To purchase a regular train ticket, you can either use an automatic ticket machine or go to the ticket booths/counter at larger stations, where you can talk to a person (in Japanese!).
At the automatic ticket machine, you will need to use the map above the machines to check the price to your destination. Then on the ticket machine you will see buttons corresponding to the various prices. Feed in your money first, then push the relevant button with your fare displayed. This can be tricky if you are not sure of the kanji for your destination, or are in a hurry and can’t see it on the board. Don’t panic! If in doubt, just buy the cheapest fare available and you can always go to the fare adjustment counter once you get off and they will work out how much extra you need to pay. There is no penalty for doing this, so don’t hesitate.
If you are not sure about using the ticket machine, all the major stations in Saga Prefecture also have a counter where you can speak to a real person to buy your tickets. Although generally very polite and helpful, they probably won’t speak much, if any English. In most cases saying your destination should be enough to get you a ticket.
Note that all tickets in Japan are one-way only. You can purchase your return ticket in advance from a ticket window, but not from an automated machine. There is generally no advantage (discount) to purchasing a ‘return ticket’ except being organized in advance; you will really just be getting two one-way tickets. However between certain destinations a pack of 2 tickets does offer a discount – see below for Discount Ticket Packs.
One more thing to note is that the automated ticket machines only do local train tickets (except the ni mai/yon mai kippu explained below). To ride on limited express trains, you also need to pay a seat fee (even for an unreserved seat), so generally it is easier to go to a ticket counter. However, if you don’t have time, you can just buy local and adjust the fare on the train with the train attendant who comes around to check tickets.
Discount ticket packs
From Saga Station, there are a couple of good value discount ticket packs available between set destinations; the most useful of which is probably Saga/Hakata. When you buy a pair of tickets (ni mai kippu) between these destinations, the price is much lower than buying multiple separate one-way tickets. They allow you to ride limited express trains (kamome or midori), and you can use the tickets in any order, any direction and on any date. You have one month to use the ni mai. You can purchase them at the ticket counter or at some of the automated ticket machines at any of the three destinations.
The same type of 2-ticket pack is available between quite a large number of destinations in Kyushu, including Saga/Kitakyushu, Saga/Kumamoto and Hakata/Hizen Yaamguchi.
A Sugoca, Suica or Nimoca card is a rechargeable IC card that you can just scan as you enter and exit through the ticket gates and the relevant fare will be calculated and deducted from your card balance. It also has an electronic money function so you can use it for shopping at some places as well! The Sugoca is the Kyushu version of this card and is valid on all trains throughout Kyushu as well as Fukuoka City subway lines and Nishitetsu (a private company) trains and buses. It can also be used wherever the Suica card is valid in Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai. Nimoca is the Fukuoka version.
If you travel by train regularly, or are likely to take a number of trips to Tokyo, it might be worth getting this card. Although there is no discount for traveling this way (though some offer reward points), it is much easier than having to purchase tickets each time and the main advantage is the time saving, especially during peak periods when there can be long queues at ticket machines.
Do bear in mind that within Saga there are many train stations that do not have automated ticket gates and therefore it can only be used at a limited number of stations. If you use an IC card through in invalid area, you will have to pay in cash in arrival, then receive a slip proving payment. Use this slip at your original station or any station accepting IC cards and ask someone at the ticket office to adjust your card so it can be used again.
You can purchase a card at some automatic ticket machines or at the staffed ticket counter. The initial cost is 2000 yen, of which 500 yen is a deposit for the card (refundable if you return it) and the other 1500 is immediately available for fare usage. You can then recharge your card at any ticket machine, as many times as you like (up to a maximum of 20,000 yen at any one time).
Seishun Juu-Hachi Kippu
The Seishun 18 Kippu is a ticket with places for 5 stamps, where each stamp allows you unlimited travel on local trains over a 24-hour period from midnight to midnight. Since you can only ride local (all-stops) trains the going can be slow, but you can travel a long way in 24 hours and if you have the time, this is by far the cheapest way to get around Japan. Anyone can use the stamps on one card and on non-consecutive days. The 5-stamp ticket costs 10,500 yen.
However, there is a limited window in which to purchase the tickets – usually about one month prior to the holiday time. Then, there is about a one-month window to actually use the tickets, although these periods generally coincide with school holidays.