Introduction and Disclaimers

OK, let's get some facts straight before I get sued over this.  When I was in Japan, I was sixteen, didn't have a whole lot of money, wanted to get around the city, and didn't want to pay full fares to ride the expensive Japanese trains.  Most of my friends were in the same situation.  After spending a hundred dollars in a month of riding trains, we decided to take a different approach to train-riding.  These plots may not necessarily be illegal, but they are all very immoral and will get you in trouble with the train company if you are caught.  Enough said...

Child Tickets

This is probably the easiest and most obvious scam of all.  Child tickets cost half as much as regular tickets and work exactly the same as regular tickets do, except that they will make a little "child light" light up on the turnstile when you get on and get off.  At large stations, there are so many people going through the turnstiles that the conductors won't even notice.

The Conveniently Lost Ticket

The lost ticket works best when traveling over a longer distance: I'll illustrate it by using a trip from Osaka to Kansai Airport, which usually costs around ¥1400.  Start by buying a ticket from Osaka to a nearby station (like Temma or Fukushima).  This will cost you ¥200 or so, or even less if you've bought a child ticket.  Get on the train and ride it to Kansai Airport.  At Kansai, tell the man at the turnstile that you lost your ticket, and that you came from a nearby station (like Rinku Town).  He will ask you for another ¥200, and let you through the gate.  Bingo!  You've just saved a thousand yen. 

An even cheaper way to do this is to buy a platform ticket when you get on. This is a special, dirt-cheap ticket intended for people who just want to see their friends off at the train: it'll get you through the gate, and that's all it'll do. Since you're losing your ticket, though, it doesn't matter.

Word for the wise:  Some creative people keep all their "lost" tickets and turn them into a collection.  One of my friends kept them in his wallet, and, by an extreme act of fate, lost his wallet in a train station.  The station master found it, saw all the tickets inside, and went ballistic.  Don't let this happen to you, unless you want to see a crazy station master.

The Ever-Useful Commuter Pass

A commuter pass, in case you don't know, is a card that lets you travel an unlimited number of times over a given corridor, usually between your home and your workplace or school.  You buy it for a given period of time, usually 1, 3, or 6 months, and pay an exorbitant amount of money for it.  It is called a teikiken in Japanese, although it is sometimes shortened to teiki.

First of all, if you have a real commuter pass, you can use it to travel beyond its own range at cut rates.  This is perfectly legal and there are many people who don't know about it.  On some older railways, like the Nose Railway north of Osaka, you can exit a station with a commuter pass even if you haven't entered with it, which means that you can use a conveniently-lost ticket to get on the train and then get off with your pass.  This doesn't work at most newer stations, though.

If you have anything resembling a commuter pass--a bus pass, for instance--just run past the conductor in a big-city station, flash it in his face, shout "TEIKI!" and escape before he realizes what has happened.

If you don't have anything resembling a commuter pass, then you can walk up to the conductor, tell him that you lost your pass, and he'll usually let you through out of sheer pity, knowing that you'll have to cough up a few hundred bucks to get a new one.

For Particularly Crazy People

You can also just jump the gates.  This only works in very busy stations and in unmanned stations, where nobody can see you.  Otherwise, you will probably be arrested.

Limited Express Strategies

Limited express trains are not as easy to scam because the conductors check passengers' tickets en route.  The only success I ever had with scamming a limited express was on the Haruka, the high-speed train from Osaka to Kansai Airport.

Basically, the trick to it is to act as though you don't understand the conductor.  Speaking in English will not work, because the conductors that don't speak English will have English-language documents that tell you how much you need to pay.  I used high-school Spanish on one occasion and affected Finnish on another.  This works best if you're with one or more friends, because you can take the part of aggravated tourists and drive the conductor up the wall.  Arguing amongst yourselves and occasionally screaming at the conductor in a strange language will get rid of him quickly, and allow you to enjoy the rest of your ride in relative peace.

The Shinkansen: Impossible?

When I wanted to go to Tokyo, I thought long and hard about the weaknesses of the Shinkansen, and the result of my thinking was: There really aren't that many.  Shinkansen trains run from different platforms than regular trains, which means that you have to buy expensive Shinkansen tickets just to get on.  The gates for the Shinkansen are very long, which means you can't jump them.  Even if you could, you would be screwed when you got on the train, because the conductors check tickets.

One Japanese friend of mine was traveling on the Shinkansen for a relatively short distance, but he fell asleep en route and woke up in Tokyo, two hours away.  This story leads me to believe that if you sleep on the Shinkansen, your tickets will not be checked, and you can thus have a chance, however slim, of pulling the lost-ticket maneuver.  I have also heard, however, that some conductors will wake people up to check their tickets, which makes the whole proposition sound much riskier.  In the end, it is probably best to avoid the Shinkansen altogether and stick to slower trains.

In response to driptray's scam below, I prefer the lost ticket scam, which doesn't require the purchase of a block of tickets in advance. However, I can appreciate the way in which it appears to be perfectly lily white to station personnel. That said, if you ever get caught on a train without a ticket, tell them you got on two stations ago, and you're getting off at the next stop. Just remember: NEVER pay retail!

Standard disclaimer: This is probably illegal, and despite being virtually foolproof, you should never do it.

An additional scam is to use two sets of "multiple trip tickets". For an example, imagine that you regularly travel between Utsunomiya and Tokyo, a trip that would normally cost 2,000 yen each way. Here's how you do it:

  1. Buy a multiple trip ticket which is valid for 11 trips between Utsunomiya and the closest town (Suzumenomiya). This costs 1,800 yen.
  2. Buy a multiple trip ticket valid for 11 trips between Tokyo and Ueno (a suburb very close to Tokyo station). This costs 1,300 yen.
  3. When entering the platform in Utsunomiya, use your Utsunomiya <-> Suzumenomiya ticket.
  4. When exiting the platform in Tokyo, use your Ueno <-> Tokyo ticket.
Utsunomiya <-> Suzumenomiya                  Ueno  <-> Tokyo
<--------- 164 yen ------->                  <-- 118 yen -->
<--------------------------- 2,000 yen -------------------->

Multiple trip tickets are valid in both directions of travel, so you can use the same set of tickets to travel in either direction. They are valid for three months from the day of purchase, whereas a regular single trip ticket must be used on the day of purchase.

This can make regular journeys very cheap. In our example, a 2,000 yen journey will cost you only 282 yen. In addition, there is virtually no way of getting caught. Every time you enter and exit a platform, you are doing so with a ticket that appears entirely valid, and beyond suspicion.

There are a few difficulties however. One is that conductors will occasionally patrol the trains, checking for tickets. This is a very rare occurrence, and if does happen you will be forced to "upgrade" your ticket, and pay full price for the journey. The second is that multiple trip tickets can only be purchased at either of the two stations that the ticket is valid for. This means that you may have to pay full price for your first trip, or alternatively get a friend who lives in that town to buy the multiple trip tickets for you, and mail them to you.

Although this system appears inflexible, by combining it with the ability to legally upgrade an insufficient ticket at your destination, you can extend its usefulness.

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