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Japan Insight

Convenient and Money-Saving Tickets for Rail Travel

Train travel is an integral part of any trip to Japan. Once you have arrived, railways are a safe and speedy way to reach those “must-see” sightseeing spots on your list, get to your hotel, or simply get around town. Stations and trains also usually have signs in English, which makes finding your way easy. Read below to find out about popular electronic train cards, an essential tool for using Japan’s railways in the major population centers, and economical rail tickets for travelers that will make your travels in Japan even more enjoyable.

Electronic train cards, for easy transfers too

More and more Japanese railway operators are adopting non-contact IC card-style tickets. These electronic cards can be pre-loaded with an amount of the user’s choice; fares are deducted automatically when users go through a ticket gate, touching their card lightly against the card reader as they walk through. The cards can also be used as electronic cash, to pay for buses and taxis and for purchases from vending machines or station kiosks and at restaurants and convenience stores.

The main IC train cards issued in the Tokyo metropolitan area are Suica, by JR East, and PASMO, by private railway and bus operators. The cards may be used interchangeably, so either Suica or PASMO will make it a breeze to use any of the rail or bus lines in and around Tokyo. Having an IC card makes travel for sightseeing in the Tokyo area very convenient too.

One of the advantages of an IC train card is that it saves the bother of having to line up and buy a ticket from a vending machine every time you want to go somewhere. You can use the same card even if you’re transferring between lines too (when IC cards are accepted interchangeably). For example, either a Suica or a PASMO card will get you onto most of the lines of Tokyo’s amazingly dense rail network.

IC cards for visitors from abroad are available too. The JR East Japan Suica & N’EX combines a one-way ticket and reserved seat on the Narita Express, or N’EX, from Narita Airport into downtown Tokyo (valid for one day) with a Suica card pre-loaded with 2,000 yen. The Suica card bears an original illustration. The cost of this Suica & N’EX package is 3,500 yen for a seat in the ordinary car and 5,000 yen in the Green (first class) car on the Narita Express. If you’re going to Tokyo Station, that’s a saving of 1,430 yen over buying a Narita Express ticket and a 2,000-yen Suica card separately. A different Suica & N’EX, this one offering round-trip travel on the Narita Express between the airport and Tokyo and good for 14 days, costs 5,500 for a ticket in ordinary class and 8,000 yen in the Green car. Both types are on sale at Narita Airport, available on presentation of your passport at the time of purchase.

There’s also the Suica & Monorail, which has been available since February 2011. This ticket combines a discounted ticket for travel on the Tokyo Monorail between Haneda Airport, which opened to scheduled international flights in 2010, and points in central Tokyo with a Suica pre-loaded with 2,000 yen. A one-way Suica & Monorail costs 2,400 yen, and a round-trip ticket Suica & Monorail valid for 10 days is 2,700 yen, representing savings of 70 yen for the one-way and 240 yen for the round version.

Travelers to other parts of Japan (see below) can also enjoy the convenience of IC cards for rail travel, and mainly Suica can be used interchangeably. For example, the Suica you use for sightseeing in Tokyo can be used in Hokkaido, Osaka and Fukuoka, in the areas covered by their respective cards Kitaca, ICOCA and SUGOKA. Plans are afoot to broaden reciprocal coverage areas in the future too, making travel easier than ever.

Regions where IC Cards have been introduced

In addition to Suica in the Tokyo metropolitan area, other parts of Japan have their own IC cards, which can often be used interchangeably with Suica. They are Kitaca and SAPICA, for Hokkaido; TOICA and manaca for the Nagoya area; ICOCA for the Kinki region; and Hayakaken, nimoca, and SUGOCA for the Fukuoka region. Other places, such as Toyama, Hiroshima and the Shikoku region, also issue several different IC cards.

IC cards are all basically used the same way. The initial purchase of the IC card is made from a vending machine or ticket wicket. A deposit (usually 500 yen) is required, but it’s refunded in full when the card is returned. IC cards can be re-loaded with a cash amount as many times as the user likes, and some shops where IC cards can be used to pay also offer re-loading.


Enjoy travel on economical tickets

Photo: One of the great bargains of rail travel is the economical tickets offered by railroad operators.

If you feel like getting away from Tokyo, the JR East Weekend Pass (8,700 yen) may be just the “ticket” for you. This is an excursion pass good for travel on JR lines within the eligible zones of the Tokyo metropolitan area and in Miyagi, Yamagata, Fukushima, Niigata and Nagano prefectures. It’s also good for travel on lines run by private operators—on ordinary trains (including local expresses) of the Izu Kyuko, Hokuetsu Kyuko and Aizu Railway (between Nishi-Wakamatsu and Aizu-Tajima) lines; and in ordinary class, non-reserved seats, on the Abukuma Kyuko, Ueda Dentetsu, Kashima Rinkai Tetsudo, Shinano Railway, Nagano Electric Railway, Hitachinaka Seaside Railway, Fukushima Transportaion, Fuji Kyuko, Matsumoto Electric Railway and Yamagata Railway, unlimited stopovers allowed. Paying the additional limited express allows users to ride on Shinkansen and limited express trains as well. This ticket is valid for two days and must be used for two consecutive days starting on a Saturday or a public holiday.

Photo: Visiting popular cherry blossom viewing spots in spring is one great way to enjoy the savings this ticket offers. So, plan an excursion to the “waterfall cherry blossoms” of Miharu in Fukushima, or enjoy a stroll under the flowering trees of Takato Castle Remains Park in Nagano or Takada Park in Niigata.

Or, how about taking a Michelin Guide three-star excursion to Nikko, using the All-Nikko Pass (4,030 yen; 4,400 yen from April through November)? This money-saving ticket includes round-trip travel from all stations on the Tobu Railway Main Line to Shimo-imaichi Station and rail and bus travel, with unlimited stopovers, throughout the eligible zone inthe Nikko area.This ticket is valid for four days and also offers discounts for the Akechidaira Ropeway and purchases at souvenir shops.

Nikko, just two hours from central Tokyo, brings to mind World Heritage sites—Toshogu Shrine, Rinno-ji Temple and Futarasan Shrine—but it’s also where visitors can enjoy natural wonders like Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji, not to mention Yumoto Onsen hot springs, which is over 1,000 years old.

Photo: Another option is the Hakone Freepass (5,000 yen for a two-day ticket), an economical way of getting to the hot springs at Hakone, which is an easy journey from Tokyo. The Freepass includes round-trip travel between Shinjuku and Hakone-Yumoto, and unlimited use of buses, ropeways, cable cars and other transport in the Hakone area. It also offers discounts at selected facilities.

The Ltd. Exp. Romancecar (extra payment for limited express ticket required, in addition to the Freepass) takes you to Hakone in an hour and a half. With 17 different hot springs, Hakone is one of Japan’s premier hot springs resorts. Other attractions in the area include Owakudani, where steam generated by underground volcanic activity hisses from fissures, beautiful Lake Ashi, and unspoiled nature. The area also boasts over 20 distinctive art museums, such as the Pola Museum of Art and many others. And those who’d like to shop can stop by at the nearby Gotemba Premium Outlets, with over 200 outlet stores for brand-name goods.

Photo: For travel in Kansai, mainly in and around Osaka and Kyoto, there’s the Kansai Thru Pass 3-day/2-day Ticket (3-day Ticket 5,000 yen; 2-day Ticket 3,800 yen). It’s good for unlimited railway, subway and bus travel in Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara, Wakayama, Himeji and Otsu, and includes discounts and other bonuses at 350 facilities. For example, visitors with this ticket are eligible for reduced admission fees to temples and shrines such as Kyoto’s Kennin-ji Temple, To-ji Temple and Byodo-in Temple; Nara’s Kasuga Shrine, Hase-dera Temple, Asuka-dera Temple and others; Hyogo’s Arima hot springs, the Rokko cable car and the Kobe Port Tower, which offer glittering night views of Kobe; in Osaka, the donjon of Osaka Castle, the Tsutenkaku Tower, the Kaiyukan Aquarium; and dozens of other notable tourist spots in each area. The benefits of this ticket are worthwhile, and an English-language guidebook is also provided.

There are also various Rail Pass tickets offered by the different JR railway companies exclusively for overseas visitors to Japan, so check those out before leaving home. Enjoy your trip in Japan and save money too!

Take a Local Train and Enjoy the Real Japan!

Derek Wessman, corporate management, interpreter, U.S.A.

Even with one of the greatest rail networks in the world, what is surprising about Japan is the sheer number of trains that run on any given day. Take the Yamanote Line, which runs in a loop around central Tokyo. Trains departing either clockwise or counter-clockwise from Tokyo station number well over 600 on a day.

For people who appreciate the punctuality and convenience of the urban train network in Japan but want to experience train travel at a slower pace, I thoroughly recommend a trip on a local railway.

The Enoshima Electric Railway (a.k.a. Enoden), for instance, connects the ancient capital of Kamakura, a short hop from Tokyo, and the seaside town of Fujisawa. While the railway’s short distance of about 10 km is covered in 34 minutes, the ride offers plenty of amusement and appeal not found on trains in urban Tokyo. You can discover both the real joys of local railways and picturesque ocean scenery on the Enoden. One caveat—I strongly recommend avoiding the busy weekends and tourist season and riding the train on a weekday.

Departing from Kamakura, the Enoden makes its way through the city area and then appears to almost graze people’s gardens before going through a small tunnel. A little farther along and the ocean comes into view on the left, with the lush green silhouette of Enoshima floating in the distance. Behold the freedom of the open air and breathtaking natural beauty!

Inside the train, it is like taking a peek into a typical day in the life of the Japanese. It hums with the sounds of housewives coming back from shopping errands, students returning home from school, and young mothers chatting while out and about with their small children.

One of the most appealing aspects of the Enoden is the chance to see the daily activities of ordinary people up close.

Of course, many other local railways besides the Enoden also offer the opportunity to enjoy the quotidian pleasures of Japan. If you come to Japan or live here already, don’t miss the opportunity to take a local train ride!