State of Suica 2022

Now that the 1st wave of Suica 2 in 1 card launches is complete, it’s a good time to review the ‘State of Suica’. And it’s always interesting to examine the cultural differences too, when it comes to labeling trends as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Westerners for example invariably say, what’s the point of having so many Suica card flavors? It’s a waste, better to have just one. It’s a classic double standard professing to want but insisting that life should revolve around single kind of credit card. Japanese don’t seem to care much as the culture is adept at ‘振り分け’: this thing for doing this, that thing for doing that. And the region affiliate users getting Suica for the first time seem pretty excited and all Suica varieties work the same for transit and e-Money purchases.

As of now we have the following plastic Suica card flavors beside the regular Suica available at station kiosks: Rinkai Suica, Monorail Suica, Welcome Suica and Suica Light. On the Mobile Suica side we have: Osaifu Keitai, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Fitbit Pay and Garmin Pay, along with branded Mobile Suica for Rakuten Suica and au Suica on Osaifu Keitai and Mizuho Suica on iOS. Last but not least we have 11 new Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit cards that are the keystone of JR East’s MaaS strategy.

What exactly are the differences? It comes down to commuter passes or points. For Suica 2 in 1 cards specifically, it is both. This is a small but very important difference. All the other non-regular Suica outside 2 in 1, come with specific features and limitations. Rakuten and KDDI au users can recharge those Suica with those outside point systems but they can’t add commute plans. Welcome Suica expires in 28 days, Rinkai and Monorail Suica exist for commuter passes and nothing else, and so on.

Suica 2 in 1 doesn’t have limitations and does more than any other Suica: it can hold 2 different commuter passes (one from JR East, one from the region affiliate) and it supports 2 different point systems: messy JRE POINT which is an optional account setup manually linked to the Suica card number, and local government subsidized region affiliate transit points which are automatic and stored on the card itself. The only thing the user needs to do is use the appropriate card for transit to earn and use transit point discounts.

In a mobile payment era where everybody is distinguishing themselves with increasingly complex reward point schemes, the simplicity and flexibility of Suica 2 in 1 transit points, think of it as locally processed transit point stored fare, can go places that old Suica cannot. Imagine how many more people would use Suica transit in Tokyo if it came with transit point discounts. There are other 2 in 1 features not yet supported by regular Suica: disabled and elderly transit user discounts. These are coming to Tokyo area plastic issue Suica, and PASMO too, this October though I suspect those won’t come to Mobile Suica until it gets an upgrade.

Mobile FeliCa hasn’t been updated to the next generation ‘Super Suica’ FeliCa SD2 architecture yet, but once updated we should see Suica 2 in 1 on mobile and new Suica features, along with more Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards. All in all the new Suica 2 in 1 card format tells us where JR East wants to go.

There are some interesting numbers from the JR East FY results. All things transit took a huge hit in FY 2021 from the COVID pandemic, Suica included, but are now recovering though still below pre-covid transaction levels. Another surprise is the popularity of Eki-Net eTickets, a 39% usage rate is not bad for a service that only started in March 2020. One of the smarter things JR East did with Eki-Net eTicket discounts is making them simple and available to all Eki-Net users and credit cards. The JR Central EX system has 2 different Shinkansen eTicket tiers (EX-Press and smartEX) with larger EX discounts limited to select credit cards.

There are lots of things that JR East needs to do longterm, more Suica day passes, Mobile Suica recharge that is available 24/7, phasing out legacy mag strip ticketing and UWB touchless transit gates. In the short term we have Cloud Suica and Mobile ICOCA coming online in March 2023, the end of the current fiscal year. At the very least it should be an interesting time for JR West ICOCA users, and one more nail in the PiTaPa coffin.


Timeout: a very long transit card transit

It’s been a year since JR Central’s TOICA network was expanded to more stations making Suica-TOICA-ICOCA cross region commuter passes available for the very first time. Regular transit cards are still stuck with tapping out of one fare region and tapping in at fare region border stations in Atami (Suica~TOICA) and Maibara (TOICA~ICOCA). But even for regular transit cards, crossing IC fare regions is much easier thanks to special IC fare region specific exit gates installed with the TOICA expansion.

Transit YouTuber Wataru Watanuki took the fare region border crossing challenge with a 10 hour trip by regular trains from Tokyo to Osaka using his Suica card. A 556.4 kilometer trip. Try that with a transit card in any other country.

He could have used his Apple Pay Suica but used plastic Suica because it’s easier to get detailed Suica receipt printouts at mobile-unfriendly JR West station kiosks. In his video there are two IC fare region border crossings, one at Atami station from Suica to TOICA and one at Maibara station from TOICA to ICOCA. It’s a leisurely fun train travel video similar to videos that investigate transit IC fare loopholes.

Things would have gone smoothly for Wataru san but he was tripped up by a little known stingy TOICA tap-timeout rule, rumored to be within 3 hours from tap in before the card is invalidated for the trip and has to be reset by a station agent. There is no way to travel from Atami to Maibara by regular train in 3 hours, the shortest travel time is 5 hours 44 minutes, 3 hours barely gets one to Hamamatsu. JR Central supposedly does this to prevent ICOCA card abuse (Really? I suspect they just make it inconvenient so people ditch local trains and ride the Tokaido Shinkansen instead). JR East Suica appears to have much more lax timeout rules. JR West ICOCA limits IC transit on their regular lines to 200 km, though there are some interesting ICOCA loopholes.

Long distance travel with Suica and other IC transit cards isn’t a problem, any regular person would just take the Shinkansen using smartEX or Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets. Timeout doesn’t apply because the IC card SF balance ‘taps out’ when going through the Shinkansen entrance gate. But the video does point out a long standing weakness of Japanese transit IC fare systems: it’s a hassle for people living in fare region border areas and prevents them from using transit IC cards for local area cross border transit.

One example is the JR Central Minobu line. It does not have transit IC service yet because the line starts at JR East Suica region Kofu station. Suica users from Tokyo can only go as far as Kofu before switching to paper tickets for the Minobu line transfer.

The best thing would be JR East and JR Central cooperating so that IC fare tables work both ways and integrate for cheaper through IC fares instead of 2 separate trips. Most Minobu line stations are unmanned, the trains already equipped with paper ticket fare boxes at the front door exit. Adding a IC card reader is the next logical step and work exactly like buses and some JR West ICOCA equipped train lines do: tap in at the entrance, tap out at the exit. Small improvements would like this would go a long way to solve cross border IC card hassles and make transit easier for local residents. Transit cards only become useful when they integrate with everything from transit to purchases, that in turn, encourages mobile for transit use.

Real world Eki-Net impressions

I finally had the chance to use Eki-Net app, aka Eki-Net 2, eTickets (JR East Shinkansen) and Ticketless (JR East Express Trains) reservations on several trips recently, a real world workout. After a shaky launch in March 2020, followed by a major system upgrade in June of this year, the foundation is in place and JR East is going all out to promote Eki-Net for the year-end travel season that will see a considerable uptick compared to last year’s ‘stay home’ and stew regimen. I posted an Eki-Net 2 overview in June that covers the basics, this post is a short followup of impressions.

Using Eki-Net eTickets at the transit gate is clean and easy as the JR East promo videos. The messy part is creating an Eki-Net Japanese online account that is completely separate from your Mobile Suica account and your JRE POINT account. They all link together but are all separate with separate login names and passwords. This is the weak point of using JR East online services, there is no single master login system ID service like Apple ID or Google Account.

Once the Eki-Net online account is setup, with a VIEW credit card duly registered for maximum JRE POINT, using the bare-bone iOS Eki-Net app is a snap. Japanese user reviews of the Eki-Net app are overwhelming negative, but I found the app covers the basics well enough for what it is designed for: finding a discount reservation for your travel date, choosing a seat, purchasing the eTicket and assigning it to a designated Apple Pay Suica (or PASMO) card, or cards if your are purchasing for more than one. Group eTicket purchase and Transit IC card assignment are very convenient features.

My only real quibbles of using Eki-Net boil down to two feature requests.

  • Apple Pay Support: back in the Suica App Shinkansen eTicket days, you could purchase tickets using Apple Pay or the Suica App registered credit card. Both were convenient. Eki-Net does not support in-app Apple Pay. You make purchases with the app and have to confirm the purchase with the registered card CVV number for security purposes…a pain in the butt, pull out the physical card every time because I never can remember the code. Apple Pay in-app purchase would be great to have and it should be easy enough to arrange the backend so that Apple Pay VIEW purchases earn JRE POINT automatically.
  • Notifications: in the current version of Eki-Net (v2.1.5) train time notifications are basically email only, once when you make the reservation, another email before train departure and a final email notification when the assigned Apple Pay Suica card or equivilant goes through the Shinkansen gate. There is a link to add the ticket train boarding day/time as a calendar event that does in a pinch, but I would also like to have regular and robust native iOS notification support. For me there is nothing so handy as Apple Watch haptic notifications.

Eki-Net works well enough as is, but having Apple Pay in-app support and iOS notifications would significantly improve the app experience. There is a lot of room for other improvements: it would be great to have smooth integration with other eTicketing services for private rail and other JR Group companies (EX, etc.). Suica is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year, Eki-Net is at anniversary #21. The current state of Eki-Net App and eTicketing makes it clear the mobile ticketing journey is just beginning.

Only Japan has cute transit card mascots?! Why?

I have been in Japan for so long that I assumed the cute, cleverly effective transit card mascot characters like Suica penguin, PASMO robot, ICOCA duck (er platypus?), etc., are employed by transit companies around the world. They are not. Let’s compare…

TfL Oyster? Not cute.

San Fransisco Clipper? So unoriginal.

Sydney Opal? Ditto.

Hong Kong Octopus? Borrowed mascot better than none?

For goodness sake, if transit companies around the world can’t implement the great technology that makes Suica great, they could at least create cute fun mascot characters that brighten the commuting day and help people feel good about riding transit again. And you do want people to ride transit again after the COVID nightmare right? Cleverly designed mascots with a touch of anime kawai’ are a great marketing tool for that.

The Weekly #1

July 27, 2021

With so little real news to write about these days, I’m trying out a weekly digest format instead of individual itty bitty posts. Sticking with a mundane regular schedule is also good practice, we’ll see how it goes.

Tokyo 2020 TP Transit Card
Foreign media (already in Japan as opposed to those coming for the event who are limited by protocols for the first 14 days) covering the Tokyo Olympics were issued a special ‘TP Card’ limited transit pass covering Tokyo region transit July 10~ August 11. Dan Orlowitz who covers sports for the Japan Times tweeted some pictures of the pass. Look carefully at the transit gate display screen, there are some very interesting things going on: (1) The display language is English (nice touch), (2) The card balance is 0. The card itself is issued by JR East and is a Suica commuter card with a 1 month pass and the balance turned ‘off’, that is to say that TP Card numbers are ‘block listed’ for any recharge function.

The TP Card shows a way forward for Transit IC (Suica, PASMO, etc.) that started with Welcome Suica: more flexible options, discount and special passes for all kinds of users and uses. The next important step will be getting these, along with 2 in 1 Region cards, on mobile.


Is Apple Pay Overrated?
What technology works and doesn’t work for people in everyday life is always a fascinating subject. Mike at Tech702 asks a good question: is Apple Pay overrated? For Mike in daily Las Vegas life, yes Apple Pay is completely overrated. I saw much of the same during my Salt Lake City summer stay in 2018, although Smiths grocery had just started taking Apple Pay at the time. Did they pull the plug? It’s a good reminder that retail chains and banks in America switch loyalties without notice and the payments infrastructure is all over the place, witness Targets changing their accepted credit card lineup when I was in Salt Lake.

Some snobby Europeans like to look down on America and other places they perceive as not being up to speed with contactless payments. The truth is when Japanese journalists like Junya Suzuki take a good look at state of European contactless payments, it’s not so great either. The state of contactless payments around the world is still very much a touch and go thing.


iOS 15 Beta 3 Score Card
iOS 15 reached beta 3 last week. Here’s how it’s panning out:

Apple Maps new cartography continues to evolve. Japanese roads were decolorized, railway lines are different and drawn in harder to see light blue. Overall I think dark mode is works better than light mode (better contrast, easier to pick out details, etc.). See Justin O’Beirne‘s page for details. Transit Notifications are also improved slightly but still only work for surface transit. Forget about using it on the subway. Despite the fancy redecoration Apple still refuses to label the Sea of Japan (since 2020). Unnecessary, dumb and insulting.

Weather App: still only shows temperature maps which I think are useless. Forget about precipitation which is the killer feature for any weather app worth using. Air Quality doesn’t apply to Japan as there is no national standard.

Last but not least, Apple Music and Apple TV are basically useless in iOS 15 b3, more 3rd party app are crashing too. Hopefully b4 will be stable.


Ossan’s Love in Hong Kong?
Just when I thought the Ossan’s Love franchise had run out of gas, it seems the Hong Kong version of the Japanese series is also a hit and making waves instead of giggles, although calling it “sugar-coated marijuana” is pretty funny. If the Hong Kong version is anything like the Japanese one, it is sugar-coated silliness. For my money the other Japanese hit gay themed series ‘What did you eat yesterday?‘ was not only a lot more engaging, funny, serious and thought provoking, it was also useful as a cooking show. Kinda like Shinya Shokudo (Midnight Diner) with better interior decorating and worth the time investment.

Have a good week and enjoy the Olympics.