Suica/PASMO and the public transport in Tokyo and Japan

by Paul Goodchild

Faster Public TransportTokyo… it’s a pretty big place.

Officially as of October 2007, the population of Tokyo is approximately 10% of country, which is roughly 12.790 million people.  The Tokyo prefecture is the 3rd smallest by land area (2.187km²) making it the most densely populated prefecture.  So how does everyone get around?  It’s like any major city really, the rail network serves the core central areas and connects the major hubs with the help of the bus network.  The further from the centre of the city you go, the heavier the reliance on buses and private transport.

Tokyo rail network

Starting with the trains, there are 2 types in Tokyo.  Basically there’s JR East (JR東日本/JR Higashi-Nihon), and then there’s everything else.  The everything else includes all the private rail and subway companies, with the main players being Keiō (京王), Toei (都営), and Tōkyu (東急).

Buying a ticket for a train on one network will not see you transition to a train on another – you’ll always have to buy a connecting ticket.  The there is a way around this headache.

IC charge cards

There now a one-size-fits-all to ticketing in Tokyo and other major cities.  As of March 2008, when using the IC charge systems in Tokyo you simply charge up your prepaid cards and swipe them as you enter and exit anywhere within the network.  The system does all the leg work for you.

But you wont be too surprised to find that there is more than one system – 2 in fact.  Typical!

  1. Suica: operated by JR East, it is valid throughout Greater Tokyo and beyond.  It works for all trains, subways and buses in Tokyo, Sendai, Niigata and much further afield on JR trains in the likes of Osaka and Sapporo.
  2. PASMO: (パスモ) is a combined effort by Tokyo railway and subway companies.  This is also valid for use on trains (including JR), subways and buses, but limited to the Greater Tokyo area.

Here are some important points to note:

  • Where to get one: you can pick up these cards at either demarcated ticket machines, or counters at the respective operators i.e. JR provides Suica; other rail companies provide PASMO.
  • How much: they are provided with a refundable 500-yen deposit and an accompanying initial charge value (Suica is 1500-yen; PASMO 500~9500-yen)
  • How to recharge: this is done using Suica/PASMO demarcated ticket machines found at all JR and private rail stations.  I believe you can also charge on buses.
  • Commuter pass inclusion: as well as a standard charge card, you can also have your commuter pass (teikiken) included on the card.
  • Shopping: many convenience stores, restaurants and even taxis now allow you to make purchases using the cards instead of cash.  There will typically be a sign and card reader clearly visible.

IC card provision outside Tokyo

Suica has quite a bit more reach beyond PASMO. In other major cities throughout Japan, JR has implemented similar systems with different names.  Suica is by far the most versatile, while all IC card flavours work on Tokyo’s JR rail except one (at the time of writing).

Super convenience – Mobile Suica

These charge cards are incredibly convenient.  That said though, they’ve taken it a step further: Mobile Suica (モバイルSuica).  This service runs off the back of the NTT Docomo developed system, osaifu-keitai (おサイフケータイ) – literally translated as “wallet mobile”.

It’s exactly as it sounds.  You charge up the little IC chip (FeliCa) that has been placed in your mobile phone with a preconfigured credit card of your choice.  You then use it just as you would the Suica/PASMO cards described above – one less thing to carry in your wallet / lose / forget.


  1. There is an interface that you can use on your phone or the internet to view all transaction history on the card – this isn’t available on the standard Suica/PASMO cards
  2. One less card to carry around and remember.
  3. You nearly always have your mobile phone with you and if you lose/forget your wallet/cash, you will have a handy backup.


  1. The interfaces that I have seen for it are only provided in Japanese.
  2. You must have a credit card that you register in order to provide top-ups as you need it.  You are also charged a 1000 yen fee (per year I believe) for this privilege.
  3. It is not available on all mobiles.  Look out for the FeliCa logo on the phone handset: FeliCa Network logo

Suica + N’EX deal

As I was researching some of the finer details for this post, I came across this interesting offer.  Basically, at Narita airport terminals 1&2 you can buy a combined Suica card (with 2000 yen top-up included) + Narita Express transit ticket to Tokyo for 3500-yen.  Bargain!  This saves you nearly 1500 yen.

There are so many services out there that it can all get a bit confusing, but I hope this article helps to clear some of the mystery or confusion for you if you’re just getting used to it in Japan.  Please feel free to comment on, add to, or correct anything you’ve read in this article.

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