Photographing the Shinkansen: Tōhoku Shinkansen in Kantō

When most visitors to Japan think of the shinkansen, I suspect the typical image that comes to mind is that of the white and blue livery of the Tōkaidō Shinkansen. That many of Japan’s attractions lie along the route to Ōsaka, as well as beyond into Kyūshū, further underlines this. This is a shame, for in terms of photographing the shinkansen, it is the JR East lines that provide the greater variety of rolling stock. This article will concentrate on where one can go along the Tōhoku Shinkansen line, whilst in relatively close striking distance to Tōkyō, to get some good shots.

The main problems when photographing JR East shinkansen is that once you get too far away from Tōkyō, the frequency of services drops quite significantly meaning that you can have long waits between shots. The other major problem is that due to environmental laws that were introduced while the lines were being constructed, there is a tendency for the lines to be enclosed by relatively high walls that can significantly obscure the view of the passing train (let alone the view from the lower deck of E1- or E4-series shinkansen). Locations where you can get a relatively clear view of the Tōhoku Shinkansen, therefore, are at a premium.

It is possible to get a fairly interesting shot of the shinkansen approaching Tōkyō station from a major road junction just north and west of the station, with the Chūō line above the shinkansen and other conventional lines in the foreground. You can also get shots of slow-moving shinkansen coming out of the Tabata yard at the southern end of Tabata station. However, neither of these spots are that great either due to there being nowhere to sit or due to  the relatively slow speed of the trains, which means that the shots are not challenging to take (which is often part of the fun of taking them).

So, the first spot I would suggest in going north from Tōkyō station is at Asukayama Park. Getting there is very straight forward. Take the Keihin-Tōhoku line to Ōji station. The park is to the south-west of the station up a relatively steep hill. There are no shortages of entrances and ways around the park. If you follow the paths by the railway-side of the park, you will come to a viewing platform from where you can get shots of the shinkansen and conventional trains passing. The wall is relatively high here so it’s not possible to see the whole train, but it’s possible to get some interesting shots of the mixture of railways, together with a backdrop of the urban sprawl of Tōkyō.

Photograph of 200-series renewal taken from Asukayama Park

The great thing about the Tōhoku Shinkansen line between Tōkyō and Ōmiya is that it is also used by the Jōetsu and Hokuriku shinkansen (and in a few years Hokkaidō shinkansen). Of course most Akita and Yamagata shinkansen are also joined to Tōhoku shinkansen in this section. This means that there is no shortage of action. The problem is getting a view over the wall. The greater the distance from the line and lower your angle, the greater the wall problem tends to be. So, when I wanted to get a shot along this section I logically thought that the best answer was to get a higher angle and get close to the line. The answer was to try to find a building – probably an apartment block – next to the line with stairs on the rail-side of the building. Being Japan, there is no shortage of buildings close to railway lines, the main problem is access. Having looked out of the window from the Saikyō Line a couple of times on my way between Ikebukuro (which is my local JR station when I stay in Tōkyō) to Ōmiya, I did find some – the best being near Ukimafunado station. I’m still not sure what the rules (or laws) are governing the taking of pictures from such places, so I would suggest that you don’t plan on spending too long at them. A few buildings had security guards, so a quick 180º turn was required (undoubtedly making me look even more suspicious!), and others either had bolted doors at the foot of the stairs or signs saying that access was not allowed to non-residents. Having experienced that, I concluded that the absence of any of the above effectively meant that access was allowed. Some of the buildings even had a lift, which was most welcome. The results were very pleasing.

Photo of an E2-series shinkansen taken from stairs of an apartment block near Ukimafunado station

Moving further north, the next suggestion is another “car park” shot. The car park is located above a department store directly west of Kitayono station. The wall is still a bit of a nuisance, but on the north side of the car park the line curves on the approach to Ōmiya meaning that shinkansen bound for Tōkyō are clearly visible in their entirety.

An E4 south of Omiya
Photo of an E4-series shinkansen taken from car park near Kitayono station

Ignoring Ōmiya station (taking shots of stationary trains at stations is really too easy), I always assumed that it should be possible to get a shot from one of the stations along the Saitama New Shuttle (or Ina Line). These provide the last opportunity to see all of the JR East shinkansen running along the same stretch of track. In reality, once again it is noise-reducing walls that create the problem. The only station (at least on the north-bound side) that provides any half-decent angles is Haraichi. It is possible to get some shots without the wire fence between the station and the shinkansen lines getting in the way if you go to either end of the platform. There are a lot of pantographs and other cables around, so give yourself time to experiment with angles (if you have a spare portable step ladder, then this would certainly be a help!). The downward Jōetsu/Hokuriku shinkansen are generally too close to get good shots, but it’s possible to get some good shots of trains on the other lines. By the way, make sure you step well back from the platform when a shuttle arrives – no need in delaying the service unduly while the driver waits for you to get your things and board the train! Of course, in theory, it is possible to do the whole thing having only bought a platform ticket at Ōmiya (yes, you need to buy a ticket – perhaps an odd experience for those of you on a JR Pass!) – but this is not recommended… so you’ll need to remember to exit the station and get a new ticket for your return journey to Ōmiya.

Photo of an E3-series (Komachi) shinkansen joined to an E2-series shinkansen – taken at Haraichi station

As you go north it gets harder to find good locations that are easily accessible and that compensate for the relatively low level of traffic. As a consequence, I would suggest going to either Oyama, Nasu-Shiobara or Shin-Shirakawa stations. The main problem with them is that there are relatively few services, so you can end up being stranded for a while (there is a retail park about 20 minutes walk from Shin-Shirakawa station if you need to find something to eat, as there isn’t much near the station; just follow the main road out and turn right at the T-junction after walking for about 10 minutes, the retail park is on the right hand side). If time is a problem, then Utsunomiya is fine too. The plus point about these stations is that trains pass at speed and there are relatively few wires, etc. to get in the way of the picture. Nasu-Shiobara is even on a slight curve, which generally gives a better picture. You can even get quite a nice backdrop to your pictures from the “up” platform of Shin-Shirakawa station. Another positive aspect about these stations is that there is announcement to warn of a passing train around a minute (and again around 30 seconds) before the train passes. This gives you plenty of time to power up your camera and get ready rather than having to remain in a photo-ready pose for too long.

E3 shinkansen (coupled with E4) passing Oyama station in the snow
An E3-series (Tsubasa) shinkansen joined to an E4-series shinkansen passes through a snowy Oyama station

Happy photographing!

Published as ‘Photographing the Shinkansen: Tōhoku Shinkansen in Kantō’, Japanese Railway Society Bullet-In, Issue 60 (October – December 2006) (2006) 17-20.

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