Press "Enter" to skip to content

Month: March 2014

BIG TICKET (IC card series #5)

Hello again, and welcome to post 5 of 5 of the magical IC card series. This is part of an effort to help educate people visiting Japan on the magic of the IC Card. In East Japan, we use cards called PASMO and Suica. I’ve loved my Suica for years, so I’m here writing about how to get it and use it! If you missed them, part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 are all available for your viewing pleasure.

As promised in the beginning of this series, my last post on this subject (for now, I guess) will be a somewhat embarrassing story that will hopefully help you understand why you ought to get an IC card. Let us begin the tale of “Big Ticket.”

In July 2009, my awesome grandmother and I had flown in to Narita together and had taken the “Airport Limousine” to our hotel. In an attempt to put something nutritious in our bodies, we went to the hotel restaurant right away. I, horribly jet lagged from my first ever international flight, was delirious and somewhat nauseated. I ordered something and stared at it, willing my body to eat it. My brain was in overload from all the new things and I could feel myself shutting down.

My grandmother asked me to ask the cook (who was in front of us at this particular restaurant) if there was any meat in the spaghetti.

I have absolutely no idea what I said. It was, I think, my first ever interaction with a local Japanese person with very little experience speaking to international people. I was exhausted. My grandmother ended up getting the spaghetti, but I don’t know whether or not there was any meat in it. Following our dinner, we went up to the hotel room. I promptly went to bed.

The next day was my first ever day in Japan. I, at 22, was a ball of excitement, terror, jet lag, and sweat (it was July; summers here are brutal). My grandmother and I headed off to our first day of HATO BUS tours. We had a fantastic day. This is an actual picture from that afternoon, taken from one of my first blog posts. I am all that is tourist.

July 20 2009, Alisha at the Imperial Palace, Tokyo

When it was time to go home, our tour guide showed us the nearest subway station that would get us home. My grandmother and I headed inside, went right to the nearest ticket machine, and bought tickets. I remembered what I had read online about fares for tickets in Tokyo. Many resources suggested, “If you don’t know the exact fare you need to get to where you’re going, just buy the cheapest ticket and then adjust your fare when you get there.”

This was what we did. I bought us a couple of the cheapest tickets possible from the ticket machine. We then walked to the subway line we needed to take, pushed our paper tickets into the turnstiles, and got an error. We took the tickets over to the station staff at the window. I, still seemingly in an “I haven’t wrapped my head around how to communicate effectively in another language” daze, offered no explanation other than a confused stare. The staff guy, looking bored and somewhat irritated, grabbed these large, boarding-pass sized pieces of paper and hole-punched them in a few key places before handing them to my grandmother and I and waving us through the ticket gates. I was quite puzzled, but it seemed we were through, so we headed on our way.

Upon arriving at our station, we headed for the exit to our hotel. It was there, at an unstaffed ticket gate, that my grandmother and I became stymied. We had only our large scantronlike papers to show that we had, indeed, paid a fare, however, we could not use these papers in the turnstiles, nor was there a human to speak to. We stood there at the exit, wondering what to do. I began considering throwing my body through the barrier as fast as possible. While we were standing around, however, a voice suddenly rang out from a nearby intercom in a wall.

I do not remember what the voice said. I only remember being utterly baffled by the whole situation. I had never read about this online and had never been told what to do if a voice suddenly began speaking to you from a wall. Looking back on it, it was not unlike several of the scenes in Labyrinth where Jennifer Connelly’s character has to negotiate with various wall-bound creatures to continue on her quest to retrieve her little brother.

In this case, however, I, hopelessly confused, jet lagged, tired, and sweaty from international travel and a day of touring, failed miserably. The voice from the intercom said a number of things I didn’t understand and don’t remember. Finally (after what I assume were repeated “I’m sorry, I don’t understand”s on my part), the voice paused before booming in English,


“Yes!” I exclaimed.

More chatter followed, of which I processed zero. After a couple minutes of this hopeless exchange a man appeared in his station uniform to rescue my grandmother and I. He kindly collected our BIG TICKETS and let us out of the gates. I, mortified, and wondering what the hell I had been doing for the last four years “studying Japanese” at university, trudged with my grandmother back to the hotel room for the night.

It’s only now, reflecting on this experience, that I realize what must have happened. I believe the station my grandmother and I departed from had two different subway lines running through it operated by two different companies. If you visit Tokyo, you’ll find that there are public and private train and subway lines. There’s JR, Tokyo Metro, Keio, Toei, and Seibu, to name a few, and each of them uses their own ticketing/fare system. Paper tickets are not interchangeable between service providers.

I’m guessing that when we entered the subway station and headed for the ticket vending machines, my grandmother and I purchased tickets for one line and attempted to use those tickets on another line. That prompted the “error” upon using the regular paper ticket at the turnstile and the exchange for the BIG TICKET. Then, we had the misfortune of choosing an exit at our destination where there was no staff window. Instead, we had an odd exchange with a station staffer through an intercom.

If I’d had an IC Card, none of these things would have happened. In fact, hopping around the city in general would have been a much easier process for my grandmother and I. I wish we’d had the convenience of a Suica or PASMO during that first week. While yes, it did force me to learn currency denominations, train routes, and ticket purchasing quickly, I did it through a series of somewhat embarrassing situations.

So, reader, if you’re planning to visit Japan, do yourself a favor and pick up an IC card. Don’t let BIG TICKET happen to you.

This post concludes my five post series about IC cards in Japan. I hope the information has been useful, particularly for people visiting! I even learned a few new things myself through some research I did for these posts. If you have any questions, feel free to comment here, check out the JR websites, or explore the internet for more resources! The system is very handy and is something I rely on literally every day. Thanks very much for reading. May your travels in (East) Japan be “sui sui”!

CHARGE! (IC card series #4)

Hello again, it’s time for Post #4 of my five post series about IC cards! If you missed them, Parts 1, 2, and 3 are all available for your viewing pleasure. Today’s post will be short and sweet, much like charging an IC card. This is something you have to do periodically if you expect to continue using your card and enjoying your “sui sui” life.

Whenever you make a purchase or use your card for transportation, you can check the balance on the card. If you’re shopping, you’ll see the card balance at the bottom of your receipt beneath the prices of the items you’ve purchased.

If you’re using your card for transportation, you can check the balance on the panel on the subway/train turnstiles as you enter and exit the platform area.

If you just want to check your card without using it, you can just stick it in any ticket vending machine and wait a few seconds. Depending on the machine, you may be asked if you want to “charge” your card (say yes), or you may just be automatically taken to the “charge” screen. On the screen, below where all the “charge” options are, you’ll see your current card balance.

If, in any of these cases, your balance is starting to get a little low, congratulations! You have to charge your card.

If you’re paying attention, I’ve already told you two thirds of the things you need to do to accomplish this task.

1) Stick card in ticket vending machine at any station. The slot you want to put your card in should be on the left. It is often marked with an IC card logo, as below. You only need to be at a JR station when you BUY your card. You can charge the cards at just about any ticket vending machine at any station anywhere. Just look for a “PASMO” or “SUICA” symbol on the machine (or your local IC card logo).

A ticket vending machine in Tokyo

2) If you are not taken there automatically upon inserting your card, push the “charge” button (use the English function if you like, but this button is usually the big button on the top of the screen that says チャージ)

3) Choose how much you’d like to charge your card with. You’ll have a number of options on the screen.

4) Put your money in the vending machine.

(4.5) Print a receipt if you want to.

5) Take your card. Continue to frolic throughout the country.

That’s all there is to it.

The only times I have encountered problems are due to technical difficulties. I had an old Suica that was getting rather worn out. When I inserted the card into the machine and initiated the charge, the machine wouldn’t spit it back out. A staff guy opened up the little door behind the vending machine within a few minutes to let me know things were being taken care of and I’d have my card back soon. They used a highly technologically advanced process in an attempt to repair the damage to my card (scotch tape).

The other time I ran into a problem was simply because the machine was out of change. I used a 5,000 yen note to charge my card with 1000 yen or so, but the machine was out of 1000 yen bills. Again, staff guys suddenly appeared to fix me right up. Should this happen to you, chances are you can just nod and smile and you’ll be good to go within a couple minutes.

A few more interesting little notes about charging your card: there is a limit. 20,000 yen (around $200) is the maximum amount you can charge an IC card with at any given time. I suppose this is to prevent serious headaches should people (like me) drop their cards and need a refund.

Another good thing to keep in mind is that the balance on the card is good for up to 10 years. That means if you’re planning on traveling to and from the country multiple times a year, or know you’ll be visiting a lot in the future, you can pick up your card once and use it long term.

If you know you won’t be back, or simply don’t want your card anymore, you can turn your card in with the station staff. There is a 210 yen charge for doing this. You pay a 500 yen deposit when you initially purchase your IC card,so if there’s no balance on the thing, you’ll pay the 210 yen fee from this 500 yen deposit, I believe. If there’s any balance left on the card after this, you’ll get it back in cash.

To my understanding, it is also possible to link a Suica card with a Japanese credit card, but I do not have personal experience with this system. It seems pretty handy; never having to stop to recharge your card, always having money at the ready wherever you go, a bit like a touch-debit card. I imagine most tourists will not be carrying a Japanese credit card, so it seems unlikely this service will be available to visitors. Long term residents, however, might have more luck with this. You’ll have to explore that one on your own.

Okay! That means the next post on the topic is my last post in the series! I hope you read it and learn from a mistake I made on my first day in the country. It wasn’t such a huge mistake in the grand scheme of things, but it certainly stuck with me. Maybe it’ll stick with you too as a good thing NOT to do.


IC Card Shopping (IC card series #3)

This is post #3 in my five post series about the magic of the “IC Card” (parts 1 and 2 available for your viewing pleasure as well, of course). Although this post series focuses largely on the “Suica” and “PASMO” cards commonly used in East Japan, there are other cards throughout the country!

This post will focus on the use of the IC card for shopping!

I’ll admit it. I rarely use my IC card to shop. There are two reasons.

1) I always have cash.

2) I never have much money on my card because I am always afraid I’m going to drop it.

I DID drop a Suica once in Ikebukuro station. As best I can remember, the card escaped from my purse as I was pulling my phone from the same pocket where the Suica was stored. The Suica came out at the same time as my phone and dropped to the floor. Ikebukuro is a noisy, busy station, so I didn’t noticed until a few minutes later (I think) when I approached the ticket gate and couldn’t find my card. I immediately inquired at the nearest station desk about any very recently found Suica cards, but was out of luck. I swore loudly at the $20 my clumsiness had just cost me.

I’m now more careful with my Suica (it’s kinda like a super fast debit card), but I still only keep around 1000 yen on it at any given time. I’m just sure that when I finally do charge it again I’ll drop the thing and then be out money.

People say “Get a case! Then you can attach it to your bag!”

 I have a case. It was a gift from a place where I worked for a couple months on a short term project. I…cannot seriously see myself using this.

Pink IC card case from Samantha Thavasa

Also, getting the card in and out is NOT easy. Perhaps there is a better case out there for me somewhere. I digress. Kind of. If you’re anything like me, perhaps you should get a card case.

So, shopping. Last week I headed to Tokyo station with a charged-up PASMO card with 10,000 yen. It came from a magical land about which I am not permitted to write.

While at Tokyo station, myself and the lovely Vivian (of lost in seoul) were taken to a shop I had never seen before: The “Pengsta” shop.

Pengsta, the Suica Shop in Tokyo Station

As I mentioned in post 1 of this series, Suica’s mascot (GOTTA HAVE A MASCOT) is a penguin. Apparently, according to Suica’s wikipedia page, penguins move smoothly through water, much like the smooth way passengers and shoppers use their IC cards.

Come on, JR. You picked a penguin because it’s cute. I’m on to you.

Additionally, the wikipedia also states that “sui sui”, the onomatopoeia which translates roughly to doing something “smoothly” or “swiftly” figured into the naming of the card. This suggests that users can “smoothly” use their card in a number of places.

My experiences were all “smooth” and “swift” and “penguin-like”. I even probably waddled a few times.

Now. Let us begin. Here are some things you can buy.


(happy birthday)


First! A Suica Penguin hotpad. I chose him for his somewhat reserved expression. I look forward to using this hotpad in my kitchen. I’m sure I’ll create some very disturbing penguin-torture dialogue when I have to use it to interact with very hot items.



INSIDE Tokyo station (you have to pass through the ticket gates to enter) is Gransta, a shopping area where you can buy food, souvenirs, flowers, and…beer.

Iwate Kura Stout Beer, Tokyo Station

I’d heard of this little standing bar a few times before, but I’m rarely on the east side of the city, so I’d never had the inclination to come and check it out. A few minutes of poking around and I located the place behind some bread/confectionary sellers. They advertise more than 100 different kinds of craft beer! I was thrilled. This little counter is standing only. It’s like the airport bar of train stations. When I walked up and ordered, the woman next to me chatted with me briefly for a few minutes before heading off to catch her train.

With a beer in me, I then set out to pick up a few consumable goodies for some special folk back in the states!


Animal Themed Chocolate Boxes
Rose Dessert Cakes
Chocolate Crunch Bars

Finally, I also picked up a hunk of rosemary foccacia bread because I am weak.

Rosemary Foccacia Bread

With that, I scurried out of the Gransta shopping area and off to my subway home.

In addition to using my card at the station shops, I used it at a nearby family mart to pick up some things. The JR East website has a big list of places where you can use your card for shopping and dining both inside stations and outside stations (in Japanese, but you can look at the logos for quick reference). This includes bookstores like Kinokuniya and Book off, Bic Camera, and Yodobashi Camera. I was also informed that the restaurants in Lumine EST (a popular shopping location for young women in Shinjuku) also accepts IC cards.

If you’re ever unsure if a place will take an IC card, just look next to the register for an IC card reader. Alternatively, many places also have a sticker near the register with a Suica/IC card symbol to show that the cards are accepted. Here’s one I spotted at my local supermarket.

IC Card reader at a supermarket in Tokyo

One more thing that amazes me is the HOME IC Card reader. I do not have experience with this, but I know it’s possible: if you buy an IC card reader (yes, you can do this), you can use an IC card for internet shopping (with merchants who accept them). Some computers in Japan also come with built in IC Card readers. I often read about expats in Japan who face online-shopping related struggles because credit cards can be difficult to get (that’s a whole other topic). IC Cards COULD be a good solution, provided the online place you’re shopping will accept that form of payment.

I made a pretty big dent in my PASMO balance in Tokyo station, but still had more to spend! I used the rest over the following week for transportation and drinks/snacks here and there. It’s a time saver, for sure. Be sure to take advantage of this handy feature. Shops inside stations will all accept IC cards, so go crazy! If you run out of money…Post #4 will be a quick tutorial on arguably the most important part of being an IC card owner: charging your card.

IC Cards for Transportation (IC card series #2)

Welcome to post #2 in my five post series on the IC card! As I mentioned in the beginning of the last post, I’ll be writing about Suica/PASMO (and IC cards in general) in hopes of helping out international travelers (and residents too, perhaps).

The last post was loosely focused on acquiring a Suica card for the first time. It’s not too difficult to do, provided you have legs, fingers, and yen. Of course, once you have a Suica (or another IC card), you’ve got to know what you want to do with it.

Roughly 98% of my Suica use is for transportation purposes. Anecdotally, I would also venture to guess that the majority of the population uses their Suica cards similarly. Suica can also be used for shopping, but that’s a topic for another post. This post is really meant as a sort of troubleshooting/how-to guide for newcomers. If you’re a resident, I’m guessing you won’t find much here that doesn’t bore you to tears. With that in mind, onward!

IC cards can be used on trains, subways, buses, and some taxis. Depending on your location, you may also find it can be used on tramways, monorails, etc. Let’s break down how to use the card in some of these situations:

Subways and trains:

Step 1: When you approach the ticket gates for any train or subway line, you’ll see a panel on top of each turnstile. Here’s the entrance to one of the subway platforms. Very exciting.


When the turnstile is ready to admit someone, the panel will glow blue. If someone is currently using the turnstile, there will be no light on the panel. If an error has occurred, the panel will be red. Touch your IC card to the blue light (when it’s ready) and walk through the gate as it opens for you. It’s very hard to take a non-blurry picture of yourself touching a PASMO to a turnstile in Tokyo station as you walk through. If you stop, you will irritate the person behind you. Oh well.


You get the idea. On the end of the turnstile is a small screen where you can see how much money you currently have on your card, for reference.

Step 2: Take the train/subway somewhere.

Step 3: When you arrive at your destination, touch your card to the turnstile on your way out of the station. The required fare will be automatically deducted from the balance on your card and the gates will open to let you out.


1. The balance on your card is running low and you cannot enter the train platform area.

How you know this is the problem: When you touch your card to the blue light at the ticket gates, the turnstile will turn red and the gates will close (if they are not closed already). A short error message will sound. An error message will be displayed (in English and in Japanese) on the screen directly above where you just touched your card.

Solution: Charge your card at one of the nearby ticket vending machines.

2. You do not have enough money on your card to cover the fare required at your destination.

How you know this is the problem: After you’ve taken the train/subway to your desired station, you try to exit the ticket gate. The gate turns red and an error message is displayed on the screen above where you’ve just touched your card. It’ll say something about your fare.

Solution: Head to the “Fare Adjustment Machine”. It looks like a vending machine, but you use it to ensure you pay the correct fare at the station where you arrive. They are typically near the ticket gate exits at each station. Put your card inside (press the English button if necessary), and follow the instructions. You can opt to charge your card or to pay the remaining balance required to get off at this stop. If you charge your card, your IC card will be returned to you and you can proceed through the turnstile as usual. If you choose to pay the remaining balance, the machine will return your card to you and you will receive a regular paper ticket. Use the paper ticket (at a turnstile with a paper ticket slot). You will need to charge your card to continue using it.

3. You didn’t touch your card to the turnstile.

How you know this is the problem: The gates close on you suddenly and the turnstile turns red. An error message sounds. The screen near where you touch your card might display the message “please touch your card again”. This sometimes happens if you’re following the person in front of you too closely and touch your card to the panel when the machine isn’t ready. It happens.

Solution: Touch your card to the turnstile again.

4. Forces beyond your control have caused a problem.

How you know this is the problem: When you touch your card to the turnstile, it turns red. The screen near where you touch your card reads something like “please speak to staff for assistance”.

Solution: Go to the station staff at the nearest desk.

Problem #4 doesn’t happen too often. When it does, it’s usually because of an unusual circumstance. For example, one time I hopped on the subway from Shibuya station, received a message from a friend inviting me to dinner in Shibuya, and decided to come back (via the same subway line). When I got to the ticket gate and attempted to exit, I got an error message. I simply handed my card to the station staff (I may have offered a brief “I came back” explanation) and it was fixed in a few seconds.

In other cases, more mysterious forces seem to be at work: perhaps you did not touch your card to the turnstile at the station where you got on the train, but were able to gain access to the platform. This can sometimes happen in cases where you’re following the person ahead of you very, very closely – the turnstile doesn’t register your card (or that two separate people are in the turnstile at once) and lets two people pass through at the same time. When you get to your destination, then, the ticket gate has no idea where you’ve come from (because you do not appear to have entered the transportation system) and has no idea how much to charge you. In these cases, you’ll need to take your card to the station staff. If this happens to you, just say the name of the station you came from. In the few times this has happened to me, I usually just say the name of the station plus から (kah-rah), meaning “From [station]”. They’ll push a few buttons, deduct the correct fare, and hand me back my card.

Yes, some of you will note that situations like these create opportunities for people who are looking for a free ride (literally). I would not be surprised, however, to find that after a few “strange problems” on the same person’s Suica, however, one might lose privileges for unquestioning station staff help. Your choices are your own.

Let’s talk about the bus system next.

If you’re interested in playing the Tokyo public transportation game on intermediate-advanced mode, try taking the bus. Using the bus is pretty simple with a Suica. I have encountered two types of buses:

1. Touch your Suica card to a card reader when you board the bus. Everyone is charged one fare. You can get off the bus at any point and your fare will be the same. These buses are typically city buses that circulate in the vicinities of large-ish stations.

2. Touch your Suica card to a card reader when you board the bus AND when you depart. You’ll be charged a fare in accordance with how far you have traveled. These buses are more common in suburbs or rural locations where buses travel much greater distances.


1. You cannot get/off on the bus because you do not have enough money on your Suica card.

How you know this is the problem: You’ll hear a little error sound when you try to get on/off the bus (i.e. it’s not the short little beep sound). The card reader will turn red.

Solution: Go charge your card (and then wait for the next bus), or pay the regular fare using change (there’s a cash deposit next to the card reader).

That’s pretty much it. As long as you know where you’re going, you’re set.

The last system is one I have not personally used, but the internet tells me it is possible: taxis.

Taxis in Tokyo are notoriously expensive. It is 770 yen (around $7.70) for the first 2 kilometers (yes, that’s right, just getting in a taxi costs you). After those first two kilometers, you’re then charged an additional fee for a set number of meters traveled (I wanna say 200 meters. I cannot remember and am too lazy to look it up. Let’s go with 200). Yikes. For reference, a taxi ride from Shibuya to Shinjuku, two popular hubs in Tokyo (about 10 minutes and 160-190 yen on the train/subway or $1.50-$2.00), will set you back around 2000-2500 yen ($20-$25), depending on exactly where you’re coming from and where you’re going to.

It seems some (NOT ALL) taxi companies now include card readers in their vehicles to accept payment. When you arrive at your destination, let your driver know you’d like to pay with an IC card (I imagine just saying “Suica” or “Pasmo” or whatever is fine. Maybe indicate your card if things still aren’t clear for whatever reason), and touch your card to the reader. The amount will be deducted from your card balance.

I do not carry a very large balance on my card. I once lost a Suica charged with around 2000 yen in the middle of Ikebukuro station. I bought a new one (of course) and have since tried to maintain a low balance on my card in case the same thing happens again. It’s important to have an idea of how much money you have on your card if you think you want to pay for a taxi ride with it. Of course, if you don’t have enough money on your card to pay for a taxi ride, you can always use cash (or a credit card, provided the company accepts them).

Whew! That’s a lot of information, now that I think about it. If it’s your first time encountering all of this, it might seem a little overwhelming, but once you do it a few times (and run into a few problems) you’ll get the hang of it. I do all my best learning through my blunders. I imagine many other people are similar.

One thing I will note that I was not aware of until speaking with the representatives in charge of this project: as of October 2013, these IC cards can now be used in any region of the country, regardless of where you originally purchased it. There may be a hiccup when you first try to use the card to enter a different region, but this can be quickly fixed by simply handing your card over to the station staff (again, the phrase [station/city] から (kah-rah) might be of use here), who will get you all sorted out. That means if you’re visiting the country and purchase an IC card at Narita, when you travel to another region of the country (like Kyoto, Osaka, Fukuoka, etc.) you can use the same card for transportation, for shopping here and there, whatever. You do NOT need to get a card from each region (unless you want to start a collection, I suppose). Nifty.

In the next post I’ll write a bit about how to use an IC card for everyday shopping. I went a bit nuts in Tokyo station with the PASMO card I was supplied for the purposes of this promotion. I was told to do things “in my style,” so I DID!

Check that out in the next post!

Get yourself a Suica (IC Card series #1)

Today will begin a five post series about the Suica card (and IC cards in general). In this series, I’ll share some info about how you can go about getting a Suica card (if you don’t have one already), how to use it for transportation, how to use it to buy things at vending machines and convenience stores, and how to charge the thing once you’ve got it. The last post in this series will be a little anecdote about my first day in Japan and how having a Suica would have saved me a little embarrassment.

With that out of the way, let us begin.

Suica is a little piece of plastic used all over East Japan. It’s pronounced “sooey-kah” (like you’re trying to call pigs to dinner? I guess? Kinda?). In katakana, it’s スイカ. According to the Suica Wikipedia page, SUICA stands for “Super Urban Intelligent CArd.” The plain old vocabulary word means “watermelon” in Japanese. The mascot (everything needs a mascot in this country) is a penguin. Suica cards are bright green and silver, and they fit inside a wallet, pocket, or purse just like a credit card. The cards are magical little pieces of plastic you can “charge” with money. Once charged, these cards can be used to quickly and easily pay for everyday shopping and transportation expenses. There are several different cards like Suica all over Japan. They are collectively known as “IC Cards” (Integrated Circuit Cards). The card in your region of Japan may have a different name and a different design, but you can use it just as you would a Suica (or PASMO, the other common IC card in East Japan). Below is my actual daily use Suica and a PASMO card given to me for this promotion. The only difference between these two cards is that one is JR (Suica) and one is…everything that isn’t JR in Tokyo. There are a number of privately owned transportation systems in the Tokyo area. The cards can be used interchangeably.

Suica and Pasmo IC Cards

99% of my Suica use is for transportation. Many commuters in Tokyo use a ticket that allows them to pay a fee up front to travel between two points an unlimited number of times during a specified period. I do not use a ticket like this because of the way my work schedule is organized. Instead, I use a regular old Suica to get where I need to go.

For my first week or two in Japan, however, I traveled old-school, buying tickets wherever I went (this caused me a few moments of public embarrassment, but we’ll visit that topic later). I’ll point out that you can do this, but you should be prepared to stop at each station, look at the station map, find the place you want to go (which may or may not be written in your language), and buy your ticket. When you get to your arrival station, there’s a chance you will have made the wrong choice in terms of ticket fare and will have to make a fare adjustment. These processes take time. Not a lot (I hope), but it could make a big difference if you’re running late for work, have a train/flight to catch, etc. If you have Suica (or whatever the IC card in your region is), you only need to worry about whether or not you have enough money on your card to get to where you want to go (or really, just enough money to get access to the platform area).

To get one of these Suica cards, head to your nearest JR station. If you’re coming from Narita, you can pick up your Suica card right there at the airport at the JR ticket machines. While I have never done it, a quick Google search indicates there is a Narita Express + Suica package you can grab at the airport. I hear that this is a “campaign” – this package is sometimes on, and sometimes not (sorry). On the bright side, even if the package deal isn’t on offer, you can still buy your Narita Express ticket and a Suica! You’ll just have to get them separately.

I remember the day I got my first Suica card. It was 2009. I’d been in Japan less than a month, and I was still living in Akihabara (HA!). I had been reading on the internet about this mysterious piece of plastic. Before coming to Japan I had never heard of the thing. I looked everywhere for information about how to acquire one.

 Here I will note that I am a rather quiet, “just let me figure it out myself” sort of person and was thus terrified to go to the station, attempt to get my card, and have something embarrassing happen to me (LIKE SOMEONE COMING OVER TO HELP ME OHMYGOD). I avoid drawing attention in public whenever possible.

On the day I finally decided I was going to get my Suica, it was the middle of summer, and I was disgustingly sweaty by the time I arrived at my nearby JR station (I went to Kanda because I figured there were fewer people to laugh at me, should I fail miserably). I apprehensively approached one of the black ticket machines that said “Buy a new Suica” in white letters and pressed the “English” button. I was then mortified to hear a kindly female voice from the machine suddenly announce to all in the immediate vicinity “ALL FARE INFORMATION WILL BE DISPLAYED IN ENGLISH.”

I’m certain that only one person in the entire station cared that day that I had pressed the English button (me). Once my totally unfounded shock and embarrassment subsided, I…followed the onscreen directions. It took me more time to dig money out of my wallet than it did to push the buttons on the screen. I shelled out 2000 yen (around $20) for my card. There’s a 500 yen “deposit” for each card that is automatically applied when you get one (you can get this back if you return your card at a JR station, should you decide you no longer need it). The other money (in this case, 1500 yen) will automatically be added to the card so you’re ready to go from the moment the vending machine spits out your shiny new Suica. I’m not exaggerating when I say it probably took me less than a minute to complete the whole process.

I felt a) dumb for having not done it sooner, and b) waaaaaaaay too excited to use it. I even went home and immediately made a video about it on the day. You can watch my horrifyingly nooby, sweaty, excited experience here if you like (though I highly recommend not watching that video because it is terrible. I’m sorry, internet. If you watch it…don’t say I didn’t warn you).

Of course, the first time I used it I felt like a GOD.


Of course, the excitement wanes rather quickly when you realize everyone else around you has been on board with this for a long time. Regardless, I was still excited to introduce the thing to my parents when they visited for a couple weeks later that year. It was handy and really helpful for us because it meant we didn’t really have to stop at train stations together whenever we wanted to go somewhere (thus avoiding the “clueless tourist” look).

The process really was simple, even for a Tokyo newbie like me. Your experience may vary (though I’d be surprised if it did). Here it is, broken into tiny steps:

Step 1: Enter any JR East station.

Step 2: Find the JR ticket machines.

Step 3: Find a black ticket machine. It will likely say “Suica” or “Buy a New Suica” at the top. The image below is of one such ticket machine in Shibuya station. The notice taped to it is temporary. It’s about upcoming changes in ticket pricing which reflect the tax increase we’ll be experiencing in April (if you have an IC card, you can still use your card in exactly the same way).

Suica Card and Ticket Machine

Step 4: Press “English” button (or not, if you’re comfortable in Japanese).

Step 5: Follow on-screen directions (you want the bottom left button in the above picture if you want a new card. The blue one.).

Step 6: Insert yen.

Step 7: Take shiny new Suica card.

Step 8: Go forth and frolic on the public transportation network (until the charge on your card runs out).

Naturally, the card DOES require management; 1500 yen isn’t going to last very long if you’re traveling a lot or use the thing to pick up snacks and drinks throughout the day. That will be the topic of another post in this series! More THRILLING INFORMATION (and tales of public embarrassment) on the way.