If you transit regularly during your stay in Japan, even if it’s just on your way to and from the tattoo studio, you may want to get a prepaid IC card. These contactless smart cards are a very convenient way to get on and off most trains, buses, and subways. These card systems have been in place in Japan for over a decade now.  And if your city’s mass transit system doesn’t yet have something in place you’re going to return home irritated.  Relative to Japan it will seem like a total lack of investment in your local infrastructure.  I’m looking at you North America.

The name and design of the IC card varies by region but cards are interchangeable between these areas. So for example you can use the Suica card you would get in Tokyo – part of the JR East region (JR is the Japan Railways Group) – on the Tokyo subway, train, and bus as well for the same said modes of transportation in Osaka.

However! There’s a few exceptions… There’s always exceptions.

You can’t use a card from one region to access transportation to another region. Your start and end points have to be within the same region.  In other words, you can use the card in Tokyo and you can use the card in Osaka but you can’t use the card to travel from Tokyo to Osaka.

A green outline on a raised black surface indicates the IC card reader area. Inside the green oval is the text ICOCA.

The area in the green oval is where you tap your IC card. You’ll hear a little sound indicating that the card has been read and a green arrow above the reader will light up. If you have insufficient funds or the card can’t be used for some other reason you’ll hear a decidedly less pleasant sound and a red indication will light up.  Photo by  w0746203-1.


These cards are not able to purchase tickets for riding the shinkansen high-speed rail.  Some of the express train lines are excluded as well. But I think the fact that the IC cards are often accepted for payment at many vending machines and shops in the larger urban stations makes up for that. Have I mentioned the incredible bakeries you can find at many central stations in Japan? You can’t take the express but you can take your time enjoying some melon bread.

Getting and Using the IC Card

Once you’re done stuffing your face at the station and you need to get on the move you can buy or recharge an IC card at most ticket counters and machines. The cards cost 2000 yen and include a 500 yen deposit. You can get the deposit back when you’re finished with the card by returning it.  It must be returned at one of the ticket counters for the region in which it was originally purchased (e.g., return a Suica card to a JR East counter, not a JR West counter). If you have a balance remaining on the card it can be paid out as well, minus a small fee.

It is pretty simple to use IC card for the train and subway station gates.  You tap the card on the sensor, listen for the beep and see the display change, the gates open, and you walk through. For buses you tap your card when you enter and then again when you leave.

In the end an IC card can save a lot of time and hassle while traveling in Japan.  You don`t have to waste time asking for directions.  Or looking for your destination on the transit map.  Although they will save you little to no money compared to buying single tickets.  But if you know you’re going to be running around quite a bit it’ll be worth picking one up.