On Buying a 定期券 (teikiken, Commuter Pass) and Long Commutes in Japan

Wow, my first post about Japan! I like it here, but unfortunately, I don’t have anything particularly wonderful to relate to you today. In fact, this might very well come across as a complaint!

I live near Tokyo, and the other day I bought a teikiken (commuter pass that is valid for at least one month) that is (among other routes) valid between Shinjuku and Shinagawa (using the Yamanote line). At ¥5,670 for one month, it wasn’t too expensive, in my opinion. This part of the commute would normally cost ¥190 without a commuter pass and the average number of workdays per month is 21.741 (this figure doesn’t include public holidays). So that is ¥190*21.741, which equals ¥4,130.79. Oops, normally you don’t just want to get back from work, it is often expected that you actually go to work, too! So we need to multiply this by two, and then we get ¥8,261.58. So we save about ¥2,591, or 31%. Not bad. (Note that as pointed out in the comments, the amount you save varies depending on the route, and may just barely reach break-even in some cases!)

As you might have guessed, there’s something about this recent experience that I haven’t told you yet. You can apparently buy commuter passes at ticket vending machines, but I opted to buy mine at a JR ticket counter. Mostly because I didn’t want to make any mistakes. And who knows what might have happened, because I have a special Suica card that you can only get when you buy a Narita Express+Suica bundle. (It looks much better than a regular Suica card.) Anyway, the woman at the ticket counter told me that I have to buy a regular one; special ones can’t be turned into commuter passes. There’s a ¥500 fee, but you get those ¥500 back if you decide you don’t want your card anymore. So no problem there. One more thing: I need my commuter pass for four months, and you can only buy commuter passes that are valid for 1, 3, or 6 months. So I had the choice between buying a one-month pass first and a three-month pass later, buying both at the same time, or buying a three-month pass first and a one-month pass later. If you ever find yourself in a situation like this, definitely buy the one that’s valid for the shorter period first. That way you can maybe switch to a different route later, or maybe you’ll realize that you’ve been scammed somehow. Who knows, right?

The night I bought the ticket, I met up with a friend in Shinbashi, which is on the Yamanote line, but not between Shinjuku and Shinagawa. (It’s three more stops from Shinagawa.) I sort of had a feeling that I was going to be disappointed with the way your fare is handled when you want to go a couple stations farther than your commuter pass is valid for, and my hunch was right: you pay the full fare from the station where your commuter pass ends to the station you get off, which means paying ¥150 for a trip from, e.g., Shinjuku to Tamachi, which is one stop farther than Shinagawa, even though the normal fare from Shinjuku to Tamachi is ¥190. So you’ve already got a ticket that covers 82.8% of the total distance of your journey, but you have to pay an extra 78.9% for the remaining 17.2%.

Careful readers might have noticed that the fare from Shinjuku to Tamachi is the same as from Shinjuku to Shinagawa. When I got home the night I bought the ticket, I decided to check what a commuter pass from Shinjuku to Tamachi would cost. And amazingly enough, the price is exactly the same. In fact, the price is the same or less, almost no matter where you want to go on the Yamanote line. (However, since the Yamanote line is a loop line, you won’t be able to get off for free at any stations on the opposite semicircle.) I would have expected someone who sells commuter passes to tell customers about this, and feel that it’s borderline fraud not to do so. Expensive fares* and packed trains had me slightly miffed at Japanese railway companies before this, but this time I’m fairly annoyed.

* What in the world do they do with all that fare money? By the way, according to this article, approximately one passenger per car is enough to cover the electricity bill for trains.

It turns out that at least one person has written an online tool that tells you how to buy your commuter pass: http://teiki.mooo.com/ (Japanese) This site also includes a tool that searches for regular, non-teikiken routes for Tokyo and Tokyo’s suburbs. For one-way trips, it’ll normally produce the same output as Yahoo!, (with the 表示順序 (hyōji-junjo, display order) set to 料金が安い順 (ryōkin ga yasui jun, order by fare, cheap to expensive),  except that Yahoo!’s route calculator sometimes won’t give you the cheapest route if it decides that the next time this route is available is too many minutes in the future… However, especially for round-trips, it’s sometimes cheaper to get a day pass, and teiki.mooo.com will tell you when that is the case.

My commute is two hours every day. Once I’ve reached Shinjuku, it feels like I’ve practically almost reached my workplace. How does one survive a two-hour commute? By sleeping, of course! Unfortunately, there usually aren’t any seats available where I get on the train. So what do you do in this case? You stand next to somebody who’s wearing a high school uniform. These people don’t have long commutes, and you’ll be able to get their seat after a couple stops! By the way, I used to use a different, slightly faster route that pretty much guarantees that you’ll get a seat. Unfortunately, the company I work for only pays for the cheapest route available. Another by the way: the one-way tickets are only an extra ¥20 for this route, but the commuter pass is an extra ¥8,000. Similarly, there is a route that is ¥30 cheaper than the route via Shinjuku, but the commuter pass is an extra ¥7,000… (Its trains are also extremely packed.) By the way, if your company says they’ll pay for a commuter pass, they’ll probably also pay for one-way tickets before you manage to get your commuter pass. Use that time to find a decent route! If they don’t, figure out how much you save if you had a commuter pass, and if using one-way tickets for a while isn’t that much more expensive, consider using these for a while.

Now I’d like to share one more mind-boggling tidbit: let’s pretend we’re taking a train from Odawara to Shinagawa. Let’s not take a look at the cheapest route, which uses the Odakyū line, but rather JR’s Tōkaidō line via Yokohama: ¥1,280. Now let’s see how much we pay if we change to the Keikyū line in Yokohama: ¥1,240. Next we’ll look at the Tōkaidō line’s fare from Yokohama to Shinagawa: ¥280. Now you’d naturally expect the Keikyū line’s fare from Yokohama to Shinagawa to be less than that, wouldn’t you? Sorry to disappoint you, but it’s ¥290! And here’s the explanation (Japanese).

There’s one more thing to add about the route from Odawara to Shinagawa. If you want to buy a teikiken, it’s cheaper to get a 分割定期券 (bunkatsu teikiken, split commuter pass). This basically divides your route into a part from Odawara to Yokohama, and a part from Yokohama to Shinagawa. You can put this on a single Suica card, though the person at the counter might tell you that is not possible, if he or she is slightly inexperienced. Well, okay, it used to be impossible. Anyway, you don’t have to get off and on again at Yokohama, you just stay on your train. However, if you want a commuter pass from Odawara to Shinagawa, you might want to decide against a split one, because you can’t combine these with 特急料金回数券 (tokkyū ryōkin kaisūken, kaisūken: usually 11 tickets for the price of 10, or 10 tickets for a cheaper price; this kaisūken is an add-on to your normal teikiken, and covers the price difference for the shinkansen (tokkyū ryōkin)). And if you do commute from Odawara to Shinagawa, I am sure you will want to use the Shinkansen occasionally. (The kaisūken is ¥9,500 for 10 tickets.) I like this. The JR are doing something right for once! By the way, the tokkyū ryōkin for this route is ¥1,680, so this kaisūken is way better value (about 43% off) than when you buy 11 tickets for the price of 10 (about 9% off).

Okay, one more annoyance that I’ve accidentally discovered: if you enter Akihabara station, realize that you actually need to get on the train from Iwamotochō, and decide to use the exit closer to Iwamotochō station on your way out of Akihabara station, you’ll get money stolen from your Suica card! Fortunately, the ticket gate will beep and not let you through automatically (if I remember correctly). You’ll have to go the person watching the ticket gates. They’ll tell you that you have to either go back to the exit you came from, or pay (approximately) ¥120 to use this exit. Lovely!

And that’s it for now. If you’ve had any annoying experiences regarding Japanese trains, please leave a comment. Don’t let it eat you up! :P

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