If you are thinking of traveling to Japan, you may have run across a map of the subway and train lines in Tokyo and subsequently felt your jaw drop to the floor. While there definitely are disadvantages to traveling with a wheelchair, in Japan it can be to your advantage. This transportation section has been created to help you make an educated decision in obtaining a train-fare payment method and how to use it to get to your destination.

If it is your first time venturing into Japan as someone who uses a wheelchair, getting on a train may seem daunting at first. But once you learn how it works and the available assistance, you may find using trains and subways can be an enjoyable experience as nearly all train and subway stations in Japan are wheelchair accessible! First, let’s get started with how you can pay for train fare.

Table of Contents

Choosing a Fare Payment Method for Transportation

Train fare comes down to a few options, one of which is only available to foreigners. However, disability discounts are unavailable for foreigners (this is because they require a special ID that can only be obtained by people who have a Residence card or Special permanent resident certificate). When choosing your method of payment there are a few things to consider, below are some pros and cons for these different methods. Most people visiting Japan will use the top two choices of these available options:

  1. Rechargeable IC Cards (Integrated Circuit Cards)
    • Pros: You don’t have to deal with exact change for fare, easy to use at turnstile, you can decide to go to the next station without getting an adjusted ticket, you can use its balance at other places.
    • Cons: If you’re short on fare you will have to recharge before exiting, you will have to continue to recharge it as needed, typically they cannot be recharged with foreign credit cards, you cannot recover its lost balance (when physically lost or expired).
  2. Paper tickets at the station
    • Pros: The ticket itself is easy to use in the turnstiles.
    • Cons: Small tickets can be lost if not careful, tickets stamped by hand must be turned in to an attendant at your final station (not machine fed), tickets must be exact fare, you must manage change from bills when purchasing, typically they cannot be bought with foreign credit cards.
  3. Smartphone
    • Pros: Can work on iPhone, you may be able to recharge from your iPhone, rechargeable at select recharge machines with Yen, you don’t have to deal with specific change for fare, easy to use at turnstile, you can decide to go to the next station without getting an adjusted ticket, you can use its balance at other places.
    • Cons: Non-Japanese Android-phones may not work, recharging with non-Japanese credit cards may fail (in app), may require use of Japanese-only app for setup, if you’re short on fare you will have to recharge before exiting, you will have to continue to recharge it as needed, typically at a ticket machine they cannot be recharged with foreign credit cards, digital cards with a balance removed from wallet app may not be recoverable.
  4. Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass)
    • Pros: Only foreigners in your home country can purchase (country restrictions may apply), unlimited use of many trains in a set region, can cover the cost of fare of some special tickets, easy to use, where accepted there’s no need to calculate or pay fare (just use the pass).
    • Cons: Pre-trip Pre-purchase necessary, can be upfront expensive (especially if underutilized), occasionally you may be asked to see your passport for pass validation, only work for a select time increment, only work for a select region, only work for select special tickets, if lost it cannot be re-issued.

Obtaining a Fare Payment Method

Rechargeable IC Cards (Integrated Circuit Cards)

As an alternative to paper tickets, you can get a temporary rechargeable IC card (it works similarly like a rechargeable credit card) such as the Welcome Suica and Pasmo Passport in image (1). While there are other IC cards, Suica and Pasmo company IC cards are widely used in Japan so we will primarily be referencing them. A single card cannot be used to get multiple people on the same train, so everyone is required to have their own individual card (i.e. a caregiver and a person with a disability would require 2-cards total).

Example of the Suica and Pasmo Passport Ic Cards

The IC cards can be purchased at select areas: Narita & Haneda airport (both Welcome Suica and Pasmo Passport are available), or some of the major train stations (Pasmo Passport only). Specifically, these cards can be bought at the mentioned locations from IC Card ticket machine or a ticket office (ask at Midori no Madoguchi – みどりの窓口 – locations with the green chair logo at a JR station). As of this date they do not have a fee (Feb. 2024), but initially you are required to pay (charge) ¥1500 to begin using one, the total amount of which can be used for fare. These temporary IC cards expire after 28-days and any remaining money on them will not be refunded, so be sure to spend the remainder before the end.

Midori no Madoguchi logo in green with a person reclining on a seat

As a side note, beyond trains they can be used in many places (anywhere with the ic logo (2)) like convenience stores, shops, and even many vending machines (which is a good way to empty the balance of a card before returning home). If you do go this route, it’s recommended that you inquire about them at the airport so you can be set up immediately and have one less thing to worry about.

Logo for IC cards

Paper tickets at the station

Diagram of a Japanese train Ticket Machine

To purchase a paper train ticket yourself, start at a ticket fare machine (like above) located just outside the station turnstiles. Accessibility-wise, the ticket machines are relatively low and can be used in a wheelchair (depending on disability, mileage may vary), though you will likely need to come in from an angle as there isn’t much legroom. For those with visual impairments, tenji-blocks (raised blocks that indicate direction and safety information) often lead to the machines. While there is a braille list of stations, it is Japanese braille and is illegible to alphabet-based braille readers. They with have buttons or touch screens with an English Language (or multiple Language) button ((3) location may vary), along with giving some guidance in purchasing a ticket.

You will need to know the station you’re going to and pay the fare (in Yen) price to that location. If the machine doesn’t tell you the cost to the location, then a train map usually above (4) the machines will show fare price from your current station, map apps can be useful for this too. After you have selected the fare amount, number of tickets, and paid, your ticket(s) will be distributed to you from the bottom of the machine.

Everyone will need an individual ticket, and you can pay with yen bills (5) or change (6) for your fare at most ticket machines (foreign credit cards will most likely be denied). If you are using this fare payment method, and don’t mind the pocket change management, it won’t take long to get used to the machines.

Smartphone

A smartphone with an appropriate chip (NFC) can be used as a replacement for an IC Card (Suica). Typically, this means foreign iOS devices (iPhones or iWatch) may work, but some foreign Android devices may not. The option to add a digital IC card via Apple’s Wallet app is available and may work for some when attempting to create a new digital card. However, some visitors have had issues creating and recharging from their Wallet app and have had to use the Japanese-only Suica app (foreign credit cards may be denied outright or flagged falsely as fraud charges).

Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass)

Possibly the easiest to use, a Japan Rail Pass or JR Pass (req. 1 per individual) can allow unlimited access to JR trains across Japan for a select time increment depending on the pass you buy. These increments are 7, 14, or 21-days long and cannot be extended. There are various JR passes available that have regional and rail line restrictions. To purchase one, you will have to start the process before your trip with either select travel agencies or online, where you’ll pay and be given a confirmation number. You must be a foreign tourist visiting Japan from abroad for sight-seeing, under the entry status of “temporary visitor,” which will be stamped on your passport and be the second requirement for obtaining the pass.

Once passed customs in Japan, with Confirmation number and Passport in hand, you can retrieve your JR Pass from a JR Ticket Office at the airport or other major train stations (look for the green chair logo above). A JR Pass can be expensive depending on how much you use it, if you plan on visiting multiple places a day, or using the bullet train with it, then it may be worth buying for the ease of use. This pass will act similarly to a regular ticket, but unlimited use (i.e. it will not be kept by the turnstile at the end) and with one there is no need to deal with cash or change for fare.

Note that will not be usable for subways or local, non-JR train lines.

Starting your Trip (at Station Attendant)

As a word of caution, it will likely take longer traveling in a wheelchair. Especially if you have an appointment, be sure to plan extra time for the boarding process to ensure you will make it without being late. Add in about 15-20min per transfer and 10-15min for getting on the train in the first place.

Turnstile Detour

After everyone in your group has their fare payment method ready, you will need to find the station attendant booth (7), following tenji-blocks ((8) raised blocks that indicate direction and safety information) can help you find it especially at busy stations. Once found, talk with the station attendant (9), and let them know what station you are going to and that you need a “slope” (a common term for a portable ramp used to span the gap/step into the train). They should ask you to wait, usually by pointing to an area after the turnstiles. During this wait they will arrange for the attendant with a slope and call ahead to the station(s) you will arrive at to ensure assistance will be available to you. So, it is time to use your fare payment method to proceed into the starting station to await further assistance.

Using a Fare Payment Method at Your Starting Station

You will next need to use your fare payment method at the electronic turnstiles to enter. Most train stations will have at least one turnstile wide enough apart for a wheelchair to comfortably pass through (located typically next to the station attendant booth). If it does not, then there should be a bypass at the station attendant booth (7), and the fare payment should be handled by the attendant (9).

Turnstile

Rechargeable IC Cards

When using an IC card at the turnstile, each person with their own individual IC card simply touches it to the IC card reader (10) on the turnstile and passes through. Otherwise, if you bypass them at the station attendant booth, the attendant will scan your cards instead. Either way, this initial scan will set your starting location, but the charge won’t be removed until calculated at the end.

Paper tickets

When using paper tickets at the turnstile, each person with their own individual ticket will feed it into the front of the turnstile (11) and passes through to the end where you will retrieve your ticket (12). For turnstiles gates not large enough for a wheelchair, there should be a bypass at the station attendant booth, who will instead stamp your tickets and return them to you. It is important to make sure you don’t lose these tickets as you will need them at the final station.

Smartphone

Smartphones essentially act the same as an IC card at the turnstile, each person with their own individual Smartphone simply touches it to the IC card reader (10) on the turnstile and passes through. Otherwise, if you bypass them at the station attendant booth, the attendant will scan your phone instead. Either way, this initial scan will set your starting location, but the charge won’t be removed until calculated at the end.

Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass)

A JR Pass acts the same as using paper tickets at the turnstile, each person with their own individual pass will feed it into the front of the turnstile (11) and passes through to the end where you will retrieve your ticket (12). For turnstiles gates not large enough for a wheelchair, there should be a bypass at the station attendant booth, who will instead scan your tickets and return them to you. The exception here will be that the pass won’t be stamped, and you want to make sure you always get it returned and kept safe to continue using while valid. Occasionally attendants may request to see your passport (which you should have with you) to check the validity of your pass, this shouldn’t take long and doesn’t happen often.

Accessing Trains

After waiting (this can vary by train line some are very quick, some large stations may require you to wait a while) for the attendant with the slope to arrive and confirm where it is you want to go, you will then be taken to your train and should be notified of where you may have to change trains (if necessary).

The path to the platform is often very quick, but sometimes is a bit inconvenient as the elevators are sometimes placed at the far end of the platform – or in old stations may require taking the long way around (Though, this can mean seeing some interesting sights!). Lately, the vast majority of stations have elevators, but some feature escalators that allow wheelchair users to ride them (though often frightening!) or stair-climber type lifts attached to the wall. Many stations have started putting safety walls and automatic doors next to the tracks, but many don’t have these and can be a bit unnerving as you get closer to the track than you may like.

Slope Placement

Once your train arrives and the initial passengers will disembark, then the attendant (13) will place the slope (14) and will motion for you to enter the train. On the train, you will likely find an area that does not have a bench and you can sit there without worrying that your wheelchair blocking the doors. This is a great refuge when riding during busy hours (6:00-9:00am and 9:00pm-midnight). This space is specifically designated for wheelchair users (15) to utilize depending on the train car, though generally all train cars have enough room even in front of seats if need be.

The next benefit for disabled riders is that you never have to worry about missing your stop or transfer! When you tell the staff where you are going, they phone ahead to the transfer station or destination and alert the staff as to what train you are on. Once you arrive, there will be an attendant waiting with a slope (wheelchair user) or to guide you (visually impaired rider). If you are transferring, they will take you to the train and call ahead to the next station (note: you may change train lines during your transfer and need to buy new tickets, a staff member of the next train line will be waiting for you). If you are getting off, ask the staff which exit has an elevator as not every exit has one.

Warning to scooter users

There have been reported incidents of station staff not recognizing scooters (and other devices that do not look like a typical wheelchair) as mobility devices and making users wait for long periods while receiving “approval” or even refusing services.  This tends to be limited to JR train lines. Disability groups are pressuring the train lines to change.  However, until changes have come into effect, users of mobility devices that do not look like a standard wheelchair may have a difficult time traveling on the train. Please see our page on mobility scooters for more information.

Using a Fare Payment Method at Your End Station

Turnstile

Rechargeable IC Cards

Each person with their own individual IC card will again simply touch it to the IC card reader (10) on the turnstile and passes through, the fare will automatically be calculated and charged to its balance (if the turnstile has a display, then it should show your card balance information). For turnstiles gates not large enough for a wheelchair, there should be a bypass at the station attendant booth, who will instead scan your cards. This should end your trip but if you do not have enough on your card to pay the fare you will need to add more funds (yen) to your card, see recharging below.

Paper tickets

If an attendant stamped your ticket at the start, then it should be given to an attendant at the end to pass. Otherwise, each person with their own individual ticket will again feed it into the front of the turnstile (11) and passes through. For turnstiles gates not large enough for a wheelchair, there should be a bypass at the station attendant booth, who will instead take your tickets. In any case, your ticket will not be returned as you are at your destination and your trip is completed.

Smartphone

Each person with their own individual smartphone again simply touches it to the IC card reader (10) on the turnstile and passes through, the fare will automatically be calculated and charged to its balance. For turnstiles gates not large enough for a wheelchair, there should be a bypass at the station attendant booth, who will instead scan your phones. This should end your trip but if you do not have enough on your phone to pay the fare, see recharging below.

Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass)

Each person with their own individual JR Pass will again feed it into the front of the turnstile (11) and passes through picking it up on the other side (12). For turnstiles gates not large enough for a wheelchair, there should be a bypass at the station attendant booth, who will instead scan your pass. Your trip is complete, but make sure you always get your pass returned and kept safe to continue using it while valid.

Recharging a Fare Payment Method

In most stations you can find a ticket machine capable of recharging IC cards or smartphone digital IC cards on either side of the turnstiles to recharge before or during your trip. Train attendants can help with recharging as well, but unless there’s no other choice, it’s better to use the machines so that the attendants can work on other matters (like helping people in wheelchairs).
Diagram of a Japanese train Ticket Machine

Rechargeable IC Cards

Most ticket machines and adjacent pink charge/recharge machines (16), can be used to recharge your IC cards with cash (Yen), look for the “IC” logo (17). Some machines have a slot for IC cards (18) or a touch pad (19) to place your card while recharging. Most take only Yen bills of a minimum of ¥1000 denomination, but machines with a yen change slot (6) may allow you to put a minimum of ¥500. Depending on how much traveling you plan on doing will determine how much you should add but keeping about ¥2000 on your card should last at least a couple days, and if you did happen to lose your card then this loss shouldn’t be detrimental to the remainder of your stay.

Smartphone

You may be able to recharge your Smartphone digital IC cards with a non-Japanese Apple Pay or a credit card on your phone via online data plan. However, beware the charge could be outright denied or blocked as a false fraudulent charge making it problematic to recharge. Otherwise, if properly set up ticket machines and adjacent pink charge/recharge machines (16) with touch pad chargers (look for the “IC” logo on a flat pad (19)) may be used to recharge your phone digital IC cards with cash (Yen). Most of these recharge machines take only Yen bills of a minimum of ¥1000 denomination. Depending on how much traveling you plan on doing will determine how much you should add but if you can get the ability to add funds online to work, then recharging becomes a simple and easy matter of a few taps in an app.

Special Tickets

Some train lines run less frequently, with fewer stops, or for long runs across Japan. These trains fall under categories like limited, express, excursion, or shinkansen (bullet trains), and require the purchase of special tickets to ride. Usually, special tickets must be purchased in advance online or from a ticket office (look for the green chair logo) if you want a specific time or accessible seat. Please note, online may show accessible seats as unavailable while attempting to purchase special tickets, nevertheless they may be obtainable but only available for booking by staff at a ticket office. Depending on your fare payment method, you may be able to use it to pay for all or part of a special ticket (so make sure to ask ticket office staff ahead of time).

Rechargeable IC Cards

May be used to pay for a portion of a limited, express, or bullet train ticket, etc.

Paper tickets

If you need an accessible seat, it may be possible to purchase a limited, express, or bullet train ticket for a trip at the trains’ starting station on the day of your trip but booking in advance is strongly recommended. If you do buy your ticket the same-day, go early and prepare to be flexible with your start time as the earliest accessible seats available may already be booked.

Smartphone

May be used to pay for a portion of a limited, express, or bullet train ticket, etc.

Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass)

May be used to pay for a portion (sometimes all) of a limited, express, or bullet train ticket, etc. Make sure to mention your JR Pass if a ticket office staff doesn’t ask you if you have one, there is a very good chance your pass may cover some of the cost.

Final Thoughts

Japan boasts not only the world’s most efficient train system but also one of the most accessible. Although a few older stations on the outskirts may lack full accessibility, over 90% of stations in major cities are accessible. If you’re traveling in a wheelchair, be mindful that it may take longer, so allow extra time. However, with patience, you’ll soon navigate the train lines with ease and delight.

Quick Start Guide

For a compact summary of the above, be sure to download our quick start guide.

Video

To give you even more of a taste of riding the subway or train in Japan, check out our video!

Speaking with a Pilot from Avatar Robot Cafe DAWN
Meet a remote pilot from Avatar Robot Cafe DAWN, working from home to change society’s view of people with disabilities and isolation – and take your order!

Read more…

Make your order at the main counter at Avatar Robot Cafe DAWN ver.β

Have a Question? Ask us on Tabifolk

Skip to content