Trains

JapanaTour: The Suica and the Shinkansen

Dec 09 // Chris Walden
The humble Suica card was introduced in 2001 as a method of simplifying payment for travel. It's pretty much a credit card that contains 'contactless technology,' meaning you don't have to insert the card into a barrier or jam it on top of the sensor for it to work. You can top them up in several locations, but most train stations in Tokyo will have the machines that do this. They are clearly marked and are as simple as popping the card in the machine and then inserting the money. The on-screen instructions are also available in English, so that helps! Fun fact time! Did you know that the name 'Suica' actually means 'Super Urban Intelligent Card'? You may also notice that on the logo the 'I' and 'C' are different. This is because they are representing the 'Integrated Circuit' kept inside the cards. Of course, it is entirely optional as to whether you want to use a Suica card, as you can also buy regular train tickets. I highly recommend you do though, and keep it topped up with at least ¥1000 at all times. You never know if you'll just fancy nipping into Akihabara on the way back from somewhere else! Now, to get hold of one of these, you'll need to buy one in a Tokyo train station. They cost ¥2000, but ¥1500 of that cost will be placed on the card for you. The other ¥500 acts as a deposit, so if you don't plan on coming back to Japan, you can hand it back. Pretty neat right? If you think you'll be back, you can use the Suica card and any money you left on it on your next trip. The card will stay active for ten years after the last use, so there's plenty of time to re-use it. There are plenty of details on the English page over here if you fancy reading up on it! The primary use of the Suica card is to serve as a train ticket. When you are heading for a train, you will have to pass through some barriers that will have both a ticket slot and a Suica sensor on top. To use the Suica card, all you need to do is wave it across the sensor and walk through. The card will remember what station you are at, then when you leave the station of your destination, it'll calculate the cost and deduct it from your credit. Just keep the card in your wallet, as there's no need to remove it for the sensor to pick it up. You'll notice most people just swiping their wallets over the sensors! When you swipe your card, there will be a small display near the sensor that will show you your remaining credit. If for some reason you don't have the credit to leave a station, you'll be able to find machines to top up before leaving, so no need to worry about that! Fun fact time! Did you know that you can get Suica cards with different designs on them? The regular cards are the same as the one shown in the header image up the top, but in some places and for certain events, you may get a different looking one. Some people have even created their own! My Suica card doesn't have the regular design, and it looks like this. You may notice sensors for Pasmo, which was a rival card to that of the Suica. However, they now have a partnership, meaning that whether you have a Pasmo or Suica card, you can use it on any Pasmo or Suica sensor! Trains aren't the only thing these cards work on though. Convenience stores will often let you pay by Suica, but check they have the sensor by the counter before you try! A lot of vending machines will have the option to pay by Suica, which is darn cool! When you have bags full of things you've bought, the last thing you want to do is fiddly about with 10 yen coins! Well, that last one might just be down to me being super lazy, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who appreciates the option! If you are planning to travel around Japan, you'll definitely have checked out the bullet trains, or Shinkansen as they are known over there. With top speeds of around 300km/h, they are absolutely necessary if you want to stay in a hotel in Tokyo and also visit places like Osaka and Hiroshima. It's also the world's busiest high-speed train service, carrying over 151 million passengers a year. It's also particularly eco-friendly, producing about 16% of the carbon dioxide an equivalent journey by car would produce. In short, it's pretty amazing! Fun fact time! Did you know that the Hayabusa Shinkansen got its name from a public vote? However, while the top two names caught media attention (Hatsukari, the name of a train that was scrapped, and Hatsune, based on the Vocaloid and a popular vote because of the trains colour scheme), the contest deemed the 7th place Hayabusa the victor. As you might expect, the Shinkansen only run from particular stations. Tokyo station is where you want to go to catch one of them, but you'll need a ticket first. Individual tickets are going to cost a lot of money, so it's highly recommended that if you are planning to do more than the odd trip out of Tokyo, you buy a 'Japan Rail Pass'. What this does is grant you unlimited travel on any of the JR line trains, including the Shinkansen. However, you won't be allowed to ride on the fastest bullet train, known as Nozomi, without paying for a separate ticket. The next fastest train, known as Hikari, is available on the Rail Pass and isn't much slower, so I suggest you go for the week-long pass at ¥28,300. It's a crazy amount of money, but as I'll eventually cover, it is most definitely worth visiting places like Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima. You'll want to order these ahead of time from places like this, but you'll need to redeem the pass when you are in Japan. You can also use the pass to avoid going through the barriers you would usually use a Suica on, though you will have to show it to an attendant. You can do this for any travel method owned by the JR, be this trains or buses. The attendants will let you know if you're trying to use the pass on a different companies service, but the JR services are quite clearly marked.  The Shinkansen are fantastic to ride in and are absolutely worth the money. On the inside they are very similar to the inside of a plane, only you get much better leg room and none of that flying business. Attendants will come around to check your ticket or Rail Pass, as well as frequently offer you refreshments (that you have to pay for, unfortunately!). As comfy as they are, be sure you have a way to not sleep through your stop! That brings us to a close, so I hope you enjoyed this quick look into contactless cards and super fast trains! If you want to write about your experiences, have any further questions or even have some tips of your own, leave them in the comments below! 
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