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Japanese IC Cards Aren't Just for Train Travel

Diane M. Sattler, Ph.D.
2 Oct 2015

IC Cards are prepaid (other than Pitapa, which is post paid), easily rechargeable and very convenient cards to have for travel and other things in Japan. You'll benefit from getting one for your trip to Japan, especially if you'll be in and around the Tokyo area. You almost always can use your IC card for travel on trains, buses and subways, and even on the ferry in one of my favorite areas, Miyajima, but there are some exceptions that I'll mention later in the blog.

IC cards have become even more convenient in the last couple of years, as ten of the major cards are now interchangeable and recognized by a wider range of services. So, when you buy one of the ten, you'll be able to use it almost universally for transportation, no matter who owns the line.

You can also use the IC card for more vending machines, shops and restaurants every day. And, for those of us who are thrifty, you may even save a few yen, not because there are discounts when you use the card, but because fares are rounded up in such a way that having an IC card often provides a slight edge.

Scoring an IC Card

You can buy or recharge your card, such as the Suica card issued by the JR lines, at any train station by either going to the ticket office or using a machine. Let's be savvy and check out the machine approach. IC machines usually are located near the ticket purchasing machines at the rail stations. They look a bit like ATMs. I find this video, which is in Japanese English, to be endearing in its sincere helpfulness.

The first charge of the card, usually for 2,000¥ ($17), will include a 500¥ ($4) deposit plus a minimum amount of 1,500¥ ($13).

Once you get your card, you can refill it with up to 20,000¥ ($167) at any matching railway station machines as well as some other travel locations. It's easy to keep track of your card's balance, because you'll see the balance displayed on a small screen when you've made a purchase. You can also check your balance on any of the ticket machines, and view the itemized charges against your card.

What are Boutique Cards and Specialized Cards?

One impression that you may take away from Japan, as I did, is that the Japanese pay a whole lot of attention to getting the small details right. Even an inexpensive meal (and there are a few of those) is beautifully presented and visually appealing. Japanese telephone cards have special artwork and even can be collectible. Also, personalized IC cards can be ordered, as well as commuter cards and cards for children.

Be In-The-Know Using Your Shiny New IC Card

For gates that automatically accept tickets, don't try to put the card into the ticket slot! You want to at least act as though you know what you're doing, right? So, instead of putting the card into the ticket slot, just touch it to the card reader that's lit up in blue on the ticket barrier for a second until it has been read. Your fare will then be automatically deducted, and you'll be on the road…or rails. Or, if you get through and change your mind, you can go to the ticket station for help; you can't just go through the other way, tap your card again and get a refund.

What's the catch?

Well, the IC cards are legitimate and convenient, but they're not universally accepted. For instance, if you're traveling from a city that's covered by the card to one that's not, you won't be able to use the card for the entire trip. You'll also not be able to use the card on my favorite trains, the ultra-fast and comfortable Shinkansen. You'll also have to skip using the card for airport and highway buses. And, by the way, don't plan on using the same card for your whole group on the same trip, as that won't work and could portray you as "the nail that sticks out." Really? Am I actually quoting myself from an earlier blog about Japanese proverbs?

Sorry, Charlie

Only Japanese residents can get a mobile app that will serve as one type of IC card. Sorry, guys. Foreigners aren't allowed to get contracts for Japanese mobile phones, so the app's not available to most of us, right? I'm quite sure that some of our clever readers can figure out a work-around, given enough time in Japan, but I haven't tried. Maybe it's just a matter of time until that opportunity opens up to the rest of us.

Also, as a foreigner, you won't be able to get one of the Japanese credit cards that can substitute for IC cards, and even recharge them automatically. Maybe that's actually a good thing, though. At least in my experience, dealing with Japanese companies can be a problematic if you misunderstand when a bill is due, or need to leave the country temporarily and haven't made the arrangements to get your bill paid in exactly the correct way. Such was the case for us, when we left on leave to the States. Our electricity was shut off, and you can imagine the condition of our food filled refrigerator when we returned weeks later. Let's put it this way. The problem was apparent the moment we walked in the door after getting in late from our grueling international flight and couldn't turn on the lights. Then, when we opened the refrigerator door, we got an even more poignant reminder. We were nearly knocked over by the smell. The refrigerator was "totaled." My point—and I do have one—is that understanding different and seemingly more complicated rules and regulations of another country (not just Japan), especially with financial institutions and public utilities, can lead to unintentional mistakes that can be costly. So, I'm glad that we can't get a Japanese credit cards, as I can get in enough trouble with the ones that we already have because of slow international mail or missed due dates while traveling!

Can I get a Refund?

Yes, you can get your 500¥ ($4) deposit back, as well as any money remaining on the card for a cost of 220¥ ($2). If you don't use your card up before you leave, you have a couple more options. You can keep it for your next trip to Japan, as the card is good for up to 10 years even if it is unused. Or, you can keep it for a souvenir, which might be fun, especially if it's what I call a "boutique" card.

IC Card Sources with English Websites

In the end, we'll be happy with the IC systems that are now in place and the fact that the top ten are interchangeable. For more information about IC cards issued by Suica, Pasmo and Kilaca, you can go to their English websites and compare their charges, coverage and note the differences among those companies.

IC Card Sources with Only Japanese Websites

If you're more accomplished linguistically than I am with written Japanese, you can go to the Japanese websites of the other main IC card providers: Icoca for Hiroshima, Okayama and Osaka; Pitapa for the Kansai region is post paid and not readily available to foreigners; Toica is JR Central's card for Nagoya and Shizuoka; Manaca covers train, subway and bus lines other than JR; Sugoca includes Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Kumamoto and Nagasaki; Nimoca includes the trains and buses in the greater Nishititsu area; and Hayakaken is for Fukuoka City.

Photo credits Helen Cook and Joi Ito.

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