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.
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”!