My Not Smart Shinkansen Trip with smartEX

I followed all the smartEX registration instructions, honest engine I did. I logged into EX with my smartEX generated ID and password and purchased my Shinkansen ticket to Nagoya without a hitch. All looked good. At the appointed day and time I went to the Tokyo station Tokaido Shinkansen gate. Everything went to hell.​

​The station attendant placed my iPhone on the reader to diagnose the problem. Despite doing all the right steps my smartEX e-ticket purchase was not linking to my Apple Pay Suica. He then took me to a ticket machine and said, “Enter your smartEX password.” I use Touch ID with EX App and did not know the password, The poor attendant waited while I dug around in Safari passwords to find it. With the password entered he printed out a paper ticket.

The attendant told me that I needed to call smartEX system support to solve the problem. I asked if there was one. He grabbed a smartEX pamphlet but there was no number. He said, “There’s a number listed in the app.” There was not but I said thank you anyway and offered some advice, “I feel sorry for the station attendants if JR Central doesn’t improve smartEX. When the English language version of this drops on October 30, it will be a mess.”

smartEX System Weak Points
I used my travel time to dig around in EX App preferences. It was time well spent. smartEX registration can only be done in the browser, but once completed you can edit account information in EX App. The app has a Touch ID log in option but there is a separate mandatory security layer for editing smartEX account information:

Generate a onetime password and receive it by email. After entering the onetime password you can edit all your registered information: name, email, credit card, Apple Pay Suica ID:

I re-entered my Apple Pay Suica ID and asked the Nagoya station attendant to confirm if my smartEX was correct. She placed my iPhone on the reader and confirmed that I was all set now. My return trip was a breeze, smartEX worked fine.

Apple Pay Suica ID Formatting Differnces and Errors
As I said previously smartEX registration is a work in progress and will certainly be a friction point for many inbound Apple Pay Suica users. The reasons are simple:

  1. Suica App only copies the entire 17 character Suica ID (screen shot below)
  2. smartEX only accepts a 15 character ID and automatically formats the pasted ID from Suica App deleting the final 2 characters
  3.  smartEX cannot automatically verify your Suica ID with Mobile Suica or Apple Pay. This can only happen if smartEX is linked with Mobile Suica, or better yet if JR East Mobile Suica hosts all the other IC transit cards on their cloud service like one big happy family.

Suggestion for Smooth smartEX
Here is a suggestion for a smooth maiden smartEX voyage. The system by itself cannot verify if everything is in working order but JR Central station attendants at Tokaido Shinkansen ticket gates can verify it for you. Verification requires the following:

  • Successful smartEX registration
  • Successful smartEX login and e-ticket purchase

Tell the Shinkansen gate attendant that you want to verify your smartEX ticket purchase and hand them your iPhone. A quick check on the reader is all that is needed. If all is in order you are assured of a smooth process every time. Have your smartEX ID and password on hand in case something goes wrong. The attendant will need it to print out paper tickets.




smartEX Beats Suica to the App Store with English

There is a small chance that Suica App could release an English language version  before smartEX App arrives on October 30 but I doubt it.

The reasons are varied but boil down to one single difference: smartEX is a simple streamlined app that pulls information off a simple streamlined ticket reservation system while Suica App is the front window of an entire ecosystem.

smartEx App does one thing: Tokaido Sanyo Shinkansen e-ticket reservations/purchases. This includes timetable searches, seat availability/reservations and refunds. It uses your registered account information (name, credit card and IC transit card) but does not allow you to manage any of it. smartEX e-tickets are not downloaded or directly attached/stored on the IC transit card and do not interact with Apple Pay Suica.

Suica App does many things:

  • Mobile Suica account management (name, credit card, Suica card, etc.)
  • Suica card creation and registration (Apple Pay)
  • JR East Shinkansen e-ticket reservations/purchases
  • Green Seat purchases on regular trains
  • Suica Commuter Pass purchase, renewal and changes
  • Refunds
  • Suica Recharge
  • Suica Auto Recharge setup
  • Suica App e-tickets download directly and are stored on Apple Pay Suica

On top of all that Suica App is adding JR Central Tokaido and JR West Sanyo Shinkansen e-ticket purchase options starting October 23. That is a lot of services packed in a single app with many moving database parts on the backend. All of these parts have to be in English before Suica App can make its English language debut.

Suica App is like the tiny tip of a huge iceberg. There is a huge mass of Japanese information dating back to the i-mode era lurking underneath the surface that has to be localized and vetted. That alone takes time and resources. But if JR East doesn’t take the time to do it right, their limited support resources would be quickly overwhelmed: imagine if an English language users taps on an option in Suica App and is suddenly faced with a screen full of Japanese. English language support would be flooded with questions.

The easy thing to do would be pruning option menus down to a manageable quick delivery turn around for English localization but I don’t think JR East will take that path. I prefer to have the whole of Suica App in English, even if it takes time.

smartEX English Language Service and App Coming on October 30

JR Central announced that an English language version of the smartEX Shinkansen e-ticket service will launch October 30 along with the smartEX app. This comes exactly one month after the launch of the Japanese service.

The app looks like a localized version of the current Japanese EX App. This is a welcome development but I sincerely hope the smartEX registration rough spots have been smoothed over and simplified (note that the app preview does not show the registration). Otherwise there will be some very frustrated foreigners.

The great thing is that iPhone 8 and iPhone X users from abroad can easily add Suica to Apple Pay and use it with smartEX for paperless e-ticket travel on the Tokaido Shinkansen. All on your iPhone. Have fun.

ICOCA Getting Ready for Apple Pay #2

JR West announced additional stations that will gain ICOCA IC transit card support in the summer of 2018 completing the JR West IC transit network.

Japanese users are speculating on Twitter if this means Apple Pay ICOCA is coming at the same time. If JR West can get a Mobile cloud service in place by then, it is definitely possible.

More Choices Means… Ever More Choices (U)

When iPhone 8 and iPhone X were announced there was lots of disbelief on discussion forums that the new iPhones really supported global FeliCa because there are Japan specific models. Then iPhone 8 shipped and Asian users outside of Japan quickly added Suica to Apple Pay.

Long story short: Japanese iPhone 8 and iPhone X models have 3 more LTE bands to support NTT Docomo, KDDI au and SoftBank.

That Shutter Sound
But read any discussion forum thread about global FeliCa iPhone and one thing is clear: foreigners living in Japan, and a few Japanese too, REALLY hate the Japanese iPhone camera shutter sound, required by law a self policed industry regulation followed by smartphone and keitai vendors in Japan. According to a reader sent link, the reasons go back to the turn of the century Japanese keitai go-go days and are a little murky: partly due to a celebrity photo stalking incident, partly due to vendor fears of a backlash if they didn’t do something.

Now that iPhones have global FeliCa lots of people who live in Japan are considering an overseas iPhone 8/X over the Japanese models just to be rid of the iPhone camera shutter sound. But buying a non-Japanese iPhone 8/X means leaving those 3 Japanese LTE bands behind and there are some considerations.

LTE Bands and Speeds
LTE bands are always a moving target as Japanese carriers constantly shuffle technologies and frequencies: first LTE, now LTE Advanced, soon to be 5G, to open up the “platinum band” frequencies once reserved for 3G. And there are different LTE regions. Docomo for example deploys certain LTE bands in central Japan, Okinawa and other places.

Last but not least is CA (carrier aggregation) and MIMO. Docomo combines 3 bands in their Premium 4G service and iPhone 8/X can achieve up to 500Mpbs download speeds on Premium 4G with 3CC CA (but only in central Japan for now). It’s the same for story for KDDI and SoftBank.

An interesting side note is that the Apple Japan specs page originally published the iPhone 8/X top download speed as 800Mpbs then changed it. CA top speeds are a moving target for the Japanese models and will be all over the map for overseas models. There are super mobile otaku in Japan, and on the Whirlpool forum, who know every LTE carrier band and region configuration by heart but I am not one of them and don’t plan to become one.

The Japanese Wikipedia LTE band chart is exhaustive.

There is also the MVNO consideration since many people plan to buy an unlocked overseas iPhone and use inexpensive SIMs from IIJmio and others. I use IIJmio on a Docomo unlocked iPad Pro and despite all the promises the IIJmio SIM would always use 4G service on the Docomo network, it does not. In rural areas it always falls back to 3G while my Docomo SIM iPhone 7 Plus shows 4 bars of 4G. Some people report no problems but my MVNO experience in rural areas has not been a good one.

MIC Certificationfullsizeoutput_6480
Let’s not forget the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications certification mark. iOS 11 moved the NFC-F related MIC certification mark to the screen but only for the Japanese models. Overseas models have global FeliCa of course but do not display the MIC Certification screen mark. Technically you are breaking Japanese law if you use an overseas global FeliCa iPhone in Japan for more than 90 days. Not that Japanese authorities really care, but some forum discussions have fretted about it.

If somebody wants to buy a ‘hot’ but slower iPhone 8/X just for taking silent pictures, be my guest. It’s just one choice of many. I understand why people don’t like the Japanese iPhone shutter sound, there are many reasons and opinions out there both for and against, (and it seems to matter more to Westerners than Asians) but I grew up in the age of mechanical cameras and like the shutter sound. When I don’t hear it, part of me always thinks the camera is broken.

For my money I choose the shutter sound and better network performance every time.

Update 10/18/2017: incorporated feedback sent by readers that clarified the history of the  Japanese smartphone shutter sound.