My Favourite Shinkansen: The E4 Series Shinkansen

I am now down to the final two, the 700 series and E4 series, in my list of my favourite shinkansen. As today (14 October) is 鉄道の日 (Tetsudo-no-hi) ‘Railway Day’ in Japan, marking the anniversary of the opening of the first railway, it seems appropriate to bring this series of posts to an end by posting the final two on the same day. This post is about the E4 series. But what position did it finish in on my list? Read on to find out.

As I mentioned before in relation to the 800 series and 500 series, all of my top 4 appeared on the front cover of my book Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan (one from each of the 4 JR companies that had shinkansen at the time of writing it), although I hadn’t intended it to be that way when I started to put the list together.

Here is the original of that picture for the E4

An E4-series shinkansen south of Omiya station

I featured some photographs of the E4 series in my book Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan

A double-decker E4-series arriving at the popular commuter city of Utsunomiya
An E4-series linked with a 400-series passing Kita-Yono station in Saitama – note how the windows on the lower deck of the E4-series are almost totally obscured by the sound-protection wall in this area where there was much opposition to the construction of the shinkansen line
The E4-series in profile reveals some of its links to the 700-series design
Two E4-series shinkansen joined together – the highest capacity high-speed train service in the world
An E2-series shinkansen passing an E4-series shinkansen at Takasaki station
A 400-series joined with an E4-series shinkansen travel along an elevated section south of Omiya

Here are some additional photographs of the E4 series. There are quite a few pictures at Takasaki due to me going there to pick up a rent-a-car many years to go to Ueno-mura for my research about the JL123 crash. Many others are taken at Echigo-Yuzawa as I went there a few times when doing work on my novel Hijacking Japan.

Of course, my favourite shinkansen photo, as I discussed in my post about taking photos in Takasaki, featured an E4…

I remember that the first time that I was aware of the E4 was when I saw it on the front cover of a railway magazine at a bookshop in Tokyo soon after I’d got to Japan on one of my trips. I was shocked that it was a shinkansen. It looked like an ugly brute, I thought, not fitting of a shinkansen. But my opinion changed over the years.

Part of the reason for the change was that I used the train a lot and came to associate it with the enjoyment I was getting from these activities. I visited Utsunomiya many times to see a friend and was usually on an E4. Then, I decided to write a novel partly set on a shinkansen and the E4 became the basis for the setting, and consequently featured on the cover of the book, Hijacking Japan.

Hijacking Japan book cover

Here is the base image…

In addition to the plethora of photos, I also have some E4-series memorabilia. This includes a model (noticeably heavier than others I have) that I bought while in Japan one year…

I also have a pen where the image of the E4 lights up when you press a button. Or, rather, it used to, the batteries and the pen itself gave up a long time ago.

And while I no longer tend to keep any of my rail tickets from trips to Japan, one that I do have is fro one the times that I took the E4-series MAX Toki 321 service. My novel Hijacking Japan is set partly on this service.

As you can see from the above ticket, I preferred to travel on the upper deck. There was often no view from the lower deck. The downside of the upper deck was that the headroom for the person closest to the window wasn’t great and it was easy to bang your head on the overhead luggage rack – as I did on at least a couple of occasions.

Over the years, I also found that the E4 wasn’t as bad looking as I had first thought. Perhaps this was due to the associations I made with the train, but there’s more to it than that. It was an interesting train to photograph due to the angles and curves on the front of the train. It’s not perfect, it’s flawed. And, as I discussed in relation to the 500 series and Concorde (and connects with the discussion on wabi sabi) ultimately that’s something that gives it more character and a type of beauty.

You may have noticed that I am writing about the E4 in the past tense. The reason for this is that it was fully retired from service just 13 days ago, on 1 October 2021. The announcement of its retirement was made a number of years ago – and this effectively was one of the things that led to me setting Hijacking Japan in 2011, despite the complications this presented – and was something that I commented on also in my post End of Eras.

But the E4 lives on. Not only in the novel, but also in my teaching as I feature a video of when I travelled in the cab of an E4 in one of my classes at university to help demonstrate the skill of a driver stopping one of these trains manually in the correct spot on a platform.

So where did the E4 finish on my list of favourite shinkansen? I also discuss this in the Interview for the Compounding Curiosity Podcast, it’s the runner-up at Number 2, largely losing out due to my experiences of banging my head and that there are even better reasons to have the choice of my number one at that position.

See also

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