The Suica card is an IC card usable at JR stations throughout the Tokyo area. It does basically what a pre-paid card, or commuter pass does, without the need to pull a card out of your wallet to stick in the gate. Instead, you can touch your wallet to the panel on the gate, have it recognize the card inside, and pass through. The name comes from the idea that it is an "IC card that lets you pass smoothly (sui-sui)", and also stands for Super Urban Intelligent CArd. (Incidentally, "suica" can also mean watermelon in Japanese.) They come in two varieties: commuter passes, and pre-paid "IO" cards.

The card was first introduced on the JR Saikyo line in a limited test run from April to July of 2001. The card then became available for general use at 424 stations across all JR lines in the Tokyo area in November of 2001. Suica became usable at Tokyo Monorail and Rinkai line stations in 2002. As of October 2002, there were more than 5 million users of Suica cards.

On the surface, the card does exactly what a normal pass would do, but there are some advantages over older cards and tickets. Obviously, the card can stay in your wallet. The gate sends out radio waves to check your card, and you don't have to pull anything out of your wallet and risk drop anything; useful during the morning rush at Shinjuku station. You can also have a Suica commuter pass re-issued if you lose it. If you lose one of the older passes, its gone, unless some kind soul turns it in. With a Suica, you can have the lost pass disabled, and a new one re-issued for a small fee. This can be a life saver for suburb dwellers who can pay tens of thousands of yen a month, just for the pass. Commuter passes can also be "charged" (in the way batteries are, as opposed to how credit-cards are), or have money deposited into them, like pre-paid IO cards. This balance is automatically deducted from every time the card is used outside its pre-set area, and this eliminates the need to carry two different cards.

Suica makes it a lot harder, though, to cheat the train system. Before, on your way home from some place, if you had a commuter pass you could buy the cheapest ticket and use your pass to get out the station near your house. Now, the computers know where you got on and off, and will charge you accordingly. And if you lose a pre-paid IO card, its gone. They can't be re-issued like the passes.

To buy a Suica card, just go to your local Tokyo area JR, Tokyo Monorail, or Rinkai line station, and ask for one, or buy one out of a ticket machine. You have to pay an initial 500 yen deposit, but this can be refunded if you return the card. The IO cards can carry up to 20,000 yen in them. The cards will be usable for the Shinkansen starting in the autumn of 2003, and as electronic cash cards to buy stuff at stores inside stations beginning in 2004.


http://www.jreast.co.jp/suica

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