Cards and passes for public transport

Cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are large and tourist sights are spread across them, not concentrated in one area. You’ll need some form of transport to get around and in most cases this will be public transport. Taxis are useful for shorter distances but the cost adds up if they are used frequently or for longer distances. A rental car isn’t a practical option in the city due to limited parking and busy traffic.

When it comes to public transport, large cities in Japan have multiple operators. These include JR, the national rail system, and private rail and subway operators. There are also buses. This may seem confusing at first and even more so if you’re not used to using public transport in your home town.

Passes

Many visitors look to passes as a way of simplifying usage of public transport, thinking that they won’t have to worry about buying tickets and there will be a fixed cost for their daily transport.

There are various local bus and subway passes available in cities throughout Japan. Examples are the Kyoto Bus Pass and the Tokyo Metro Pass. These are a fixed price and can pay off if you use that form of transport often enough during the days covered by the pass. The savings over regular price fares may only work out to be a few hundred yen, and it may take a bit of time to work out whether a particular pass is really worthwhile.

In the case of the examples above, the Kyoto Bus Pass will pay off if you take the bus three or more times in one day. The 72 hour Tokyo Metro Pass can be good value if you’re staying close to a Tokyo Metro or Toei Subway station and seeing sights accessible via their lines, so you need to work this out.

One type of pass that usually is good value is a daily ticket on the sightseeing loop buses often found in small to medium-sized cities. Examples are the Meipurupu bus in Hiroshima or the Kanazawa Loop Bus, which go around the major sights in these cities

IC Cards

IC cards are stored value cards which can be loaded with money, similar to the Oyster in London or the Opal in Sydney. You’re also not restricted to using one operator’s routes as they are valid across multiple operators. The cards make paying for public transport easier, as you don’t need to buy tickets each time you travel. IC cards save a very small amount of money, but the main benefit is convenience.

When you buy the IC card, you can load some money on it. If you’re uncertain about how much to load, start with 2000 yen. As you travel around, you may need to load more money on the card. The easiest way to do this is at machines found in stations. These machines generally have an English option, which can be selected by tapping an icon or button. If you are worried about working out how to use these machines, there are some helpful videos on Youtube showing the step-by-step process.

Each region has its own IC card, but they can be used and loaded with more money in other regions too, with some exceptions. You can buy the IC card in the city you arrive at (Icoca in Kyoto and Osaka, Pasmo or Suica in Tokyo) and be confident that you can use it in other cities.

Should you buy a pass or an IC card?

Everybody travels differently so there’s no one-size-fits-all advice, however I’d strongly recommend looking at getting an IC card. As well as a convenient way to pay for public transport, it’s useful for luggage lockers and convenience store purchases.

When it comes to passes, it really depends on your plans in that city. A pass could provide you with a good cost saving or it could cost you more than the individual tickets. It may take a bit of time to work this out. If you’re not sure, I suggest sticking with the IC card. If budget is really important to you, by all means work through the costs of individual bus and train trips and compare to the cost of the pass, but also bear in mind that the time may be better spent on reducing major costs such as airfares and accommodation.

Do you have any questions about travelling around Japan? Please feel free to contact me.

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For further information, the ebook Japan Just for You is a practical step-by-step guide to planning your trip to Japan, starting with developing your own personal trip concept. It’s now available on Apple, Amazon and Kobo, and other stores.