ICOCA Widens Transit Footprint

One glaring weakness of the Japan Transit IC system is that it’s not universal even on the very rail networks that built the system. Suica for example is mostly absent in stations outside of Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai metro regions, roughly half of JR East stations. It comes down to cost: hard wiring every station is expensive. This cost problem is one that JR East plans to address by rolling out a cloud based low cost ‘simple Suica’ for all stations. They already missed a 2020 deadline and need to deliver on their promise if Suica is remain a viable payments competitor in the hyper competitive Japanese market.

JR West meanwhile is busy expanding ICOCA coverage on the their rail network with Fukuchiyama and Kisei line additions going into operation March 13, 2021. JR West also added ICOCA connecting commuter passes for Osaka Metro in December, the kind of arrangement that Suica and PASMO have had in place for years. It makes sense for JR West to expand now in preparation for the Mobile ICOCA launch in 2023.

The Kisei line is somewhat unique in that smaller stations are unmanned and local trains are one man operations with passengers getting off at the front for ticket verification. ICOCA readers are located at car exit points, passengers tap out similar to using a bus. This kind of operation would fit well on similar ‘one man’ operations like the JR Central Minobu line which are still limited to paper tickets.

Pets and Pistols

In our era of unending overheated news cycles I take comfort in the cold dispassionate analytic Japanese cultural characteristic. Its helpful not only for keeping a level head but also making interesting connections between seemingly unrelated things.

For example different cultural responses to the COVID crisis: in Japan people went out and bought pets, in America people went out and bought guns. Japanese like making those kinds of comparisons that seem to come out of left field, but for me provide ‘think outside the box’ context sorely missing in public discourse these days. And again when Bloomberg ran a piece titled “Buddhist Monks Are Snapping Up ESG Bonds in Japan,” that wasn’t getting any traction in the Japanese news space.

As a Buddhist priest (monks live monastic lives outside of society, priests do not) it stuck me as odd that a Rinzai Zen temple would advertise investing in ESG bonds as future proofing the temple instead of working to get younger people involved in temple activities. The Bloomberg piece also reads like stealth marketing, if Zen temples and the Vatican are investing in ESG bonds it must be good…right?

I asked a Japanese trader friend about it and he set me straight without blinking an eye, “With this coming out on Bloomberg just when the Dali Lama and Greta Thunberg are hooking up online to discuss environmental issues, it sounds like investment funds and players are gearing up to make a lot of mischief. The only difference is that they used to be better at hiding this kind of nonsense and now they suck.” Bingo…helpful context to divine where things are going. There is also online discussion of a COVID-19 ‘vaccination mafia’, but that’s another subject for another day.

Apple Maps Japan Look Around Expands to Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Takamatsu, Nara

Apple Maps vans and walkers were busy in Japan from May to October 2020 and the first cites to receive Look Around from the data sets are: Hiroshima, Fukuoka and Takamatsu. This is not part of the Apple Maps 2.0 ‘New Maps’ cartography that has rolled out in USA, Canada and UK, just the same lousy IPC map data with a Look Around cherry on top. According to Justin O’Beirn these were added in mid-December.

In addition to new areas he lists, the Look Around Tokyo area region has been extended deeper into the greater Kanto area with more Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa coverage, though I don’t see any pedestrian data gains in areas that need it (major shrines, temples, parks, and other public areas off limits to vehicles). In the Kansai area, southern parts of Osaka and Nara have been added as well.

At this rate we should have Look Around additions for Sendai, Ishikawa, more Kanto and other regions coming soon. Apple Maps Look Around first appeared in August 2020 for Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka regions from data collected in 2019.

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Starbucks officially adds Suica contactless payments…finally

Apple Pay Suica/PASMO finally joined the official Starbucks payment lineup, something that many people have wanted for a long time. Nothing beats Apple Pay Suica Express Transit for grabbing coffee on the run.

I knew something was coming when Panasonic JT-R600 all-in-one readers appeared in Starbucks stores starting last summer. Initially these were for EMV chip cards and came with ‘please don’t forget to remove your card’ reminder stickers. EMV contactless is missing though I suspect it will come at some point. Other FeliCa contactless payments such as iD, QUICPay, Waon, nanaco, and Edy are also missing. Line Pay QR is accepted at some store locations but remains limited for now.

Suica/PASMO (and other eMoney like Waon) has been accepted for years at Starbucks locations in stations and malls where tenants integrate payment+reward point systems provided by the landlord. Suica/PASMO support is not native however and bolted onto the Starbucks checkout system. For JR East station area locations tied into the JRE POINT system this means double entry Suica payments: once for the Starbucks checkout and once more for the Suica/JRE POINT payment reader. This will remain in place until JR East and other retail landlords (PAMSO, etc.) come up with a better system for integrating JRE POINT (etc.) with Starbucks’ native Suica support. The big takeaway is that Suica/Transit IC is officially supported and earmarked for all locations.

Contactless payments are a welcome step forward but I wish Starbucks integrated their own reward points via NFC VAS instead of barcode in Starbucks app nonsense. That way I could get JRE POINT and Starbucks point with a single Apple Watch Suica tap at JR East station Starbucks locations without the hassle of iPhone Face ID with face mask. And while we’re on the subject of NFC VAS reward point cards…JR East hurry up with that JRE POINT card for Apple Wallet please.

UPDATE
Starbucks is running a ¥100 One More Coffee refill campaign with Suica/Transit IC purchase from January 13~June 30, a ¥50 discount. A good reason to kiss the iOS Starbucks App barcode thing goodbye for the duration and use Apple Pay Suica/PASMO Express Transit instead.

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Smart Navigo launching on Apple Pay in February (Updated)

Smart Navigo, the Paris~Île-de-France region digital transit card for mobile, currently on Galaxy devices and Android smartphones with Orange SIM cards, is reportedly coming to Apple Pay in February. Although France was an early innovator of NFC on mobile phones, it did not lead to early mobile transit adoption: Smart Navigo launched in September 2019. Apple Pay Navigo would be the first native transit card (closed loop) for Apple Pay in Europe, it would also be the first smart wearable for Navigo users thanks to Apple Watch. The Calypso based Navigo transit card launched in 2001 and had a large upgrade in 2019 to add more transit services and mobile.

Navigo operator Île-de-France Mobilities has reportedly been in talks with Apple ever since Smart Navigo was first announced in 2017. At that time they said:

“Unfortunately, it won’t be possible for iPhone owners to use the service since Apple does not yet allow third parties to access the NFC secure element in their phones. However, we are happy to explore the possibilities with Apple to offer the same service to all Paris public transport users.

Apple has a uniquely flexible custom embedded Secure Element (eSE) in their A/S Series chips that can be updated to support additional NFC protocols. Calypso is an open protocol that uses NFC-B, it would join the other major Apple Pay protocols, EMV (NFC-A) FeliCa (NFC-F) and MIFARE (NFC-A), that are all proprietary. There isn’t any technical difficulty adding new transit cards. It’s a matter of negotiation and deal making, which can take time.

Apple usually likes to roll out new transit cards following an iOS update. iOS 14.4 would fit a February launch window. There are also reports that Apple Pay Code Payments are working in recent iOS 14.4 internal builds. If all of this pans out, iOS 14.4 could be an important update for Apple Pay users, especially in France.

UPDATE
01 News reports that iPhone users will be able to reload Navigo cards for day/weekly /monthly passes with an updated ViaNaigo app using NFC starting January 20. This is an important first step of implementing Apple Pay support in advance of the full Apple Pay Navigo service launch due in February and confirms the earlier Le Parisien report. It also follows the 2020 Apple Pay Octopus rollout which saw an updated iOS app with iPhone NFC recharge feature released before the service launch.

UPDATE 2
January 13: The updated iOS Ile-de-France Mobilités app (previously ViaNavigo) with NFC reload for Navigo cards was released. iPhone 7 and later devices are supported as this follows Core NFC device specs, however iPhone XR/XS support is missing in the initial release and said to be addressed soon. Developers say this is due to longstanding Core NFC bugs. There is also an issue with iPhone SE2 that needs to be restarted to work properly. No word if the iOS 14.4 update will fix the issues or not.