The most convenient methods of local travel in Japan are by train or bus. To pay fares, most locals use tap-to-pay IC Cards, like PASMO and Suica Cards. Standard tickets are less convenient, and sometimes slightly more expensive, but can also be used. If you frequently travel (i.e., at least twice every weekday) between two stations on any give train line, it might be worth it to get a commuter pass. We have a separate post on how to get a commuter pass. (Bargain-hunters may have heard of the Japan Rail Pass, but it’s only a good deal if you’re staying in Japan 21 days or less, don’t need the bus or subway, and plan on traveling outside of Tokyo. We won’t be talking about it in this post.)
Here’s how to get an IC Card:
Find a ticket machine that’s marked to show that you can purchase PASMO, Suica, or other IC Cards at that machine. (Multiple languages available.)
Select “PASMO” or “Suica,” and then “Purchase.” You will be able to pick a personalized card, or a standard card. Personalized cards can be re-issued if lost or stolen, but require a Japanese phone number to be registered.
The first charge will include a ¥500 deposit, which can be refunded if you wish to return the card. Select an amount and insert cash.
Take the receipt, any change, and your new fare card! The card can be used immediately to pay for fares.
To pay for fares using an IC Card:
At the ticket gate, simply tap the card at the spot marked “IC.” Repeat the process when exiting at your destination. That’s it! The fare is automatically calculated for you, and often, you’ll even get a discount for using an IC card. On select buses which charge a flat fare, you will not need to tap to exit the bus. If your card runs low, you can charge it up with cash at marked ticket machines, or at fare adjustment machines inside the train gates.
To buy regular tickets:
On rare occasions, train stations outside of most major cities don’t accept IC Cards. You most likely won’t encounter these unless you head up to areas like Akita. Here’s how to buy a paper ticket instead:
Find out the fare required to get to your destination. There are usually maps near the ticket machines displaying how much it will cost to get to each station.
At a ticket machine, insert your cash, select the number of tickets (skip if just one), and then the fare amount.
Take any change, and your ticket.
To use the ticket:
At the ticket gate, insert your ticket into the slot at the front. The ticket will eject at the far end of the gate if accepted. When exiting, if the ticket has been completely used (i.e., one-way tickets), it will not eject, and the gate will let you pass through.
If you have access to data or WiFi, make sure you have Google Maps. It’s the only app you’ll ever need to find your way around Japan’s complex train and bus system. (The website works great, too!) By using GPS and entering your destination, Google will determine the best route for you to take, giving you details down to which platform to use, and even how much the fare will cost.