Japan’s Suica and Pasmo cards are your ticket to ride on Tokyo’s JR trains, private subway lines and Narita’s N’EX express airport train.
Add tap-and-go payment at railway kiosks, convenience stores, buses, taxis and even vending machines, plus other public transport systems in a dozen other parts of the country, and you can see why one of these prepaid ‘e-money’ cards is almost a must-have for business travellers to Japan.
Here’s what you need to know.
Suica vs Pasmo: which card should you get?
Each cards works on both train networks, and a variety of train and bus networks in other Japanese cities, so you only need one card to carry around.
If you’re flying into Tokyo’s Narita airport I suggest buying the Suica & N’EX package.
Available from the JR East Travel Service Centres outside the train ticket gates at Terminal 1 and 2, the ¥5,500 (A$62) combo includes a return ticket for the fast Narita Express to central Tokyo plus a Suica card preloaded with ¥1,500.
That’s a saving of around $24 over buying a Suica card and N’EX roundtrip ticket separately.
Otherwise you can pick up a Suica card for ¥2,000 ($A22) or a Pasmo for ¥1,500 (A$17) from smartcard ticket machines at most train stations in Tokyo.
Those prices include a refundable ¥500 deposit, so depending on which card you buy you’ll have either ¥1,500 or ¥1,000 as credit.
Train fares for shuttling around central Tokyo are fairly low, at between ¥160 and ¥170 (around A$1.85), so that balance should be enough for a few days.
When buying either card you’ll have the option to register it via the ticket machine’s touchscreen. It’s a quick process which means the card’s balance will be refunded if you lose the card.
Topping up your Suica or Pasmo card
Your card's balance is displayed as you check through a turnstile, or you can just tap it on a vending machine without making a purchase.
To add value to your Suica or Pasmo card, look for a smartcard ticket machines at any railway station.
It’s a quick process but you’ll need to have a few Yen notes on hand (the minimum reload is ¥1,000) as the ticket machines don’t accept credit cards.
Getting a refund on your Suica or Pasmo card
When it’s time to head home, you can get a refund on the balance of your Suica or Pasmo card provided you have conversational Japanese language skills. Yes, there’s always a catch!
Just front up to the station manager’s office at any train station in Tokyo. A ¥210 processing fee will be deducted from your card’s balance but the rest, along with the ¥500 deposit, will be handed back to you in cash.
Suica or Pasmo vs Japan Rail Pass
While there's undoubted convenience in a Suica or Pasmo card, especially when used outside of public transport, if you're only interested in getting from A to B and will be heading further afield than Tokyo it can be better value to buy a Japan Rail Pass.
The JR Pass provides unlimited travel on Japan Railways trains and buses, along with most of those wonderful Shinkansen bullet trains (except the fastest Nozomi services).
A seven day pass sells for ¥28,300 (A$320), or ¥37,800 (A$425) if you want to stretch out in the first class carriages.
It's hard to justify just for Tokyo – especially as the JR Pass doesn't cover private subway systems – but if you're planning some Shinkansen side-trips the JR Pass comes out ahead.
The JR Pass is only available outside Japan, so you'll need to buy it before you travel – for details of Australian distributors, visit the JNTO Australia website.