When you are in a hurry to get on a train or subway, there is nothing more frustrating than having to stand in line at a ticket dispenser. Likewise, when traveling to an unfamiliar station in Tokyo or elsewhere, looking up at the map and trying to figure out how much money to put in for the ticket you need can be a daunting task for even the seasoned foreigner. A convenient solution to both of these frustrations is the prepaid railway card, called (for some inscrutable reason) the "iO-CARD." These cards are similar to highway cards for toll roads, and come in 3,000 yen, 5,000 yen and 10,000 yen varieties.
Depending on how often and how far you travel, choosing one of these cards and keeping it in your wallet can make your life a little easier. You simply put the card in the wicket slot just like a regular ticket, and it comes back out with the date and the station you are entering printed on the back along with the minimum ticket price from that point. When you exit at your destination, the card is debited the appropriate amount with the date, station and amount remaining on the card printed on the back. The amount left is indicated in 10 units yen, so that "49" equals "490 yen". These prepaid cards can be purchased at the ticket windows or in vending machines located at many of the stations next to the regular ticket dispensers.
One thing you need to be careful of, however, is that there are two kinds of prepaid tickets, only one of which you can use as described above. The other type of prepaid railroad card is called the "Orange Card" (though few if any are actually orange). Using this card solves neither of the problems mentioned above, as it only saves you having to fumble around for the right change to buy a ticket. If you mistakenly put this type of card in the wicket, bells go off and the gate slams in front of you. You do get the card back, of course, but you have to turn around, go back and put it in the ticket dispenser to buy a regular ticket.
Both types of prepaid cards are sold in the same vending machines, so before you push the buttons, make sure you're getting the type of card you want. The iO-CARDs are usually on the left side while the Orange Cards are on the right, but take a good look before you choose the button. When you have used up most of the value of an iO-CARD, the remaining amount can still be used even if it is not enough to pay for your trip. Even if there is only 10 yen left on the card, you can still enter the station as usual, but in order to get out at your destination, you will need to go to the fare adjustment machine first. Simply insert the card, and the amount of cash you need to feed the machine is then displayed for you. Once you have inserted that, you will receive a ticket that lets you pass through. iO-CARDs are valid for the Kanto area only, and so can't be used for long trips (There wouldn't be enough on them anyway). They can, however, be used from any station in Ibaraki to any other JR station in the Kanto area. They cannot be used on any of the private lines.
A similar card for the subways is also available, with varieties coming in 1000 yen, 3000 yen and 5000 yen. They are used exactly like the iO-CARD, with the information on the back printed in the same manner. Unlike the iO-CARD, the Metro Card is written entirely in Japanese. For those who read no Japanese, its trademark symbol is the same stylized "S" as is on the entrances to subway stations. Metro Cards and iO-CARDs are, of course, not interchangeable, and so you really need to carry both with you whenever you go to Tokyo.
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