Real world Eki-Net impressions

I finally had the chance to use Eki-Net app, aka Eki-Net 2, eTickets (JR East Shinkansen) and Ticketless (JR East Express Trains) reservations on several trips recently, a real world workout. After a shaky launch in March 2020, followed by a major system upgrade in June of this year, the foundation is in place and JR East is going all out to promote Eki-Net for the year-end travel season that will see a considerable uptick compared to last year’s ‘stay home’ and stew regimen. I posted an Eki-Net 2 overview in June that covers the basics, this post is a short followup of impressions.

Using Eki-Net eTickets at the transit gate is clean and easy as the JR East promo videos. The messy part is creating an Eki-Net Japanese online account that is completely separate from your Mobile Suica account and your JRE POINT account. They all link together but are all separate with separate login names and passwords. This is the weak point of using JR East online services, there is no single master login system ID service like Apple ID or Google Account.

Once the Eki-Net online account is setup, with a VIEW credit card duly registered for maximum JRE POINT, using the bare-bone iOS Eki-Net app is a snap. Japanese user reviews of the Eki-Net app are overwhelming negative, but I found the app covers the basics well enough for what it is designed for: finding a discount reservation for your travel date, choosing a seat, purchasing the eTicket and assigning it to a designated Apple Pay Suica (or PASMO) card, or cards if your are purchasing for more than one. Group eTicket purchase and Transit IC card assignment are very convenient features.

My only real quibbles of using Eki-Net boil down to two feature requests.

  • Apple Pay Support: back in the Suica App Shinkansen eTicket days, you could purchase tickets using Apple Pay or the Suica App registered credit card. Both were convenient. Eki-Net does not support in-app Apple Pay. You make purchases with the app and have to confirm the purchase with the registered card CVV number for security purposes…a pain in the butt, pull out the physical card every time because I never can remember the code. Apple Pay in-app purchase would be great to have and it should be easy enough to arrange the backend so that Apple Pay VIEW purchases earn JRE POINT automatically.
  • Notifications: in the current version of Eki-Net (v2.1.5) train time notifications are basically email only, once when you make the reservation, another email before train departure and a final email notification when the assigned Apple Pay Suica card or equivilant goes through the Shinkansen gate. There is a link to add the ticket train boarding day/time as a calendar event that does in a pinch, but I would also like to have regular and robust native iOS notification support. For me there is nothing so handy as Apple Watch haptic notifications.

Eki-Net works well enough as is, but having Apple Pay in-app support and iOS notifications would significantly improve the app experience. There is a lot of room for other improvements: it would be great to have smooth integration with other eTicketing services for private rail and other JR Group companies (EX, etc.). Suica is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year, Eki-Net is at anniversary #21. The current state of Eki-Net App and eTicketing makes it clear the mobile ticketing journey is just beginning.

Only Japan has cute transit card mascots?! Why?

I have been in Japan for so long that I assumed the cute, cleverly effective transit card mascot characters like Suica penguin, PASMO robot, ICOCA duck (er platypus?), etc., are employed by transit companies around the world. They are not. Let’s compare…

TfL Oyster? Not cute.

San Fransisco Clipper? So unoriginal.

Sydney Opal? Ditto.

Hong Kong Octopus? Borrowed mascot better than none?

For goodness sake, if transit companies around the world can’t implement the great technology that makes Suica great, they could at least create cute fun mascot characters that brighten the commuting day and help people feel good about riding transit again. And you do want people to ride transit again after the COVID nightmare right? Cleverly designed mascots with a touch of anime kawai’ are a great marketing tool for that.

The Weekly #1

July 27, 2021

With so little real news to write about these days, I’m trying out a weekly digest format instead of individual itty bitty posts. Sticking with a mundane regular schedule is also good practice, we’ll see how it goes.

Tokyo 2020 TP Transit Card
Foreign media (already in Japan as opposed to those coming for the event who are limited by protocols for the first 14 days) covering the Tokyo Olympics were issued a special ‘TP Card’ limited transit pass covering Tokyo region transit July 10~ August 11. Dan Orlowitz who covers sports for the Japan Times tweeted some pictures of the pass. Look carefully at the transit gate display screen, there are some very interesting things going on: (1) The display language is English (nice touch), (2) The card balance is 0. The card itself is issued by JR East and is a Suica commuter card with a 1 month pass and the balance turned ‘off’, that is to say that TP Card numbers are ‘block listed’ for any recharge function.

The TP Card shows a way forward for Transit IC (Suica, PASMO, etc.) that started with Welcome Suica: more flexible options, discount and special passes for all kinds of users and uses. The next important step will be getting these, along with 2 in 1 Region cards, on mobile.


Is Apple Pay Overrated?
What technology works and doesn’t work for people in everyday life is always a fascinating subject. Mike at Tech702 asks a good question: is Apple Pay overrated? For Mike in daily Las Vegas life, yes Apple Pay is completely overrated. I saw much of the same during my Salt Lake City summer stay in 2018, although Smiths grocery had just started taking Apple Pay at the time. Did they pull the plug? It’s a good reminder that retail chains and banks in America switch loyalties without notice and the payments infrastructure is all over the place, witness Targets changing their accepted credit card lineup when I was in Salt Lake.

Some snobby Europeans like to look down on America and other places they perceive as not being up to speed with contactless payments. The truth is when Japanese journalists like Junya Suzuki take a good look at state of European contactless payments, it’s not so great either. The state of contactless payments around the world is still very much a touch and go thing.


iOS 15 Beta 3 Score Card
iOS 15 reached beta 3 last week. Here’s how it’s panning out:

Apple Maps new cartography continues to evolve. Japanese roads were decolorized, railway lines are different and drawn in harder to see light blue. Overall I think dark mode is works better than light mode (better contrast, easier to pick out details, etc.). See Justin O’Beirne‘s page for details. Transit Notifications are also improved slightly but still only work for surface transit. Forget about using it on the subway. Despite the fancy redecoration Apple still refuses to label the Sea of Japan (since 2020). Unnecessary, dumb and insulting.

Weather App: still only shows temperature maps which I think are useless. Forget about precipitation which is the killer feature for any weather app worth using. Air Quality doesn’t apply to Japan as there is no national standard.

Last but not least, Apple Music and Apple TV are basically useless in iOS 15 b3, more 3rd party app are crashing too. Hopefully b4 will be stable.


Ossan’s Love in Hong Kong?
Just when I thought the Ossan’s Love franchise had run out of gas, it seems the Hong Kong version of the Japanese series is also a hit and making waves instead of giggles, although calling it “sugar-coated marijuana” is pretty funny. If the Hong Kong version is anything like the Japanese one, it is sugar-coated silliness. For my money the other Japanese hit gay themed series ‘What did you eat yesterday?‘ was not only a lot more engaging, funny, serious and thought provoking, it was also useful as a cooking show. Kinda like Shinya Shokudo (Midnight Diner) with better interior decorating and worth the time investment.

Have a good week and enjoy the Olympics.

Global NFC FitBit Sense and Versa 3

Who would have thought that team FitBit would beat team Pixel to the market with global NFC devices? That is what happened with the release of FitBit Sense and Versa 3, any device bought in any country can add and use Suica. FitBit Charge 4 was the first device to support Suica but only for certain Japanese models. This means that Android users without global NFC can now add it with FitBit Sense and Versa 3. FitBit was up to the global NFC challenge all along. Going forward FitBit needs to expand Japan payment options to include iD, QUICPay, Waon, Nanaco, Mobile PASMO and NFC Pay.

There is one catch: the device must be registered and the IP address must be in Japan to use Suica. It sounds like Mobile Suica lite is being used. Hopefully the same approach can be employed to launch Octopus on FitBit devices in Hong Kong, there are users there who would appreciate it.

JR East Eki-Net overview: will mobile ticketing go mainstream with new Eki-Net 2.0 reboot?

Waku-waku for the new Eki-Net? JR East wants to make travel ‘waku-waku’ fun and romantic again like the Showa ‘Full Moon’ campaign era when JR Group ticketing was unified.

One unfortunate legacy of the Japanese National Railways (JNR) breakup and privatization in the late 1980’s was a fragmented ticketing system. The JNR paper ticket system worked very well. I was always impressed how you could go to any JNR Green Window ticket office and the all knowing agent would give expect advice and deftly punch up tickets to anywhere, in any configuration, even covering private rail.

The JR Group model fell apart in the internet era with online ticketing services, Suica and compatible Transit IC cards limited to separate JR Group regions. JR Group ticketing for paper, but not for mobile. What got broken doesn’t get put back together easily though it desperately needs to.

Last weekend the 20 year old JR East Eki-Net online ticket reservation system, older than Suica, got the ‘renewal’ overhaul advertised back in March. The main aims are to reintegrate JR Group tickets into one slick consistent UI instead of a swamp of sub-menus, and integrate JRE POINT that replaces the old cumbersome Eki-Net point system. The overhaul also repositions Eki-Net from a limited ‘nice but I’ll stick with paper’ online purchase option to a standard way that JR East wants people to buy all train tickets, both paper and mobile.

While eTickets have been in place since March 2020, Eki-Net 2 is the first serious step towards eliminating legacy mag-strip paper tickets and drastically reduce the number station ticket offices in favor of online mobile ticketing. The first stop for all JR East ticketing is now Eki-Net instead of lining up at a station ticket window.

There are 2 Eki-Net flavors: (1) the full comprehensive Eki-Net Web version optimized for desktop and smartphones offering mobile tickets, paper tickets, car rentals and tour packages like the classic 2nd honeymoon ‘Full Moon’ campaign for retiree couples, (2) Eki-Net App that only offers JR East eTicket and Ticketless mobile options.

The Eki-Net web site covers every ticketing feature, the mobile app is limited to mobile tickets.

What exactly is mobile ticketing?
To understand the aim of Eki-Net it’s important to know the basic ticketing categories:

  • Suica (Transit IC cards) pays the distance based fare using the Stored Fare (SF),
  • eTickets are cloud account Shinkansen ticket bundles that include the end to end distance fare plus the express • seat reservation charge, they are attached to the Suica or Transit IC card via the card number but do not use SF
  • Ticketless is a mixed mode that combines a cloud account express • seat reservation purchase for regular express train seating used in combination with Suica or Transit IC cards for basic fare.
  • Touch and Go is a ticketless Shinkansen option that uses Suica and Transit IC cards for non-reserved seat Shinkansen travel in a pre-determined area, basically the whole JR East network

What’s new in Eki-Net 2?
Suica plays a central role in Eki-Net mobile ticketing. 2021 is also the 20th anniversary of Suica which has evolved beyond its commuter pass origins to encompass eMoney payments, mobile devices, Transit IC mutual compatibility and more.

In recent years Suica has gained another role as an all purpose mobile transit card hosting Shinkansen eTicket from JR East and SmartEX from JR Central. The challenge facing JR East is migrating the vast array of special ticketing and discount fares schemes from paper to mobile. Let’s take a look at the new banner features advertised for Eki-Net 2 and examine how JR East is doing this.

JRE POINT Integration
The integration of JRE POINT is the biggest new feature and illustrates JR East’s intention. The old Eki-Net point system was scrapped, good thing, there is finally point synergy and compatibility between Suica and Eki-Net. If you have any doubts that JR East is serious about mobile ticketing, take a look at the JRE POINT reward schedule:

Earning JRE POINT in Eki-Net, the VIEW PLUS Gold vs Regular 5% difference is obscene

Online paper ticket purchases give you basically zero points if you buy them with anything other than a JR East VIEW credit card, called ‘VIEW PLUS’ service which adds 3% or 8% more JRE POINT per ticket purchase amount depending on the VIEW card for a total of 5% (Regular VIEW) or 10% (Gold VIEW). JRE POINT can also be used for purchasing mobile only eTicket and Ticketless, and upgrading to Green Car and Gran Class seats. The upgrade exchange rate depends on distance and the train type, the new UI shows users all possible JRE POINT seat upgrades during seat selection.

Using JRE POINT in Eki-Net

Improved UI for web and app
Basically the new design dumps the old way of selecting the JR line or train and streamlines everything into a single station point and date entry screen. Seat selection is the advertised UI improvement and it shows: it is much improved on the web side, discount ticket comparisons are easy to see as are JRE POINT seat upgrades.

QR Codes support for group ticket pickup
A nice paper ticket option so that one person can purchase all tickets and send a QR Code for group members to pick up their tickets at the nearest station kiosk. It’s more convenient and replaces the old insert credit card and enter PIN code method for paper ticket pickup.

Eki-Net ticket discounts
Paper tickets have traditionally been the cheaper option. JR East must offer good discount incentives to drive mobile ticketing uptake. Fortunately the new Eki-Net ‘Tokuda-ne’ discounts offer anywhere from 5% off for same day tickets to 50% off for 20 day advance tickets. Discounts combined with JRE POINT are good but we’ll only find out if they drive mobile ticket uptake when regular train travel returns. While these options have closed the discount gap between mobile and paper somewhat, the majority of discount ticketing is still paper only.

JR-EAST Train Reservation
The international flavor of Eki-Net is called JR-EAST Train Reservation. It’s a completely separate web only multi-lingual service that offers regional passes for inbound tourists that can be purchased online before coming to Japan, or at a passport reading station kiosk. JR-EAST Train Reservation passes are different from the paper only Japan Rail Pass in that a growing number of them can be attached to Suica. New features here include: (1) Expanded multi-language support (2) pass purchases after coming to Japan (3) using Suica to attach eTickets. For the later there is a new user guide and How to register your IC card section. You can use Apple Pay Suica • PASMO by registering the card number, get the number using Suica App or PASMO App.

Weak points and summary
The Eki-Net renewal is big, complex and getting mixed reviews from Japanese users. Some love it, others hate it calling it, ‘an improvement for the worse’. The biggest gripe for many is that only up to 4 Express Train • Shinkansen sections are supported for one trip purchase. If you are traveling from Kagoshima to Aomori, forget Eki-Net and go straight to your local station ticket office for paper tickets.

The iOS Eki-Net App remains a nice idea that needs work. It feels like a thin re-skinned version of the mobile web one without offering any obvious benefit, the Face ID•Touch ID login option still useless as you have to manually login once every 24 hours and complete a picture puzzle. And there is no Apple Pay in-app support.

My biggest gripe is the failure of the JR Group to get their mobile ticketing act together. Sure, we have JR Central EX and JR East eTickets, but these are locked in their respective service regions. This is 2021, JR Group ticketing should be cross compatible, streamlined and mobile ready. It doesn’t matter how great JR East makes Eki-Net, users can travel with just Suica on the Tokaido and Tohoku Shinkansen, but they have to buy 2 tickets using 2 different accounts and billing with 2 different ticketing systems. We should be able to travel anywhere on JR Group lines using one account to buy mobile tickets. In todays scenario this isn’t possible. The unfortunate legacy of the JNR breakup lives on.

‘New Eki-Net’ poster at the local JR East station. The overall impression of Eki-Net 2 is that less about going mobile and more about getting customers out of the ticket office to a station kiosk machine instead.

Reference posts
JRE POINT Beginners Guide
Suica App • PASMO App Guide
Apple Pay Suica Shinkansen