End of Eras

I first travelled to Japan in July 1989, in the first year of the Heisei era. In January 2019 I made my 43rd trip to Japan and the final one of the Heisei era since there will be a change during the year. One of the highlights of my first trip was taking a 100-series shinkansen (I had only been expecting to see a 0-series) from Tōkyō to Shin-Ōsaka. In many ways that trip helped spark my interest in Japanese trains which would lead me to writing my book Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan as well as other projects.

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My 100-series Hikari in July 1989

Much has changed on the Japanese railways in the intervening years, but despite only taking a handful of journeys in January 2019, these were sufficient to both highlight some of the changes and also why many of us love travelling on Japanese trains so much. As with many of my trips, I was on a JR Pass so I was prevented from taking Nozomi and Mizuho services. But unlike other trips, I found even getting the pass was troublesome. The queue at the JR East counter at Haneda was initially over one hour. I decided to pass the time (and hoped the queue may have gone down in the meantime) by popping over to so the Haneda Airport Shrine in Terminal 1 before returning to the International Terminal, by which time the queue was down to a mere 40 minutes. There is definitely a down side to Japan having more foreign visitors – but I guess we cannot complain too much; at least the JR Pass (as well as others) exist and at least we can also now use it on the monorail!

One of the reasons for using the JR Pass was that I wanted to take a Kodama service for one of the legs I would need to do and so it was not worth paying for Nozomi services on the other legs. The Kodama service in question was the Hello Kitty 500-series, which I picked up from Shin-Ōsaka having taken a Hikari from Shinagawa earlier in the day. Despite giving myself time to get a picture from a more distant platform at Shin-Ōsaka, in the end none of the angles were great, but it didn’t matter too much in the end as I got better shots later on. As expected, by the time I got to the platform where Kitty was, there were crowds of people taking photos… but seemingly they didn’t realise that the train looks identical at the other end (Carriage 8), from where it was possible to get almost unobstructed shots (I’m not sure where all these people disappeared to as the train itself seemed quite quiet once we were on board). I took the service all the way to Hakata. Having left Shin-Kōbe, I got up from my reserved seat in Carriage 6 (wider seats there!) and explored the train. Hello Kitty stickers can be founded dotted throughout the train – including, somewhat disturbingly, on the ‘smoking room’. Carriage 2 has special flooring and more Hello Kitty marks on the headrests & curtains as well as a display where you can have your photo taken with a model of Kitty. Carriage 1 contains a shop, more photo spots and there were people giving out free gifts promoting their village as somewhere to visit. All very pleasant. Very cute. Being a Kodama service, it was possible to get off and take pictures both of the Hello Kitty Shinkansen and passing services along the way; some stops were so long I also had time to go across to the opposite platform to get better shots of the train. At one stop another 500-series shinkansen was stopped at the opposite platform. Without doubt the colours of the Hello Kitty Shinkansen make it striking and great to photograph, but I can’t help but feel that after it returns to the yard at Hakata-Minami or when it sees the other 500-series shinkansen in its traditional colours, the train does a face-palm and questions the indignity of what’s happened to it.

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Cute and stylish
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a) A display in the second carriage of the Hello Kitty shinkansen, (b) Logos on the outside of the train featuring two of the prefectures that the Hello Kitty shinkansen stops at, (c) the Hello Kitty shinkansen at Mihara station.

For my return to Honshū, I had a standard 500-series Kodama first and then, later in the day, a former Hikari Railstar 700-series. Oh, how the mighty have fallen along the San’yō Shinkansen. I picked up the service from Higashi-Hiroshima – which I discovered has doors at the entry to the station which appear to swing open & closed when a Nozomi blasts past at top speed, which amused me for a while. Apart from that, the only matter of note was that it was sunset and made for some great photos!

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Waiting at Higashi-Hiroshima for a Nozomi service to pass

Even after the sun set, I got out at stations to try to get shots of passing trains. By now the temperature was dropping. The conductor in Carriage 1 came out & let me know when the passing train would be so I could wait inside until it was nearly time and also gave me a packet of JR West wet-wipes. I’m not entirely sure why he thought I would need them, but the gesture was none-the-less appreciated. In the end I managed to get some half-decent shots in the dark, with the best probably being of my stopped train beneath a full-moon, before changing to a Hikari service at Okayama for my return to Tōkyō.

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Shinkansen beneath the full moon

After a late change to my plans, on my final day in Japan I went to Gunma so I could revisit Ueno-mura to do some research related to my work on the JL123 crash and also take a dip in an onsen. This meant that I could go more shinkansen, and, by chance(!) both journeys involved taking E4 shinkansen. I thought I’d already taken my last E4 trip during a previous trip. This time will be the last time as they are to be retired soon. Not my favourite shinkansen when first introduced, I came to like them after using them more and more and after discovering how much fun they are to photograph. It was due to this that one ended up featuring in my novel Hijacking Japan. In the end my final shots of E4 shinkansen were rather unspectacular, and somewhat less spectacular than the views of Mount Asama and Mount Fuji at sunset as I headed towards Tōkyō. But I was glad to have a chance to say good-bye (again) to the E4. The end of an era.

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My final E4 arriving at Takasaki

As a final observation, I fear another era may be coming to an end. Ever since my first JR Pass trip (1992) and on all trips since , I have always bought a timetable book. This has helped with not only planning journeys, but also with some of my research. But I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find them. On my previous trip I didn’t manage it (getting a copy of that timetable this time thanks to Amazon). This time I did get one… after arriving in Ueno on my last day. I fear that in the future these books will be no more. I hope I’m wrong, there’s always a place for these books and I would still prefer to get them at a station than online.

Published as ‘End of Eras’, Japanese Railway Society Bullet-In, Issue 100 (Spring 2019) 37-9.

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