Posts Tagged ‘IC card’

Japan tourism still suffers from a credit card gap

Monday, June 30th, 2014

So close, and yet so far: Shimosa Manzaki Station on the JR Narita Line

So close, and yet so far: Shimosa Manzaki Station on the JR Narita Line

In a letter to the editor published in the June 23 Tokyo Shimbun, the writer relates an anecdote about two American women who while waiting at Narita Airport for a connecting flight to the states after arriving in transit from a vacation in Southeast Asia, decided to kill time by taking in a local onsen (hot spring bath). After checking the Internet with whatever mobile devices they had with them, they found that the nearest one was at Shimosa Manzaki station, one stop away from the Narita city terminal on the JR Narita Line. Since they weren’t going to be in Japan long they didn’t bother getting yen, and were able to buy JR train tickets with their credit cards. They could also use their cards at the onsen itself.

However, when they went back to Shimosa Manzaki station to make the return trip to the airport after their bath they discovered that their credit cards were no good. Neither the ticket vending machine in the station nor the employee selling tickets at the window would accept them. The letter writer happened to be at the station at the time and understood English. She was kind enough to buy them tickets so that they could get back in time to catch their flight.

This incident highlights a major gap in the government’s plan to increase foreign tourism in Japan. Last year, for the first time ever, the number of foreign visitors exceeded 10 million, thus encouraging the Japan National Tourism Organization to aim for 20 million by 2020, the year Tokyo will host the summer Olympic Games. Significantly, 80 percent of the tourists who came to Japan last year were individual travelers, meaning they didn’t come as members of organized tours. Individual travelers book their own accommodations and arrange their own transportation with the idea of playing things by ear and enjoying their travels at their own pace.

Credit and debit cards make it easier since they allow for more flexibility than cash or travelers checks, which have to be purchased through foreign exchange outlets. As we’ve mentioned before, most Japanese bank ATMs don’t accept foreign credit cards, but even more vexing for individual tourists is that many Japanese businesses, including some who cater to tourists and especially those outside the large metropolitan areas don’t accept credit cards.

Hotels tend to be OK, but as the two American women who visited Shimosa Manzaki found out, a lot of transportation outlets aren’t. As far as JR goes, larger stations in the cities accept credit cards, but most others don’t. If you’re buying a shinkansen ticket, it’s usually OK to use a credit card, even with the special vending machines, but the Midori Kenbaiki, the special vending machines for long-distance travel, are complicated to use even for Japanese and don’t have English instructions.

Foreign tourists can buy Pasmo and Suica prepaid IC cards just like Japanese residents do, and they certainly make life easier, but both cards require a ¥500 deposit that may put some tourists off. Both cards can also be tied in with credit cards so that they recharge automatically when their value drops to almost nothing, but that option is not available to tourists. Mitsubishi Research has found that almost 90 percent of the travelers it surveyed from Taiwan, South Korea and the U.S. buy some sort of transportation pass, be it the JR rail pass or one-day Metro tickets, so obviously it is the sort of service that’s appreciated. But while these same people express a high level of satisfaction for the transportation service that’s offered, they also find it difficult to make sense of the network.

Specifically, they have difficulty figuring out how to get to specific destinations and how to buy tickets, especially from vending machines, even when English explanations are available. Moreover, while they appreciate the various passes on offer, they don’t often know which one is best for their needs. In Tokyo, should they buy one-day passes for both subway lines or just one?

The research arm of Mitsubishi UFJ found that 88 percent of foreign tourists use guidebooks, maps, smart phone apps or some combination of the three, but they would like to be able to do everything using their mobile devices. Some businesses have already said they plan to increase the number of free wi-fi hot spots by 2020, which is a good start. But making it easier to use credit cards more flexibly would also be a big incentive for visitors since it would save them time, trouble and maybe even money.

You can’t get there from here (at the same price with an IC card)

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

Cash or over-charge?

Cash or overcharge?

This spring the big news for train lovers was the integration of almost all the regional IC card services, thus making it possible to travel from one region to another on lines operated by different companies using a single IC fare card. But while computer systems have been linked successfully to allow for such inter-line transfers, one element of the changeover that has bothered public officials remained problematic: the non-integration of fares.

In some instances it actually costs more to go from point A to point B using an IC card than it does with a ticket, though most patrons aren’t aware of the fact. It depends on which lines you are using. For instance, if you are going from JR Kameari Station on the Joban Line in eastern Tokyo to JR Yokohama station and buy a ticket for the whole trip, it costs you ¥780. However, if you take the same route and use an IC card, ¥910 will be subtracted from your card balance. That’s because the Joban line turns into the Chiyoda subway line, which is operated by Tokyo Metro, after it passes Kita Senju, and the passenger then leaves the Chiyoda Line at Nishi Nippori and transfers back to JR in order to proceed on to Yokohama.

The ticket you buy from a vending machine takes these transfers into consideration and simply charges the zone-related JR fare between Kameari and Yokohama plus the Metro fare. But the IC card system doesn’t make such a distinction and each of the three legs of the journey is charged separately, meaning you pay two JR fares, one from Kameari to Kita Senju and another from Nishi Nippori to Yokohama, plus the ¥160 for the Chiyoda line between Kita Senju and Nishi Nippori.

The sticking point is JR East, and in Diet discussions about the IC fare discrepancy representatives of the company have said it’s a computer-related problem that they have yet to figure out, claiming that any changes to rectify the problem would “place on the system more of a burden” that might cause even more issues.

At the urging of Your Party the company did say it would make more of an effort to inform patrons of price differences where they occur. The various JR companies offer the Suica card system, but the equally popular Pasmo card has the same problem. In the Tokyo Metropolitan Area 80 percent of riders use one card or the other.

The problem is limited to transfers between JR and other lines. Other inter-line transfers don’t have the same problem. In fact, discounts that are normally offered to ticketed riders between the two Tokyo subway lines are integrated into the IC card fare structure, even when passengers leave one line through a wicket and enter the other through a different wicket. A transportation expert, discussing the problem in Tokyo Shimbun, said that such a change shouldn’t require a major system overhaul, and, in fact, JR recently announced it would make it possible for IC cards to subtract amounts of less than factors of ¥10 in line with the consumption tax increase, which means amounts of factors of ¥1 can be charged, but only if the patron has an IC card. Fares for tickets will still be rounded up to a factor of 10.

The fact is, the ticketing system costs operators more than the IC card system, which is why in London you pay less if you use a card than if you buy a ticket. Ideally, all patrons should use cards, so JR’s intransigence on the matter is difficult to explain.

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