Intelligent Cards in Japan

By James Klein
This item appears on page 11 of the June 2020 issue.

Many travelers recommend purchasing a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) when traveling to Japan. A good deal, the JR Pass allows unlimited travel on JR trains, any shinkansen (bullet train) and some JR bus lines, but if your trip does not involve much long-distance traveling by bullet train or you will be staying in particular regions, the JR pass may not be the best option. My wife and I have found a cheaper and more convenient way of traveling in Japanese cities and towns.

Unlike cities in the US where municipalities operate public transit, there are many different independent train lines, subway lines and buses in Japanese cities. In Tokyo, for instance, in addition to Japan Rail, there are nine private railway companies, two subway companies and tons of bus lines. With the JR Pass, you’re incentivized to take Japan Rail trains, but they may not always offer the best routes for you.

We each use an IC (Intelligent Card). The advantage of using an IC is that it works on most forms of transportation, and you don’t have to spend time deciding which type of ticket to purchase. You just beep on and beep off. The card can even stay in your wallet or pocketbook.

There are two different types of ICs available for purchase in Tokyo. We used Suica; the other is PASMO. Nationwide, there are a number of regional cards, and several have reciprocity with each other.

With most forms of transportation in Japan, the cost of a ride varies by distance. An IC keeps track of when you get on and off and subtracts the needed amount. (Before we got our Suica cards, I found buses a bit stressful, as you have to pay with exact change. There is a change machine at the front of the bus, but I would worry that I was taking too much time. Not anymore!)

These cards also work at convenience stores, in many coin-operated lockers and in vending machines. This keeps your pockets free from coins, and you can spend more time moving and less time counting yen.

We purchased our Suica cards online at before leaving for Japan, and they were mailed to us. (We have also used that website to purchase JR Passes, not to mention SIM cards for our phones.) Suica cards can also be bought in Tokyo at most JR train stations, with PASMO available at non-JR stations.

You can buy the card and load money on it, or “charge” it, straight from a vending machine. (In December 2019, I was able to charge my Suica card in Hokkaido using a Kitaca machine because Suica and Kitaca cards have reciprocity with each other.) In convenience stores, the clerk will charge it for you; look for the card’s logo on the door.

When we got our cards in the mail, each was already loaded with ¥2,000 (near $18.70), but we loaded another ¥10,000 on each the day after we arrived.

The cost of a Suica card is ¥500, and it expires only if it’s not used for 10 years. We’ve used ours for multiple trips, and before we leave Japan we use up the remaining balance at an airport convenience store. You can also get a refund at any JR station, minus a ¥250 service fee.

As for an IC being less expensive to use than a JR Pass, there are two main ways this is so. The first is when your hotel is nearby. On our last Japan trip, in December 2019, we did a stopover on our way to Australia and stayed near the Nishi-Nippori rail station.

On a busy day, we would take four trips (first site, second site, dinner, then back to the hotel). If those were long trips, each priced at ¥300 (near $2.80), it would cost less than $12 a day with the IC. A Standard JR Pass at its cheapest per day (a 21-day pass for $543, at the time of this writing) costs almost $26 a day. The IC can be used on the subway and on buses too.

The second way can be seen in, for example, either Nara or Kyoto. Consider that buses are the only option for navigating Nara and that the Kintetsu-Nara station is more convenient than the JR station there. There are a few more JR stations in Kyoto, but the buses and subway reach more destinations there. Because of fewer route options, the value of a JR Pass decreases in smaller towns and cities, but even in big cities — unless you’re traveling a lot or taking the shinkansen multiple times (two long trips plus the daily sightseeing trips will bring you close) — it’s cheaper to pay as you go.

For traveling between cities, there are other options besides the shinkansen. Domestic air travel is affordable in Japan, and passing through the airport security is easy and efficient. The trick is to book your flight from an urban airport such as Haneda in Tokyo or Osaka International in Osaka.

For those who are a little more adventurous, there are also overnight ferries and buses.

Los Lunas, NM