Rail Report: A touch of trainspotting in Tōkyō, Hiraizumi, and Ichinoseki, Japan (03 July 2015)

On a wet July day in Tōkyō (just a sliver over a year ago now), I decided to escape the dreadful weather by travelling hundreds of miles north to the drier landscapes of Iwate Prefecture … but we’ll save the sightseeing part for a different post. Right now, let’s talk about something else: the trains that I rode or saw along the way.

As the terminus of no less than six shinkansen lines – eight if one includes through services on the Sanyō and Hokkaidō Shinkansen – Tōkyō Station is a great place to take in almost the entire sweep of Japan’s famed bullet trains. (Add the scores of conventional lines that also pass through here, and what you’ve got is a veritable trainspotter’s paradise.) With a rail pass or the appropriate platform tickets, one might easily hop between the JR Central and JR East shinkansen sections to ogle most of the high-speed train classes currently in service, though I’ve always found the JR East platforms more interesting due to their larger variety of rolling stock.

I was due to catch a Tōhoku Shinkansen service that rainy morning, but finding myself at the station well in advance of the scheduled departure, I took the opportunity to engage in a bit of light trainspotting.

Here we have two double-decker E4 series trains on a Jōetsu Shinkansen service, consisting of set P11 (delivered 26 July 2000) and set P13 (delivered 11 September 2000) coupled together at the nose to form a single unit. I’ve only ever ridden this type once, on a March 2016 hop from Tōkyō to the Gala-Yuzawa ski resort.

The E4 is one of only two double-decker shinkansen train models to be built thus far, the other being the E1 (now completely withdrawn from service). With more and more of these trains being taken off the tracks, double-deckers are likely to become an increasingly rare sight on shinkansen lines.

Next to platform 22, I saw another pair of coupled trains…

03Jul15 001 Tokyo Station JR East Tohoku Akita Shinkansen Coupled E5 E6 Series Bullet Train

…consisting of two fairly recent additions to the JR East fleet. The one on the right is an E5 series train, the mainstay of the Tōhoku Shinkansen and (together with the similar H5) the Hokkaidō Shinkansen.

03Jul15 003 Tokyo Station JR East Tohoku Akita Shinkansen E5 Series Bullet Train

The train I boarded later was of the same type, so we’ll get a glimpse of the interiors shortly.

Linked up to the E5 was an even newer E6 series train, the workhorse of the Akita Shinkansen. This particular set was Z22 (delivered 21 January 2014).

03Jul15 002 Tokyo Station JR East Tohoku Akita Shinkansen E6 Series Bullet Train

As with the E5, I boarded an E6 later that day, so I’ll be able to show a few interior shots in due course. For the moment, I’d like to draw your attention back to this shot of the coupled trains (which I first posted above).

03Jul15 001 Tokyo Station JR East Tohoku Akita Shinkansen Coupled E5 E6 Series Bullet Train

Look closely at the lower sections of the two trains, and you’ll notice that the E6 is significantly narrower than the E6. This reduced width is a limitation imposed by the dimensions of the Akita Shinkansen, which as a so-called “mini-shinkansen” route has a smaller loading gauge than full shinkansen lines (such as the Tōhoku Shinkansen served by the E5). When serving stations along the wider Tōhoku Shinkansen – before uncoupling from the E5 at Morioka Station to continue its journey alone on the narrower Akita Shinkansen – a small step will fold out from underneath each of the E6’s doors (you can see one just beneath the front door in the picture above, and more in the longer shot of the E6) thereby closing the gap between train and platform.

A little later, another train pulls up at platform 21: a slick new E7 series of the Hokuriku Shinkansen. This class first entered service in 2014.

03Jul15 001 Tokyo Station JR East Hokuriku Shinkansen E7 Series Bullet Train

I rode a train of the same type the previous day, when I travelled to the Japanese capital from distant Kanazawa. Let’s have another look inside the E7’s Green Car (first class cabin) through a repost of some of the interior shots I published in an earlier entry.

Right then, it’s almost time for my own train. I walked back to platform 20, where train crew and maintenance staff had already gathered in anticipation of the new arrival.

03Jul15 001 Tokyo Station JR East Shinkansen Platform 20

From here, I had a commanding view of Tōkyō Station’s platform 10 (and platform 9 beyond it), used by conventional trains running on the Tōkaidō Line.

03Jul15 002 Tokyo Station JR East Tokaido Line Platform 10 from Shinkansen Platform 20

And here she comes. I love those respectful bows rendered by the railway staff as the beast pulls into the station.

Truth be told, I can’t recall if this particular E5 (which had just ended a run as the Yamabiko 204 service) was the very same one that I boarded just minutes afterwards, or if it pulled out once the maintenance staff had done their work – at the lightning speed they’re famous for – and another E5 took its place. Either way, I shortly got on board this E5 (or one of its kin) once the LED signs gave it its new designation: the Tōhoku Shinkansen Yamabiko 43 service, which will take me to the city of Ichinoseki in Iwate Prefecture (dep. 0848 -> arr. 1123).

Now for a few interior shots. These were taken in the E5’s Green Car, where seats are arranged four to a row – versus the more cramped five-seat configuration in its Ordinary Cars. The E5 is one of the more comfortable trains I’ve had the pleasure of riding in, at least where the Green Car is concerned: generous seat width, 1160-mm seat pitch, ample recline, and leg-rests that are actually long enough to provide adequate support (though bear in mind that I’m not a tall chap).

At Ichinoseki, I transferred to a local service bound for Hiraizumi. There was plenty to see in that historic little corner of Japan, but that’s all for another post. I do want to throw in a few shots of the town’s small but rather charming train station…

…which I took that afternoon just before boarding another local service back to Ichinoseki. The rolling stock used was a 701-1000 series EMU, dating from the mid-1990s.

03Jul15 001 Ichinoseki Station JR East Tohoku Main Line 701-1000 Series EMU Train

I left Ichinoseki Station for a very brief round of sightseeing in the vicinity, spotting a slightly newer (late 1990s-early 2000s) 701-1500 series EMU on my way to the exit.

03Jul15 001 Ichinoseki Station JR East Tohoku Main Line 701-1500 Series EMU Train

A little later, I returned to the station and headed up to platform 12…

03Jul15 001 Ichinoseki Station JR East Tohoku Shinkansen Platform 12

…where I caught my last intercity train of the day: the Tōhoku Shinkansen Hayabusa 104 service bound for Tōkyō (dep. 1747 -> arr. 1952). The hardware was a coupled E5-E6 tandem, with my seat in car 11 at the front of the latter train.

This particular E6 is set number Z1, the very first of its class to be produced, initially delivered as set S12 on 08 July 2010. It spent most of its early life on test runs before entering normal service (together with newer E6 deliveries) a few years later.

Remember the fold-out steps we saw earlier on the E6 parked at Tōkyō Station? Watch closely (specifically the spot underneath the front door) from about 8 seconds into the video above and you’ll see them spring into action, gently swinging out as the train slows down.

Here’s a still shot I took of the train after our arrival.

03Jul15 005 Ichinoseki Tokyo JR East Tohoku Shinkansen Hayabusa 104 E6 Series Train

Now for the interior. This was my first time on an E6, so I was eager to try out its own version of the Green Car. It was quite packed in there – as shown in the shot taken from the back – so I snapped a couple of other images after arriving in Tōkyō once the other passengers had disembarked.

The verdict? Quite good in terms of appearance, but those seats were not the most comfortable I’d ever sat in. At 1160 mm, the Green Car seat pitch was considerably roomier than the 980 mm in the Ordinary carriages behind, but because of the E6’s reduced width (necessitated by the Akita Shinkansen’s loading gauge) both classes had seats in a 2+2 configuration. This of course meant that the Green seats couldn’t be made substantially wider than their Ordinary equivalents, unlike on full-size trains (like the E5) where just 4 Green seats across would occupy the same space as 5 Ordinary seats. What’s more, the leg rests felt a wee bit too short – and I’m not a tall chap at all! – which, combined with the narrower seats and the smaller car, made for a rather cramped environment.

That said, I was glad to have the chance to finally try out this (relatively) new piece of equipment, though I’m in no hurry to clamber back aboard anytime soon. Unless I’m actually travelling to a station on the Akita Shinkansen line, I’ll probably request a seat on the E5 every time I board a coupled set on this route.

And with that, my day of admiring some of Japan’s seemingly inexhaustible variety of trains came to an end. In a future post, we’ll talk about the sightseeing that I did in between, particularly in one of the country’s newer World Heritage Sites.

Until then, cheerio.

2 responses to “Rail Report: A touch of trainspotting in Tōkyō, Hiraizumi, and Ichinoseki, Japan (03 July 2015)

  1. Pingback: Field Report: Facing the ghosts of warriors past at Hiraizumi, Japan (03 July 2015) | Within striking distance·

  2. Pingback: Rail Report: Tōkyō to Hakodate on the Tōhoku and Hokkaidō Shinkansen, Japan (02 October 2017) | Within striking distance·

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