“Cash is King” and the “IC Card is Queen”

Culture Avatar photo Ari Gorney

G'Day Japan! / Culture / “Cash is King” and the “IC Card is Queen”

In Japan, the saying is “Cash is King”, with the society being so reliant of using physical money for purchases such as restaurants, supermarkets, and a multitude of other locations. But if the saying goes “Cash is King” then in recent times certainly it can be said that the “IC Card is Queen” with its expansion over Japan to pay for many services. So, you have landed in Japan and you want to get an IC card. It can be a bit scary at first, but hopefully this quick and easy guide can help you.

What exactly is an IC Card?

IC cards are rechargeable cards that can be used to conveniently pay fares on public transportation and to make payments at many vending machines, shops, and restaurants by simply touching the card on a reader for about one second. Dozens of train and bus operators across Japan have started issuing their own IC cards since 2001. Compare that to Australia where the first IC Card was introduced in 2007 by Perth, Sydney was late to the party being the last to introduce it in 2012.

Basic Information

As IC cards proved to be more useful and popular, with each region of Japan clamed its own IC Card that can be used within that area. Similarly, to how NSW has Opal and Victoria has Myki. However, unlike those cards, the more popular IC cards are compatible with each other allowing for ease of travel between the different prefectures. So, let us talk about the 2 more popular IC cards, SUICA and ICOCA.

SUICA is a popular card that is offered by JR East. The SUICA mascot, a friendly penguin, is an icon of the Tokyo subway. The card services JR trains in the areas of Tokyo, Sendai, and Niigata which includes transport by train, subway, monorail, and bus.

The ICOCA Card is offered by JR West and services JR trains in the regions of Hiroshima, Kyoto, Osaka, and Okayama. This card covers a slightly larger area than the others and is also compatible with some minor local cards, such as the Paspy Card in Hiroshima. ICOCA stands for IC Operating Card, but it is also a play on a Japanese phrase meaning “Shall we go?”. The ICOCA cards are decorated with one of 2 mascot designs: either Ico, a blue duckbill platypus, or a pair of different platypuses, Icota and Icomi.

For all IC cards, travel on bullet trains, overnight busses, long-distance trains, or airport transfers is not included. After purchasing, each card is charged with 2,000 yen, including the 500-yen deposit, and the card is valid for 10 years so make sure you keep it, so you are ready for your next trip to Japan.

Where to buy an IC Card

Upon your arrival in Japan, you can purchase an IC Card from a ticket counter or an automated kiosk at any major train station. Kiosk instructions are available in English to aid international travellers. The card can be loaded with up to ¥20,000. When your balance gets low, the IC card can be recharged with additional funds at any train station and at other convenient locations.

How to use an IC Card?

When using the train or metro lines, find a ticket gate that accepts IC Cards – be advised that some gates accept regular tickets only. At the gate, just touch the contactless card to the blue illuminated card reader for a second. Cards must be used within their service area. This means that both the station of departure and arrival must be located within the card’s geographic area. If you pass through the wrong gate or scan your card in error, see a station attendant for assistance. To use your IC Card to make purchases at vending machines, stores, or restaurants, look for the IC Card logo. Once you have located the card reader, scan the card as you would at the station. Look for participating vendors in urban areas and near train stations. For buses, the card reader will be located at the vehicle’s entrance or exit.

How to recharge IC cards?

IC cards can be recharged at ticket machines and special re-charging machines found at railway stations and other strategically meaningful locations. They can also be recharged at stations of companies other than the issuing company, e.g. Suica can also be recharged in Osaka or Fukuoka. The maximum amount to be charged onto a card is 20,000 yen.

How to get back the 500 yen refundable deposit?

Bring your card to the ticket counter of the issuing operator in order to get back your 500-yen deposit. Unused credit can also be refunded; however, most companies will subtract a 220-yen handling fee from the remaining balance to be refunded (no handling fee is charged in case of Pasmo cards). Note that IC cards can only be returned to the issuing company, e.g. it is not possible to return a Suica card in Osaka or an Icoca card in Tokyo.

Why should you consider and IC Card?

Time-saver: Changing train lines to make a connection can be stressful enough and having to buy a new ticket in between can be all it takes for you to miss your last train home.

Flexibility: Because you do not specify a location when boarding a train or bus with a Suica or Pasmo card, you have more flexibility, so if you change your mind, or see something cool out of the window, you can hop off without worrying about having the the right ticket. Also, great if you don’t know the exact bus stop and rely on following Google Maps on your phone until it looks close!

Shopping: Like their counterparts in other areas of Asia, Pasmo and Suica smart cards can also be used for vending machines, coin lockers and in plenty of shops (especially convenience stores), which can help when you do not have enough change.

Looking cool: Trying to impress? Shrugged off the giant backpack for a night out? Don’t be the one person in your new group of friends who has to go buy a ticket.

Welcome Suica: In September 2019, Suica introduced the Welcome Suica, a blossom-themed card which is perfect for (some) visitors. It has no deposit, which is great, but it automatically expires after 28 days, so it is only useful for those staying for a few weeks. The card is available with a variety of pre-loaded amounts—from ¥1,000 to ¥10,000—and you will not have to go through the hassle of returning the card or sacrificing the ¥500 return fee. You can purchase the Welcome Suica card at JR East Travel Service Centers at Narita Airport Terminal 1 Station, Narita Airport Terminal 2/3 Station, Haneda Airport International Terminal Station, Tokyo Station, Shinjuku Station, Ikebukuro Station, Ueno Station, and Hamamatsucho Station.

As you can see There are various types of IC cards in Japan, but you must have noticed that many of their names end with “ca.” This “ca” comes from the English word “card.” It is also pronounced the same way as the Japanese hiragana syllable “ka.” (か). IruCa—the IC card for the Takamatsu-Kotohira Electric Railroad (Kotoden) in Takamatsu—is one such card that is unique to its region. Koto-chan, the blue dolphin, is also Kotoden’s endearing mascot. IruCa is a play on the word “iruka” (海豚, いるか) or dolphin in Japanese. The phrase can also translate to “Do you need it?” with the same pronunciation. So, when you arrive to Japan, you can ask yourself, “Do you need it?” or have a bit of a walk exploring things along the way.