If you’re in the Tokyo area, and are carrying an IC card, I’ve got a Tokyo rail travel hack for you. (I mention Tokyo because I am most familiar with it. This hack may exist in other Japanese cities.)
Firstly, if you’re not sure what an IC card is, I will help out. IC cards are the prepaid — and rechargeable — contactless cards found throughout Japan. They’re valid on trains, buses, convenience stores, and some quick-service restaurants. Think London’s Oyster card, and Hong Kong’s Octopus card.
East Japan Railway (JR East) controls many of the rail lines in the Tokyo area; their IC card is the Suica. Pasmo was introduced years later, to be used by non-JR rail lines. These days, in Tokyo one can be easily used in place of the other.
Pictured above is my Icoca card. That one is issued by West Japan Railway (JR West); think Kanazawa, Osaka, and Kyoto. It can be used in the Tokyo metropolitan area, but cannot be obtained in Tokyo. Similarly, Suica and Pasmo cannot be obtained in Osaka or Kyoto.
IC cards from throughout the country can be used around Tokyo, too. In the same vein, you can also use Suica and Pasmo in other Japanese cities. There are exceptions — Japanese rail companies make strange bedfellows — but that’s a horse of another color.
Let’s move on to the Tokyo rail travel hack.
Seibu (西武) is the Tokyo-area rail company that makes this Tokyo rail travel hack possible. If the name rings a bell, that’s because Seibu also operates department stores, and owns a baseball team called the Seibu Lions.
Seibu does have stops in major tourist spots such as Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, and Kawagoe city in Saitama prefecture, but it’s mostly for commuters.
Nevertheless, they’re a big help when you want to add value to your IC card. JR (Japan Rail) stations typically require a minimum of ¥500 or ¥1000 to top-up. This is made even more puzzling when you try to pass through a ticket gate with insufficient funds on your IC card, since you’re required to add a nonstandard amount anyway.
And how about Seibu stations? What’s the minimum value allowed?
I made a video to help you navigate through this travel hack: