Choco’s post about traveling in Japan mentioned the Suica, which is a wonderful way to manage transportation while traveling in the Kanto region of Japan.
To expand upon this subject a little bit, I’ll provide my personal experiences with the card along with any knowledge I have about it.
I first obtained my Suica in 2006 during my study abroad session in Chiba prefecture. Other classmates were getting Suica 定期(teiki) – a commuter pass version of the card. I didn’t need it since my daily commute was on the Keisei line, but I wanted to get a Suica anyway, because it seemed neat
The way you obtain the card is as follows: after choosing a JR machine that supports Suica, you select that you want to buy one, and give it 2000yen. 500 of that goes towards the card itself, and 1500 can be used freely. You can charge up your card whenever you’re at a machine using increments of 1000, 2000, 5000 or 10,000 yen, and there doesn’t appear to be a limit – I remember seeing ads for using Suica at the airport for domestic flights so clearly they want to encourage lots of use.
Suica has come a long way since 2006 – back then, you could primarily use it on JR lines and at certain convenience stores that accepted it. Now, you can use the card on many of the subway lines in Tokyo (but not private lines! Please be careful! Anything that is not part of the “Tokyo Metro” system, for example Tokyu lines, will not accept Suica!), the Keisei lines, and even in other regions of Japan! I was a little confused about this, but apparently Suica can be used in the Kansai region (Osaka, Kyoto, etc) where you would normally need an ICOCA or similar pass for the same functionality. This makes buying a Suica even more convenient! (Note that you can only buy Suica at JR East (Tokyo and surrounding areas) train stations even though you can use them elsewhere.)
Moreover, Suica cards do not expire unless you don’t use them for 10 years. That’s right. Even if you only go to Japan every 9.9 years, as long as you use your Suica once you’re all set! I tend to go to Japan about every other year, and have used the same Suica I bought back in 2006.
Money does not disappear from the card if you don’t use it, either. I believe you might be able to ask for the remaining balance left on the card if you turn the card in at some point, but I’ve never done that, so I’m less clear on the process.
Suica is a contactless card, which means that you merely need to keep it in your wallet, or passcase, and hold it over the sensor – no need to take it out and feed it through the ticket gate. Additionally, there are gates set up just for paying via Suica, so your travel is that much speedier! For people who are living in Japan, and depending on the model, Suica can even be added to your mobile, so as long as you have your phone with you, you’re all set! (Again, I’ve never done this, but I’m well aware of its existence. It’s possible this version of Suica draws from a bank account rather than a card which is charged every now and again.)
Many stores accept Suica as payment – if they do, you’ll see a clearly displayed payment sensor with the symbol for Suica on it. Usually at least one of the convenience stores in a JR station will accept Suica. This is a great way to use up your remaining balance, if you want to, and can be pretty useful if you run out of cash while away from your home base.
Even if you’re only in Tokyo for a stay of about a week, if you ever plan on coming back, I’d recommend buying a Suica card. Without Suica, you need to make sure you have cash (sometimes small bills, as ticket machines may occasionally not take 10,000yen notes) and you need to keep track of a tiny ticket stub which is easily lost.