How to use a bus, tram or metro in Japan – a simple and helpful guide

Red bridge over a river in Japan
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While you might want to, due to the ease of usage, you won’t be able to use the train all the time while in Japan. You have some urban, local trains that you can use in Tokyo, but the granularity you need is only provided by using the extensive local transportation system each city has to offer. So, no matter what, you’ll have to use the bus, tram or metro in Japan, so you might as well get ready for it.

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Suica / Icoca

The first thing anyone tells you about using a bus or metro in Japan is that you need a suICa or ICoca card. What no one tells you is what are these cards, when should you choose one or the other, and why should you have one. I hate this, giving me advice without explaining why, so I will break it to you as I would have wanted other people to do for me.

Think of one of these cards like a pre-paid credit card with limited usage. You charge it from a machine or an office and then you can spend it in certain places, but it is required that you follow some rules anyway.

Let me give you an example: if you have a teenage daughter, you may want her to have some money she can use, but within some limits. You want her to be able to buy food from a food truck, or pay for a cab back home from a party, or buy clothes from specific stores. But you don’t want her able to buy vodka or to buy a plane ticket, or clothes from the most expensive shops.

This is exactly how suICa and ICoca work. You put some money on them (unfortunately, only cash) and you can use them only for certain things. The main usage is to pay for transportation within a city or area, but you can also pay for products at bakeries or convenience stores.

I know what you’re thinking: wouldn’t it be easier to just pay with your credit card? Yes, it would, but Japanese society is still a cash-based one, and it’s the only thing not modern when it comes to it. Buckle up, you’re in for an interesting ride!

ICoca card in a Shinkansen train in Japan

Why do you need them?

Well, you need them because you cannot pay by card. Counter-intuitive, huh? Let me explain just a bit, and I promise I will explain better for each transportation mode below.

The basic way of using any IC card goes like this:

  1. Top it up with money – and I mean cash, baby!
  2. Go inside a metro area or bus.
  3. Tap your card on the card reader.
  4. Tap your card on the other card reader on your way out.

If you don’t have enough money left on your card, you can either use a fare adjustment machine before exiting a metro station, or you can pay cash on the bus or tram. You’ll have cash with you, don’t worry. You get used to it after a few days.

If you don’t have an IC card, you have to buy tickets from machines that are sometimes exclusively in Japanese, which can be challenging also because you have no idea what ticket you need, let alone what areas you’re going to cross.

This is why IC cards make your life easier. They just allow you to top them up, and pay as you go, without going into love-hate relationships with various machines that may or may not “speak” your language.

SuICa or ICoca?

It doesn’t matter, really. They are all the same. The only difference is the area they are valid in. There are ten major IC cards valid in Japan, I have just chosen these 2 to present because I have personally used them. And these are, at the same time, the most used ones by tourists, since they cover the Tokyo area (suICa) and the Kyoto/Osaka area (ICoca).

Be aware that you cannot redeem (an action they call as “Cancel” in there) your card outside of the area where it is valid. So, if you’re changing areas, don’t forget to cancel your card. You can buy a few things with the deposit you’ll get back. More information on the cancellation process will follow.

Does suICa work in Kyoto or ICoca in Tokyo? This is a question I get often. Yes, you can use them all across Japan, with only 2 drawbacks.

  1. You cannot use the card to change the zone. So, if you’re not using the bullet train, and moving from Tokyo to Osaka or Kyoto, you cannot make this trip using one of the cards. You have to pay it separately in the train station. But once at the destination, you can use your card as usual.
  2. As said above, you cannot cancel your card outside the area where you bought it. So if you’re getting into Japan in Tokyo and getting out from Osaka, you won’t be able to cancel your card. But if you do a roundtrip and come back to Tokyo, you can use only one card and cancel it at the end of your trip.

Getting an IC card

In any major station, you will get, especially in metro stations, you’ll find a large area full of ticket machines. And by full, I mean like 10-15 machines in a row sometimes, most of them having a different color than the other. You will feel lost and overwhelmed and might be tempted to cry a bit.

Done sobbing? OK, let’s do this thing then, you can handle it. First, you need to look at all of those machines and see if there’s one with the name of the card you want to get. If you cannot find one, approach someone and, while looking nice and speaking slowly, ask about your card.

Even if they won’t understand a thing, the name of the card will be a clear indication as to what you need. They will help you in a way or another, don’t worry. They might point you towards a tourist information center, where you might buy your card, but you need your passport to buy it from here.

This shouldn’t be an issue, you usually have your passport with you, but maybe you have to buy the cards for more people that are not with you. Then, they will point you to the machine, and you’ll love this machine because it’s also in English.

You will pay 500 Yen in deposit, which you’ll get back by the end of your trip, and you’ll also add some money for you to spend (some machines make you add 1500 Yen to it anyway). In any case, don’t worry, you will use the entire amount that’s on this card (or almost everything, read below).

Planning your trip to Japan? I know you will need to research the entry fees for the most important things to see, so I have prepared this awesome printable PDF with this information, so you don’t have to do all this research. Download it now!

Recharging an IC card

If you have bought your card from a machine, you will probably recharge it from there as well. The interface is helpful and you can take your time with it, without feeling bad that you’re holding the line, like you may feel if you’re facing a clerk.

You can also top it up when you enter/exit a metro station, at the “fare adjustment” machine, or at the offices that are close to the gates, where you’ll need some nice people to help you.

Need a JR Pass for your trip? Perfect, you can buy one here!

Redeeming an IC card

Or canceling, as you may find it here. So, if you need to ask someone to help you, do not use “redeem”, but “cancel”. This is what you need to do at the end of your stay if you want to take back the 500 Yen you needed as a deposit. I know it’s about 5$, but I think you know by now I am cheap as hell.

What I found out after a pretty intense moment with a helpful clerk that didn’t speak English and a helpful tourist office employee that spoke some English is that you cannot cancel your card just like that. The first step you need to do is to spend all the money you can from the card.

The reason behind this is that they will give you back only the 500 Y from the deposit, not a dime more. So, if you have something more left on your card, you should spend it. And please, spend it when you’re not on the run like I was. Go into any shop in the train station that accepts IC cards as a form of payment and buy all the pastries that you want.

Then, with the card almost empty, you have to go to a JR-<area> ticket office, where <area> is the place where you are right now. If you’re in Kyoto, the area is WEST, if you’re in Tokyo, it’ll be EAST and so on. There, the nice person at the office will tell you that they can only refund the 500 Y deposit.

In the Narita airport, there’s also a special machine for this action, which came in quite handy for us. It looks almost the same as the usual ones, it’s also green, and it also has signs that point you in the right direction, so it’s pretty easy to use. But, unfortunately, it’ll give you back your cash, which you probably don’t need anymore, since you’re heading back home.

Also, don’t forget to cancel your card before leaving the area where you purchased it. You won’t be able to cancel an ICoca card in the Tokyo area or a suICa card in Osaka. For more information, here is a pretty good guide about this.

ICoca redeem slip
I got this ticket when I canceled our ICoca cards. The 40 Y that appear with a minus are the ones you cannot get back.

Using a bus or a tram in Japan

On most buses, you will see there are two doors. You usually enter on one, and exit on the other. Of course, your best bet is to look at what other people are doing, what door they’re using, and what actions do they do after.

Buses and trams in Japan have two ways of operating: using a flat fee or a fee based on the number of stations you have used it for. The way you will use the bus or tram will mostly depend on this.

Inside view of a bus in Japan

Flat fee buses and trams in Japan

The fee is usually 210-230 Y per trip, no matter how many stations you use the means of transportation for. You will mostly encounter this type of fee for local transportation, so inside big cities mostly. Here are the steps to using this:

  1. Get on the bus/tram, using usually the door in the back (in rare cases, the only used door will be the one in the front).
    2a. If you are paying cash for your ride, you need to change your coins before you have to pay for it. You must pay with exact change, and each person must pay for themselves – if you’re in a group, don’t just add up the amounts, but pay individually instead.
    2b. If you have an IC card, you can relax and enjoy the views.
  2. Upon exiting, pay for your ride:
    a. Put your coins in the coins machine near the driver.
    b. Tap your IC card on the card reader near the driver.
Yellow and blue tram in Japan
Doesn’t this tram look like a reversed minion? Or is it just me?

Variable fee buses and trams in Japan

These means of transportation can be usually encountered when you’re riding outside major cities or using some transportation that is more like a long-distance type. In this case, you don’t quite know how much you are going to pay at the end, which makes it even harder to do without an IC card. Google Maps provides a good estimation for this, so you can plan with that amount + a few Yen if you want to make it easier.

How it works if you have an IC card:

  1. Get on the bus/tram using the door in the middle.
  2. Tap the card on the card reader next to the door.
  3. Enjoy your ride.
  4. Upon exiting, tap your card on the card reader next to the driver.

How it works if you don’t have an IC card:

Ticket for variable fee buses and trams in Japan
This tiny piece of paper will decide how much do you pay for your ride
  1. Get on the bus/tram using the door in the middle.
  2. Take a ticket from the ticket dispenser at the entry. It will look like in the picture (I know it’s blurry, but you understand the idea).
  3. Look on the screen in front of the bus, where you will find a table similar to the one showed below. Try to be aware of the amount you have to pay, so you can plan your cash behavior.
  4. Exchange coins if needed (see point 2a above). There are NO bill acceptors in buses or trams, so you will have to change even your bills in this case, no matter how big the amount may be.
  5. Upon exiting, look at the screen in front of the bus to know the exact amount you have to pay.
  6. Pay with the bag of coins you have already gathered by now
Table with prices for various stations
This table is where you see how the price for your ride is going up.

Key takeaway to using the tram or bus in Japan

As you may understand now, that’s why it IS easier for you to have an IC card. As long as you have money on it, and 1000 Yen should be enough for almost any trip, you should be fine. You won’t have to interpret price tables, use coin changers, worry about that 50 Y coin you cannot find any more and so on.

But, on the other side, it’s not that bad you know. We had situations when we gave the driver a bill instead of coins, and he was nice enough to change it for us and to pay it. Or they will just let you put the money in their hand and they only verify if it’s correct, and then just let you go, probably fixing the situation after.

So, if you’re in Japan only for a few days and you don’t want to buy an IC card, it is doable. The people were so nice to us during our visit there, that I’m sure they will help you if you seem to need it.

Using the metro in Japan

Using a metro in Japan is not that different compared to other countries. It may be cleaner, and it probably is more crowded than what you have ever encountered, but it works quite the same.

As far as tickets go, you either have an IC card that allows you to just tap it when you enter and exit the metro area, or you’ll spend quite some time making sense of the ticket machines in each station. We didn’t try the second option, so I cannot give you more information on that, but it looked quite disturbing when I tried it once.

What you need to keep in mind is that stations may not always look like stations. Sometimes, they may look like malls, and some big ones I might add. Some other times, they hide a huge restaurant area between two underground levels. The station can also be at a 5th level in a parking building.

Well, not the station, but the entry to the station. So, if Google tells you that you have arrived at the entry and you don’t see it, look up and/or down. You never know where is it going to appear.

Detailed instructions on how to use the metro in Japan are not even worth a separate headline. You find the station, tap your IC card on the screen reader from any turnstile, get in, tap it again when you exit and voila, you have used the metro in Japan. Also, wait for people to get off before trying to enter the metro, try not to fall on your face and don’t disturb other people.

Clear view over Mount Fuji
This is my favorite picture from our trip, and you’ll see it plenty of times because of this 🙂

Etiquette while using public local transportation in Japan

I don’t know how it is where you come from, but I’m often embarrassed by my countrymen and the way they sometimes behave while on a public vehicle. It’s like the places morph into a jungle and they have to abide by the rules or they’ll be eaten, or something. I don’t get it, but I’m trying to address it as much as possible.

The first thing we learned while on a bus in Kyoto, was that you never get up while the bus is moving if you were previously seating. If you were standing, moving around is okay, but don’t get up in a panic when you realize you have missed your station as we did.

The nice driver called us out, he told us to sit while the bus is moving, and then asked us what happened. We explained we missed our station, and he told us we shouldn’t move that much while the bus is moving because there’s a risk of us being injured. We were like: “Dude, we’re coming from Romania, a place where you rarely sit while commuting!”, but we had to respect the rule.

As it’s being repeated over and over again while on a metro or a tram, you should refrain from talking on your phone. And you’ll notice everyone around you uses phones, but no one talks, everyone just texts, watches videos with headphones on, does online shopping or whatever they do. So, please, follow this simple rule as well.

While on a train in Japan it is okay for people to eat, try not to do so while on a tram or bus. The space is too small, you don’t have a table if you litter the place you cannot clean it easily, and the smells can be very disturbing for people nearby. Eating on the street is not a good idea either, but it is more acceptable than while using the metro on a rush hour.

Buy your JR Pass here

But I have to finish with the best of them all: it is OK for people to sleep on any means of public transportation. Like, even the locals do it, so it must be okay. Sometimes there might be random people that fall asleep next to you and they lead on your shoulder, which may feel awkward, but you can either let them finish or move your body a bit to make them aware and change position.

We have not encountered people sleeping while standing, which is a skill I aim to master in this lifetime, but we saw plenty of business people sleeping while commuting for an hour or two. It’s a very useful time spent daily, so you might as well spend it fruitfully, I guess.

We embraced this on so many occasions. Getting up at 5 AM to catch that temple while not full of tourists is not that easy. At one point, we were taking turns sleeping, so we could both enjoy a 20-minute power nap from time to time. It helped us a great deal to cope with the intense rhythm of this trip, so I advise you to try and do the same.

Key takeaways

Phew, that was a bit intense. I hope you got everything you need in this guide, and that you feel more comfortable now that you know everything about using a tram, bus or metro in Japan. If you think I missed something or you have some feedback to share, please let me know in the comments section below.

Heading out of the city area? Staying for more time and don’t know if getting around Japan is easy enough, especially while not speaking Japanese? Read the following related posts:

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