As I said before, this global FeliCa iPhone/Apple Watch and Apple Pay Suica thing is going to be fun, for lots of people. Frommer’s tweet perfectly captures the Suica + credit-card-from-home magic of Global FeliCa Apple Pay.
The English language version of JR Central-JR West smartEX, the Tokaido~Sanyo Shinkansen e-ticket service launched October 30. The EX App itself has been localized in English in the Japan App Store for some time now, the October 30 rollout is the debut of the English version smartEX App on the US, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong App Stores and Google Play. What follows is a simple explanation and review for Apple Pay Suica users.
To understand the good and weak points of smartEX and see if it’s worth using or not, it’s important to look at the whole EX system: smartEX and its older sister service EX-PRESS Reservation.
smartEX and EX-PRESS both do the same thing from the same EX system: provide ticketless Shinkansen reservations and purchases for JR Central (Tokyo~Osaka) and JR West (Osaka~Fukuoka). EX-PRESS is the older of the two and was built with IC transit cards as the centerpiece: a special Shinkansen IC card used in tandem with regular IC transit cards. It is aimed at frequent Shinkansen business travelers and offers many kinds of discounts and services.
smartEX is the EX system streamlined for the mobile era. It does away with the special Shinkansen EX-IC card and only uses Apple Pay Suica, regular plastic transit cards or Mobile Suica on Android. smartEX is all about convenience over discounts and is aimed at the occasional traveler.
Transition from IC Cards to Mobile
But losing the EX-IC card means losing the ability to offer loyalty points, special discounts and other goodies tied to it. From the system infrastructure standpoint, migrating and repositioning EX to use regular transit cards instead of EX-IC, was starting over from scratch.
An interesting point is that JR Central-JR West have spent extra time and resources working with JR East to make EX interoperable with Apple Pay Suica and Suica App. This is strange when you consider that neither JR Central’s own transit card TOICA, nor JR West’s ICOCA have a Mobile Suica-like smartphone version ready to deploy on Apple Pay or Android.
It’s almost as if smartEX is laying a foundation for Apple Pay Suica-like service down the line, either on a JR Central-JR West cloud service they build themselves or hosted on JR East Mobile Suica.
To register and use smartEX you need 2 things: a Japanese transit card ID number and a credit card. Apple Pay Suica users must have Suica App installed to access their Suica ID.
I highly recommend preparing your Apple Pay Suica ID number before EX App registration. Copy Suica ID in Suica App then paste it into Memo app. It will be one long 17 character alpha-numeric string starting with “JE”. Put a few spaces between JE and the following 15 character string so that you can easily copy just the last 15 characters without JE.
smartEX Registration in EX
The international EX App registration process is different from the Japanese registration process I experienced a month ago: you do registration in the app itself, a much better less confusing process. The Japanese EX service started as PC browser portal in 2008; EX App is a fairly new addition so the browser registration requirement for Japanese users remains in place.
Your credit card verification step experience depends on your credit card bank; it can be jarring jump to a web page within the app. The transit card ID registration step requires selecting first 2 letters in one field, followed by manually entering the remaining 15 characters of the code in a separate field.
Once registration is complete you can access and update your smartEX membership information in EX App. I highly recommend verifying your membership information in EX App to make sure eveerything is correctly registered.
EX App e-ticket Purchase
In the login screen enter your smartEX password. The main screen is the Reserve a train search screen set for the current time and place.
Be careful because once you tap Purchase e-ticket purchase is instant. You can change a reservation for free but a refund costs ¥300.
Comparison with Suica App
Comparing the EX App with Suica App is fun but a little unfair. Suica App is a UI window on the vast Mobile Suica ecosystem, while EX App is just Shinkansen e-ticket reservation and purchase that doesn’t download anything to the local device like Suica App.
That said, the EX App UI is light years ahead of Suica App Shinkansen e-ticket reservations, EX even offers group ticket purchasing. Suica App really shows it’s ugly i-mode heritage with a tedious and long menu drill down process. It takes twice as long as EX to make a reservation, seat selection and purchase. Forget group tickets, Suica App is strictly a one man show.
I really hope that JR East can modernize the rich Mobile Suica ecosystem and match the slick easy to use EX App UI experience.
Screen shot comparison of EX App (1-2) with Suica App (3-4) Shinkansen train and seat selection
As the comparison chart explains, smartEX is not about cheap Shinkansen e-tickets. Discounts are small, almost full price although smartEX offers better discounts with round trip ticket purchases and advance ticket purchases. If you want the best discounts, buy boring old paper Shinkansen tickets at any discount ticket shop.
As with any new service there are weak points like I experienced using smartEX. The current smartEX registration system has no way to validate Apple Pay Suica ID numbers or any plastic transit card. The only way to find out if everything works is the first time you use smartEX and Apple Pay Suica at the Shinkansen ticket gate.
One thing Apple Pay Suica users need to be extra careful of is that anytime you delete and reload Suica into Apple Pay, the system creates a new Suica ID for the ‘same’ Suica. You must update your Suica ID in EX App, otherwise your Shinkansen trip will end at the station entrance ticket gate.
As said before, smartEX is really just a start line of a new Shinkansen e-ticket service for the mobile era from JR Central-JR West. The centerpiece is the slick and easy to use EX App. However the launch has been rocky and many parts are missing: discounts are small, loyalty points are MIA, there is no Apple Pay support and for some unexplained reason the English EX App version removed the Touch ID/Face ID support of the Japanese EX App.
smartEX services will grow and expand as JR Central and JR West build their cloud infrastructure. Discounts and loyalty points will be added back in over time, TOICA and ICOCA will certainly join Suica on Apple Pay at some point. Hopefully these will come sooner rather than later.
Update 11/2: The iOS EX App can now be downloaded.
Update 10/31: The web page is fixed now but the iOS EX App is listed as coming soon.
Update 10/30: the iOS version of EX App was pulled from the USA App Store after release earlier this morning. The JR Central English page is a mess, this is a rough launch.
When adding Suica to Apple Pay it does not appear to load completely and hangs during the “adding/activating” process. This can happen when iPhone has a poor network connection. If Suica App is installed it may show a “C102” error.
If Suica does not completely load in 10~15 minutes do the following:
Leave Wallet in that state until 5am Tokyo local time
This allows Mobile Suica Cloud to completely load your Suica information during the 2am~5am maintenance down time.
Then do the following:
The steps are exactly the same as Suica migration to a new iPhone, all on the same iPhone.
I use Apple Maps in the field occasionally but warily, like a dog that isn’t house broken despite 5 years of training, Apple Maps sometimes obeys, sometimes it pees on my leg. In a perfect world Siri would also obey but like one bad dog following another, when Apple Maps goes wrong, Siri goes very wrong.
I was in Nagoya recently to attend a friend’s wedding banquet at Castle Plaza Hotel. Nagoya, aka Toyota Town, is a big city that feels like a country town, everybody grew up there and love it. Landmark places like Castle Plaza are institutions (grandpa got married there) that everybody knows. Except Siri.
At Nagoya station I asked Siri in Japanese for “ Castle Plaza near Nagoya station.” Siri showed me some other places called Castle, none of them in Nagoya. Google Maps got Castle Plaza right away, so did Yahoo Japan Map.
The Apple Maps place card shows the place-name in English: “Castle Plaza.” Apple Maps Japan data supplier, Booking.com in this case, has not followed Japanese place name protocol. Google and Yahoo correctly list the Japanese name as “キャッスルプラザ,” which matches local signage.
Japanese Siri needs Japanese names to find things and it seems to be lurking somewhere out of sight in Apple Maps metadata. A dictation keyword search for “キャッスルプラザ” directly in Apple Maps finds the place, but the same keyword search in Siri does not.
Keyword searches are the trained seals of talking assistants, nothing is more basic: throw it a fish, it honks a horn. Even with an iPhone in Tokyo, keyword search finds the right Nagoya Castle Plaza in Google Maps, Yahoo Japan Maps and Apple Maps, but Siri honks the wrong horn every time.
This means 1 of 5 things:
1) Booking.com is not taking care of their Japanese metadata
2) Apple Maps is not taking care of their Japanese metadata
3) Siri is not taking care of their Japanese metadata
4) Nobody cares
5) All of the above
Take your pick. This is exactly the dysfunction described in Something Went Wrong in Siri’s and Apple Maps Development: One Last Time. Is Eddie Cue OK with a lousy Siri/Apple Maps experience in Japan? Is Tim Cook?
After 5 years they must have some idea of the problem. The only conclusion is that they are OK with it, Team Apple priorities are somewhere else.
There are some things to remember when adding Suica to Apple Pay. These are well documented on the Apple Support page Get help transferring Suica cards to your iPhone or Apple Watch in the “Try to add a Suica card” section.
If you lose a plastic Unregistered Suica created at a JR station kiosk, it’s lost for good. My Suica and Commuter plastic Suica are registered with the JR East system when issued and can be re-issued at the station if lost. The re-issue cost of a lost Suica at the station is ¥510.
As noted in the Apple page when you add My Suica or Commuter plastic cards to Apple Pay you need to enter date of birth. Apple Pay and the Mobile Suica backend create a kind of “soft” Mobile Suica account when those kind of Suica are added so that they are easily matched to the JR East system and recovered when deleted from Wallet. But there are card naming restrictions to be aware of:
My Suica and Commuter Suica cards that use romaji names or international phone numbers are not supported. Pasmo and other transit cards are not supported.
The romaji name restriction is strange because your can use romaji for Suica card names in Suica App and you can enter romaji when purchasing Suica at the JR station kiosk. There could be some incompatibility between the systems.
The best thing to do if your iPhone cannot transfer plastic Suica to Apple Pay is to take your plastic Suica the nearest JR station and tell the station attendant that you want to re-issue Suica (with a Japanese name). This is also the thing to do if your plastic Suica card is the very old variety that iPhone cannot read. Re-issue of a plastic Suica at the station is free.
If you are trying to add a second Suica card to Apple Pay, make sure the name on the second card matches the first name on your My Suica and Commuter Suica card. If you have different names on multiple cards, download and register in the iOS Suica app, and call Suica Support at 050-2016-5077.
When you add My Suica or Commuter Suica to Apple Pay you lose the ability to add an Unregistered Suica. Basically you can only have a single Unregistered Suica in Apple Pay. Anything after that has to be a My Suica or Commuter Suica.
As noted above if you do not have Suica App and a Mobile Suica account the second Suica card name has to match the first. If you add Suica App and login to Mobile Suica you can edit card names.
Last but not least please remember that the Suica Support number is Japanese Language only.