JR trains slowed by QR codes
Japan Rail's new ticket system has some early issues
Welcome back to Multicore for Tuesday, April 4th.
Apologies for this issue going out a few hours later than usual. I spent the past four days out west in Osaka and Kyoto, taking in various rail journeys along the way, and I'm writing the bulk of this on the bullet train home to Tokyo — after a little confusion figuring out how to board it.
The rail system really is one of the best things about living in Japan. Trains are comfortable, fast, and reliable, with comprehensive coverage across the vast majority of the country. As with almost anything in life, though, Japanese trains can also be tripped up by a poorly thought-out QR code implementation.
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Normally you can show up at Tokyo station and pick up unreserved bullet train tickets 10 to 15 minutes before departure, but you might not always be able to get two seats together. This time, then, my wife booked ahead of time online through a new system. We got tickets emailed to us with a QR code that could be added to Apple Wallet and scanned at the automated ticket gates. So far, so good.
QR codes get a bad rap, but they've been part of the fabric of society in Japan long before most Western phone cameras were even able to read them. When I switched from a Japanese flip phone to an iPhone 3G in 2009, I had to buy a case with a slide-over macro lens so I could receive photo booth pictures or make use of discounts at ramen shops. I generally expect QR code systems here to be about as basic and reliable as Japanese trains, is what I'm saying.
Alas, Japan Rail has not quite figured this out. The shinkansen, or bullet train, is operated by Japan Rail. Suica, the ubiquitous NFC-based transit payment system, is also managed by JR East; there are regional variants but they're mostly cross-compatible. JR has also spent a bunch of money over the past few months outfitting ticket gates with QR scanners to supplement the existing Suica functionality.
It turns out, though, that you can't use a (JR-issued) QR ticket on your phone if you're already using the (JR-issued) Suica app on the same device. Why not? I have no idea. But the upshot was that we nearly missed our train from Tokyo to Kyoto and had to be waved through the ticket gates by staff who wanted to help but didn't seem to understand the problem until we finally figured it out.
On the way back from Osaka today, I tried using the QR code on my Apple Watch instead. It worked fine, other than having to contort my left arm into an awkward position to hit the reader on the right side of the ticket gate, as with all ticket gates in Japan. That's why I don't use Suica on my Apple Watch, and that's also why the QR code worked today. I suppose I'll know for next time! I'm just wondering why JR designed a new system that doesn't work for people who use another extremely popular JR system that already exists.
Japanese trains are great overall and I'm not complaining all that much. I just took that above picture of Mt Fuji right out of the window, so things could be worse. I didn’t expect to encounter QR drama on the shinkansen, is all.
Let's catch up on some news.
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