How Does The Train System Work In Japan?
by Justin Sevakis,
How do kids in Japan pay for the trains that they are constantly using? Train use is something that seems to happen in nearly every school anime, but I don't think I've ever seen one that actually mentioned the price of a train ride, or why kids are able to seemingly just walk on and off at will with nary a thought about the cost. Where I live just traveling to work and back on the subway would cost $20 USD per day. Are trains in Japan so cheap that the cost is not even an issue? Do they have reloadable cards? Or is there some kind of monthly fee?
Japan's rail system is a ludicrously precise, insanely far-reaching service that can take you pretty much anywhere on Honshu (Japan's main island). Trains always run on time, and in major cities come every few minutes for most of the day. The system is so creatively and immaculately designed that whole fandoms have formed around its eccentricities. There are otaku for different types of train cars, bento stands at various stations, and even the catchy little jingles that are played at each station (so you can tell where you are when you're half asleep).
But the idea of kids zipping in and out of these trains without regard for the cost to ride them is, to some extent, artistic license. Unlike, say, New York City's subway system, the Tokyo trains charge both per ride and by zone. While there are unlimited passes for train systems run by Japan Rail (and its several different divisions), those are aimed at tourists only, and require a foreign passport. They wouldn't be cost effective for locals just commuting around town anyway, since they only last a few days and cost ¥20,000.
There are monthly, three and six month passes for commuters, but those are highly regimented passes that must be purchased for a specific trip that's taken every day. They're useless for going off outside of your normal work/school-home path. Consequently, non-commuting trips most people are paying on a per-ride basis. Rides on the Tokyo Metro start at ¥170 and go up from there based distance (broken up by zones), time of day, and other considerations like discounts for children or the elderly. JR commuter trains are around the same price. Privately owned rail lines, such as the Yurikamome line that takes you out to Odaiba and Tokyo Big Sight, can be a little more expensive.
Commuter trains and subways around Tokyo and the greater Kanto region, as well as Sendai and Niigata use a contactless refillable fare card called Suica -- its adorable penguin mascot has long been a favorite of mine. Suica can also be used as a refillable cash card, good at convenience stores and newspaper stands. There's also a Pasmo card which has been around longer and is pretty much the same thing these days, although there's no cute penguin iconography, so its desirability may be somewhat lower.
Other major cities have their own cards, most of which are not compatible: Osaka has the PiTaPa. Sapporo has the SAPICA, while JR Hokkaido has the Kitaca. And so on. Like everything else in Japan, keeping track of the crazy patchwork of train lines, their respective fare cards, mascots and quirks, is quite a challenge.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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