Tame Tokyo’s transportation options with refillable fare cards

Tokyo’s transportation options can be tamed

In the Tokyo area, trains, subways and buses have their own tickets. There are also multiple train companies, two subway companies, different bus lines, plus boats, the monorail, the streetcar and two unmanned trains. Phew! You have to have cash and it can get confusing trying to find the right ticket machines. Years ago, I flustered my parents switching train lines and then getting the wrong tickets. We had to backtrack, get refunds and buy new tickets and I was left blushing as the so-called expert.

Another option is to stick to one form of transportation and consider day passes, but this can restrict where you want to go. Living and travelling in Tokyo, we have found only one pass worth our money. It is the Y500 day pass for one of the bus lines. Three trips covers the cost and we can easily do more in a day. Of course, some people value convenience over cost.

Finally, will you be spending most of your time in Tokyo?

The answer to the question of how to manage all these choices is a refillable fare card. I bought my first Suica card at the JR Ueno Station with the help of a kind station attendant who saw me staring wide-eyed at the machine. I was living in Akita at the time and visiting (Japanese) friends who used to live in Tokyo. They were surprised when I pulled out my card to take the train but I was thrilled. First, I felt like a local. Second, I saved time and could go anywhere without thinking too much.

Another option is the Pasmo managed by Tokyo Metro. Hitoshi likes this one the best!

Both cards look like a credit card. They are loadable and valid on almost all forms of transportation as well as at convenience stores and many vending machines. Partnerships are growing across the transportation lines in Japan and the cards can be used outside of Tokyo. This map shows the regions covered by both cards.

What is Suica? What about Pasmo?

Su-i-ca means watermelon and the cute logo doesn’t look anything like a watermelon. Guess which character is Suica-chan!

logos of three fare cards

Fare Cards unite!

Pasmo’s logo is a pink robot. I don’t know why. Please comment if you do!

Where can I buy a card?

Most machines at train and subway stations (including Narita Airport) showing the Suica or Pasmo logos sell the cards for a Y500 deposit plus a Y1,500 charge. An English button is usually somewhere on the machine.

The Suica used to be bundled with the Narita Express but the program was discontinued in 2014. These cards may be bundled with other promotions so it’s worth searching on the JR and Tokyo Metro sites for deals.

Does the card give me a discount on transportation?

There is no discount with the card but it creates convenience!

Where can I add money to a card?

Charge your card at ticket machines in stations showing the Suica or Pasmo decal or at ticket counters. Amounts can only be in Y1,000 increments up to Y20,000.

One concern is losing the card with a high balance on it. You can add your name to a card but it’s probably better to keep charge amounts lower if you are worried. One option is to use Hyperdia to plan out how much you might spend during your time in Tokyo.

Cards can be charged on buses but only in Y1,000 amounts using a Y,1000 note. We haven’t found bus drivers willing to take notes over Y1,000, even with sad eyes.

Some convenience stores may also recharge the cards.

Can children get a card?

Yes! You have to go to the JR or Tokyo Metro counters and show identification that proves the age of the children.

My workplace in Tokyo was near a fancy kindergarten and elementary school. I often saw parents with young children and older kids travelling to school on their own. At the gates, these kids stretched their arms way above their heads to reach the scanner!

Do I have to return my card?

You don’t have to return your card. We kept several after we moved and used them when we visited Japan. Any money on the cards was still there. The cards also make nice souvenirs!

If you want to return your card, go to a JR (for Suica) or Tokyo Metro (for Pasmo) ticket counter or office. We got the Y500 deposit back but additional balances were treated differently. Sometimes we got the extra balance back. Other times, we were told that a fee would be charged. It’s almost impossible to get your balance to zero using only public transportation. The agent told us to clear the balance by buying something at a convenience store or vending machine.

Have you tried refillable fare cards or stuck to tickets and day passes? What have been your experiences?

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