more clean public toilets on the Tube stations please. Tokyo is far ahead in that respect. I wrote a small article too on this. http://experiencetokyo.net/wha...

starduest

Don't the Suica and Pasmo cards allow prepaid travel throughout Tokyo's train network regardless of metro, JR or private railway lines? I bought the Suica card myself as a tourist and - if my memory holds - used it exactly like an Oyster card.

my Lim

In tokyo, there are through train, a private operator train can enter the metro line which both line terminate at the same station so passenger dont need to change tran. Its like a national rail train from Oxford to Paddington, the train can enter the metropolitan line to liverpool street.

Annomous

Tokyo is much better I've been on both the london underground and the Tokyo subway. You can move from one carriage to another and the chimes are for each platform not station ;) You should add that the chimes are to tell people that the doors are closing. You should add that in big stations e.g Shinagwa it's actually like a shopping center inside there are many shops and resturants

Jay Li

Such a biased article. London tube wins in the fare category, just because the author is unable to figure out the fare? Please. Use a Suica card.

Victor

The 'little songs' are departure melodies, they tell people that the train is about to leave. After it ends the PA would usually say "The train is ready to depart, please mind the closing doors."

canada88

The Tokyo Subway has 13 lines, not 9, but they're run by two different companies - Tokyo Metro (which runs 9), and Toei (which runs 4). You've confused the Tokyo Metro for the whole subway system. See this Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... for more information.

CO2VA

" London's sleek white carriages" Hahahaha. Yeah filled with rude people with their feet on the seats or playing loud music and at night puking from their night out binge drinking. And don't forget the ever present threat of violence. You got this one very wrong.

Meme Segar Indonesia

Seeb, seblak mang juned emang enak vroh :v gcgc kuyy

deepeekay

In the video everyone in carriage 10 is female, why is this? are females in Japan segregated as in Mus$lin countries or are Japanese men dangerous or is this some inscrutable Japanese custom forever lost to the Western mind?

Massi

Sorry Londonist ... Tokyo is bigger, with much much better trains all air conditioned and super clean, clear signs (let's not forget they are using both Japanese and English on their metro), most stations might be functional but they have all sorts of shops in them... the exit maps are also super useful as they show you how to get out to get closer to the final destination. I think Tokyo metro shames London!

elevtechlift

Have you noticed how fast when you tap a Suica or PASMO card on the reader compared to tapping Oyster, contactless credit or debit, or even mobile (Android, Apple, Samsung Pay)? https://youtu.be/hCApxANbWOc The Japanese IC card systems uses locally developed IC technology from Sony called FeliCa. Hong Kong uses it with Octopus card since 1997. https://youtu.be/zPP7Jq1X3Ic https://youtu.be/IIsqkCgCT9g

Simon H.

Tokyo has thirteen official metro lines. 9 Tokyo Metro lines and 4 Toei Subway lines.

Ryosan

One of the poorest quality article ever read on Tokyo metro. I would suggest that people should read Tripadvisor's reviews which are more acculate, updated, and without biass.