Do you remember the first time you laid eyes on a Tokyo railway map? What did you feel? Surprise? Confusion? Terror?
Even if you are a full-blooded Tokyoite, when taking a route to a station for the first time, you are guaranteed to be unsure which is the shortest way, which transfers to make, or even just which subway or railway lines to take.
Well, there is an incredibly simple way to buy tickets and pass through any ticket barrier even within a web of train lines as complex as Tokyo’s. It seems unbelievable to think of this now but in the past, train station staff would actually cut tickets with scissors. These days, all you need is a smart card that you can hold over the ticket gate reader, and the system automatically opens the barriers and subtracts the fare from your “electronic wallet”.
Even better, with the same prepaid IC card (integrated circuit card, or smart card) you can also buy a drink at a vending machine or make a purchase at a convenience store.
There are numerous kinds of these train IC cards all over Japan but finally in March there was the Big Bang: you can now use any major card on any main railway line around the country. In other words, an IC card offered by a Kanto region train company can be used to buy tickets and ride a train in Kyushu, and so on.
Why have they gone the extra mile and integrated the systems like this? Well, convenience, for one thing — but also, it’s a matter of design preference. Some people really love the card they use every day and don’t want to lose it when they visit somewhere or move away to another region.
With this in mind, we decided to do a round-up of the main IC card designs in Japan!
If you live in Tokyo or the Kanto region there is no question that this JR card is the most common of its kind. Like with a lot of Japanese prepaid IC cards, the name is a pun, standing for Super Urban Intelligent CArd but also with the same sound as the words for “watermelon” and “moving smooth”. Suica is well known for its cute penguin character, designed by illustrator Chiharu Sakazaki. The penguin’s cheerful round face makes the packed-sardines commuting hell that is the Tokyo rush hour experience almost bearable. Almost.
This card is used on Tokyo’s subway and private railway lines. Notice the image of the bus, since you can use the Pasmo on four-wheeled public transport as well as trains. And though it is absent from the card design itself, Pasmo of course has a mascot character — a robot.
Used a lot by passengers in west Japan. A big difference with other cards is that the PiTaPa doesn’t have a character, sticking with a simpler style dominated by the logo.
They say the world is divided into dog people and cat people. Japan, though, is divided into Suica and ICOCA. Suica is for JR East while ICOCA is for JR West. The name is again a semi-acronym (IC Operating CArd) and a pun (iko ka means “Shall we go?”), and the card is used mostly in Osaka and Kansai. The mascot is another original one, a platypus called Ico.
You can find this one in the Tokai region (hence the name, Tokai IC CArd), particularly in Nagoya. It features a rather fetching pale blue design. Rather cool, don’t you think?
Okay, now we are getting more local. SUGAGO (Smart Urban GOing CArd — and no, we did not make that up!) can be found in Kyushu, in southern Japan. The name is also a play on the dialect down there: sugoka is like sugoi (great!) in other parts of the country. It boasts a few characters designed by Rodney Greenblat, two of which, Kaeru-kun (a frog) and Tokei-kun (an apple clock thing), decorate the front.
Staying in Kyushu, nimoca is Fukuoka’s card. The name means “nice money card”, plus there is a play on the Japanese participle nimo (also). The ferret is super cute and comes courtesy of play set products.
Go north (kita) to Hokkaido’s JR trains to find this one. That flying thing is an Ezo momonga, a type of native flying squirrel. Well, despite this, as far as we know you can’t use the Kitaca when checking in at the aiport, but when the mascot is this cute, who cares about such quibbles!
Don’t forget Shikoku, Japan’s fourth largest island. Even with the recent integration of the IC cards, unfortunately you can’t yet use the Iruca nationwide, but its super cute dolphin (iruca) mascot is irresistible.
Limited Edition Cards
The train companies also frequently produce special limited edition cards for special occasions and these usually sell out very quickly, becoming much-sought collectors’ items.
This card celebrates the fact that the main regional railway smart cards are now integrated nationally. All the mascots are featured.
Okay, so we have tried to gather a bunch of examples of the train IC cards in Japan. Did you have a favorite? Or perhaps you wanted there to be one with Mario or Pokémon or someone?
Well, then you you can just make your own! After all, everyone is a designer now. For example, do you remember the Deco-den customized mobile phones? Here, then, are some customized IC cards.
The quality of these smart cards is really professional. We found them on this blog, which showcases the author’s design talents with “Ita IC Cards”. (Ita ["ouch!"] is a prefix often added to highly decorated cars, toys and so on that have been lavishly customized to the extent that it “hurts” the wallet… or you! It is especially associated with otaku subculture fans.)
From official offerings to commemorative limited edition versions and personalized individual cards, the range of smart cards in Japan is pretty impressive. So, which would you choose to ride public transport?
Of course, there are actually even more train IC cards in Japan in other regions around the country. If there’s another one in your wallet that you love, please leave a comment and share with us.