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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.

“HAHA! WATCH AS I MERELY PASS MY HAND ABOVE THIS TURNSTILE AND AM ADMITTED BEYOND!”

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.

5 Comments

  1. Priscilla Priscilla June 19, 2014

    Hi Alisha,

    Your Tokyo posts are really useful! Do you have an email I can contact you on?

    Thanks 🙂

  2. Karen Karen June 28, 2014

    Hi Alisha,
    Your blog series is extremely helpful for technology handicapped tourists in a country that English is not always spoken or written. I know that Japan is not as credit card crazy as the US and Europe, so do the IC machines take credit cards or do you need to have Yen in hand to make the purchase?

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