smartEX Start Line: Quick Guide (U)

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 comparison chart v2

EXPress Reservation-Suica App chart

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.

smartEX Preflight
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.

  1.  Register name, birth date, email, password, credit card with credit card verification, and transit card ID. Be careful to copy and paste just the last 15 characters of your Apple Pay Suica ID explained above. A collection of EX App registration screen shots is shown below.
  2. Login with your password. Unlike the Japanese EX App, Touch ID is not supported.

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.

  1. Select departure time, station points and tap search
  2. In select train check seat availability then tap the train that you want to ride
  3. Select the kind seating: smartEX Reserve, smartEX Non-Reserve. With Reserve you can choose a seat from the Select seat screen. You can also change the car you want to sit in.
  4. In the confirm your purchase screen tap Purchase

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

Weak Points
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.

Previous smartEX posts
My not smart Shinkansen trip with smartEX
Registration and smartEX purchase first impressions with the Japanese version
The smartEX start line

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.