Prepaid cards (aka smart cards or IC cards) are the best way to pay for transport and many other things in Kyoto and the rest of Japan. The version sold in Kyoto is called Icoca and it works all across Japan. The Tokyo versions, Suica and Pasmo, also work in Kyoto. Here are all the details.
Icoca card – image © Chris Rowthorn
- Prepaid smart cards make travel in Japan a breeze. Buy one!
- The Kyoto version is called Icoca, but the Tokyo versions work here as well (ie, Suica and Pasmo).
- Smart cards like Icoca, Suica and Pasmo are valid across Japan, so don’t worry about which one you buy.
- You can use Icoca/Pasmo/Suica for all trains, subways and buses in Kyoto.
- You can also use Icoca/Pasmo/Suica at many shops, especially convenience stores.
- Buy Icoca cards from vending machines at JR Kyoto Station. You can also buy an Icoca card online.
Prepaid cards (also known as stored-value cards, smart cards or internal chip/IC cards) are widely used in Japan. Once you buy one and use one, you’ll never want to go back to fishing for change in your pocket every time you ride public transport or buy something in a convenience store. Tourists can buy prepaid cards in Japan (ie, you don’t need to be a resident and you don’t need to show ID). I recommend that you buy a prepaid card, even if you plant to spend just a few days in the country.
The main prepaid card in Kyoto and the rest of Kansai is the Icoca card. Icoca, which means “Shall we go?” in Japanese, is issued by JR West, the main train company in western Japan. You can purchase Icoca cards from vending machines at major JR stations in Kyoto and other parts of Kansai. These machines have English-language screen guidance. You can also buy Icoca cards at Kansai International Airport (KIX). Or, you can buy one before you arrive in Japan online. See the following section for information on how to buy an Icoca card at Kyoto Station.
How to Buy or Charge an Icoca Card in Kyoto
Find the main bank of ticket machines on the north side of the station (Karasuma Exit side). The ticket machines are right outside the main ticket office.
Ticket machines at Kyoto Station – image © Chris Rowthorn
The machines that sell Icoca cards are roughly in the middle of the row of ticket machines. You can easily identify them because they have the words “Icoca” and “IC Card/IC Charge” written above them. You can also look for stickers of the Icoca card itself (see the design at the top of this page.
Icoca machines at Kyoto Station – image © Chris Rowthorn
Press the “English” button on the left side of the machine to change the display to English.
Icoca purchase and charge screen – image © Chris Rowthorn
Once you’ve changed the screen to English, just follow the on-screen prompts. To get started, simply select “Purchase Icoca”. It’s very simple. If you’d like to charge (add money to) an Icoca card, just press the “Charge/Check History” box on the screen.
You can also charge Icoca and other smart cards at 7-11 ATMs across Japan. At this point, the instructions for this are only in Japanese. Here’s a pic of the main screen. The middle button on the touch screen is for charging a smart card:
7-11 ATM main screen – image © Chris Rowthorn
On the right side of the machine, you will see the place where you rest your card when charging:
7-11 ATM card reader – image © Chris Rowthorn
Hopefully, in the near future, 7-11 will add English instructions for this.
Using an Icoca on a Train or Bus
You can use Icoca cards on all trains, buses and subways in Kansai (and most other parts of Japan). This includes JR trains and private rail lines. On trains, you will see special smart card-capable turnstiles at all train entrances and exits. Just tap your card when you enter and again when you exit. The machine will show the remaining balance on the card as you go through. Here’s a pic:
IC card reader at train station – image © Chris Rowthorn
On buses, you will see a card reader on the top of the fare machine. Just tap your card on the reader as you exit the bus. Here’s a pic:
IC card reader on bus – image © Chris Rowthorn
Using an Icoca Card at a Store
As mentioned above, you can use prepaid cards like Icoca, Suica and Pasmo at many stores and restaurants in Japan. Stores/restaurants that accept prepaid cards usually have stickers showing the main prepaid cards somewhere on or near their cash register. They will also have a prepaid card reader right next to their cash register. Once the clerk has rung up your items, just say “Icoca” or show them the card. They will set the reader to read your card. Then, all you do is tap your card on the reader. The receipt will show your remaining balance on the card. Here’s a picture of a prepaid card reader:
Icoca reader at convenience store – image © Chris Rowthorn
Here’s a quick FAQ with everything you need to know:
- How much do Icoca cost?
You can buy one for as little as Y1,000 (adult/child). This includes an Y500 deposit. Before you leave Japan, you can bring the used card to a ticket office in the JR West Area (Kyoto, Kansai, etc) and they will refund the deposit, minus a small service charge.
- Where can you buy Icoca?
Buy Icoca cards at major JR stations in Kyoto, including Kyoto Station, or at Kansai International Airport (KIX).
- Are there child Icoca cards?
Yes. And, if your children use children’s cards, they will automatically be charged children’s fares when using trains, subways and buses. There is a button on the vending machines to select a children’s card.
- How do you top up a Icoca card?
It’s very easy to top up an Icoca card at any major JR train station. Look for the picture of the Icoca card or the words “Icoca buy/charge” on or near the machine.
- Can you use Icoca in other parts of Japan?
Yes. They’re fully interchangeable with other prepaid card systems in Japan. Note, however, that you cannot use a Icoca to travel out of the Kyoto train system into another region’s train system. That is, you cannot use these cards to pay for a ride that begins in one area of the country and ends in another. But, once you arrive, you can use the card there. So, for example, you cannot use these cards to travel from Kyoto to Tokyo by train, because you would leave the JR West area and enter the JR East area. But, you could use one to travel from Kyoto to Osaka, because you’d stay within the JR West area.
- Can you use Icoca in shops and vending machines?
Yes. You can use these cards in most convenience stores, many shops and many vending machines.
- Can you use Icoca on the shinkansen bullet train?
- Should I buy a Icoca card?
Of course! Buy one as soon as you can, ideally at Kansai International Airport as soon as you arrive, or pre-order online to collect at the airport on arrival.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass – here's my explanation of why it's worth it
- A prepaid Icoca card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance. Buy at home or while traveling and claim online from anywhere in the world