Tokyo's Train Network - A Vital Part of the Urban Running Infrastructure

Brett Larner (Japan Running News)

【CONTRIBUTED ARTICLE】Tokyo's world-class rail network makes running in Tokyo even more enjoyable.

The Yamanote Line connects major stations in central Tokyo such as Tokyo Station, Shinjuku Station, and Shibuya Station in a loop. Photo: iStock

If you've ever been to Tokyo, or even just seen videos or read about the city, then you already know that its public train system is one of the absolute best in the world. On first glance a map of the entire system can be intimidating given the dozens of lines and hundreds of stations, but the system is clean, safe, inexpensive, and above all on time. You can go just about anywhere in the city you'd want to go, when you want to go there. Tokyo is also one of the world's great running cities, and for the average runner on the street, both locals and visitors, the trains are a vital part of the running infrastructure. Sometimes the public train infrastructure itself becomes a part of the city's running culture.

Takanawa Gateway, the newest station on the JR Yamanote Line, opened in 2021. A path of good visibility extends along the railroad tracks. Photo: iStock

One for the Bucket List: Running the Yamanote Line

A case in point is the JR Yamanote Line. A shield-shaped loop spanning 30 stations around the heart of the city, running a full lap of the roads along the Yamanote Line is one of those things you just have to do at some point as a runner in Tokyo. The line itself is 34.5 km, but depending on which streets you follow along the tracks a complete run can be anywhere from 38 to 42 km. It's the perfect distance to make it a bucket list run, short enough to be doable but long enough to be something special, something you wouldn't do every week. I do it once a year, and there's really no better way to see Tokyo's many faces up close and all at once.

In front of JR Akihabara Station. Photo: Brett Larner

Whatever your image of Tokyo, you're bound to come across it, and its opposite. You'll join the tide of humanity at Shibuya's Scramble Crossing, match steps with the businesspeople of Shimbashi, catch a glimpse of the Imperial Palace outside Tokyo Station, feel the electricity in the air in Akihabara, negotiate a route through the hawkers and bargain hunters at the outdoor markets of Okachimachi to the greenery and museums of Ueno, the grittier urban vibe of Ikebukuro, the Shin-Okubo Korean area and nearby Kabukicho nightlife hub, the towers of Shinjuku, and pass the greenery of Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park to the youth culture center of Harajuku.

A Runner's-Eye View of Tokyo Street Life

But there's more to Tokyo than its most famous landmarks, and that's the best part of what you'll see. For every stride along a major thoroughfare there's a turn down narrow local neighborhood streets with no telling what's waiting around the corner. It could be a tiny local shrine, a hidden park or overlook, a fading traditional building juxtaposed against gleaming modern architecture. By chance en route I've come across an idol unit street performance at Hamamatsucho, been sprayed with a hose by a friendly shopkeeper in Sugamo on a hot summer morning, and found myself in the middle of a samba street festival in Otsuka. My favorite spot is on the east side of the loop, a brief view to the right as you cross a bridge over a narrow canal where yakatabune, traditional party boats that ply the nighttime Tokyo Bay waters, are tied up in the off hours under the shelter of an overpass. Look the wrong way and it's gone in a second.

Yakatabune is a traditional Japanese dinner cruise boat equipped with a roof and seating area for enjoying banquets and meals on board. Photo: Brett Larner

The section between Ueno and Nishi-Nippori on the northeastern part of the loop is the most challenging, both because it's the hilliest and the easiest place to get lost. Take the outside of the Yamanote Line and you'll run the risk of missing its turn to the west past Nishi-Nippori. Run on the inside and you have to navigate a shoal of cemeteries around Tennoji Temple. As one of the greenest and quietest places on the run that can bring its own rewards, but there's no way to do it without a few detours, especially if you're trying to get a picture of every station and can figure out the dead-end route to Uguisudani Station.

It's one of the perks of life in Tokyo that the general safety at street level makes it feasible to do this kind of run without fear of ending up somewhere you might feel uncomfortable. You might be the only runner among pairs and trios of people still headed home after the night before, you might be wading through crowds of suits en route to the office, or you might be the only person in sight. Your sense of a city's identity is something very personal, highly dependent on your own experience of it, your mental map of its geography, people and daily rhythms. If you really want to get to know Tokyo from the inside out, to find your own Tokyo, this is your road in.

The JR Yamanote Line, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary of circular operation in 2025, is recommended for all runners, from tourists to Tokyo residents. Photo: iStock

Long Run Lifelines for Getting from A to B

The layout of the major commuter lines from the suburbs into the city center also makes them great options for long runs that offer the same kind of insider street view of Tokyo life. Depending on whether you're central or in the outskirts, you can count off the number of stations along a line that will give you the rough distance you're looking for, ride the train out or in, and run back. Like with the Yamanote Line you can run on byways next to the train line a lot of the time, and when it does diverge it's not hard to use the line as a reference point to work your way back into contact. Not many roads in Tokyo go in a simple straight line, so for visitors and people whose sense of direction isn't their strongest point this can actually be a better option than trying to orienteer the streets. The regularity of stations along the line means you always know where you can find toilets and drinks, and if a run's not going as planned they also mean it's easy to cut it short, hop back on the train, and head back home or to your hotel. Just make sure to have a pack of wet sheets in your pocket to wipe yourself off first.

Photo: Oli Kellett/Getty images

Starting at Shinjuku Station and crossing the Tama River just past Izumi Tamagawa Station before heading out into Kanagawa prefecture, the Odakyu Line is one of the easier ones to follow, mostly above ground and mostly with roadways and paths right alongside. The section from Higashi-Kitazawa to Umegaoka was recently put underground, with the aboveground space redeveloped into a green network of shops and cafés along a pedestrian-only footpath. All told it's about 15 km from Shinjuku Station to the Tokyo side of the Tama River.

The Tokyu Toyoko Line is another option running from Shibuya Station to Tamagawa Station a bit further downstream along the Tama River, likewise with roadways bordering the train line most of the way and some trendy redevelopment close to the city center. In this case it's about 10 km. If you're really feeling ambitious you can combine this with the Odakyu Line, the section in between a soft-surface 10 km along the banks of the Tama on the river end and about a 3.5 km connector along the Yamanote Line on the city center end.

Tokyo is one of the world's great running cities, and in all these ways its train system plays a vital role in providing that environment. For resident runners it opens the door to a wider range of places to run than just the same old same old. And as Japan opens back up and prepares to welcome back inbound tourism, it gives the chance for visitors to experience more of what really makes Tokyo Tokyo. For sure go run at the Imperial Palace or Yoyogi Park if your hotel concierge directs you there, but with a little planning a deeper insight into Tokyo is just a short train ride away.

Brett Larner

The founder and editor of Japan Running News, the only English-language outlet for information on Japanese distance running. As a writer his work has appeared in most of the world's major running publications, and he is a regular commentator on the Tokyo Marathon international broadcast and Gold Coast Marathon official streaming broadcast. As a World Athletics authorized athlete representative he has helped Japanese athletes set multiple national records and achieve the country's only win to date in the Abbott World Marathon Majors. He produced the 2021 documentary Inside the Outside - When the World Came to Fukuoka on the 75-year history of the Fukuoka International Marathon, and is currently working on a book about the 100-year history of the Hakone Ekiden. Born in Canada, he came to Japan in 1997 and lives in Tokyo.