Rail Report: Niigata to Echigo-Yuzawa on the Genbi Shinkansen, Japan (30 September 2017)

I’m not a fan of contemporary art. In fact, if I were to speak plainly on the matter, I’d risk saying something unprintable. That said, I’m an incurable railway enthusiast through and through … and when I learned that one of Japan’s famous shinkansen trains had been transformed into a high-speed art gallery, riding that moving museum earned a spot on my itinerary.

Welcome aboard the Genbi Shinkansen.

Note: Schedule/route information, equipment type, and other details are accurate only for the specific journey documented here. This information may not necessarily apply to previous or future trips, even if offered by the same railway company on the same route and under the same service designation.

OVERVIEW

Country : Japan
Railway company : JR East
Railway line : Jōetsu Shinkansen
Service type : Shinkansen (special leisure service)
Service name/designation : Toki 454, “Genbi Shinkansen” (現美新幹線)
Rolling stock : E3 Series Shinkansen, type E3-700, set R19
Travel class : Ordinary, reserved seating
Date of journey : Saturday, 30 September 2017
Origin : Niigata Station (dep. 14:02)
Destination : Echigo-Yuzawa Station (arr. 14:56)
Journey time : 54 minutes

The Genbi (現美) in Genbi Shinkansen (現美新幹線) is an abbreviation of gendai bijutsu (術), meaning “contemporary art”. It’s an apt description, considering what one can expect to see on board.

ROUTE MAP

Let’s have a look at the route. Bear in mind that Google Maps may generate different results (including non-rail options) depending on the settings used, so the track shown below won’t necessarily reflect the actual path taken by the train. It should, however, give a general idea of the direction and distance involved.

It’s important to bear in mind that this train doesn’t travel the full length of the Jōetsu Shinkansen. Genbi services are limited to the section within the boundaries of Niigata Prefecture, with Niigata as the northern terminus and Echigo-Yuzawa as the southern. Passengers heading to or from Tōkyō will need to take another Jōetsu Shinkansen service and transfer to the Genbi Shinkansen along that part of the line (although one or the other of the two termini makes the most sense, if you’re hoping to maximise the time spent on board the special train).

TIMETABLE

Outbound/inbound schedules are available on JR East’s dedicated Genbi Shinkansen website. It’s also possible to look up schedules on third-party websites such as Hyperdia, though bear in mind that the train might appear under its official designation (Toki numbers 451 through 456) rather than the “Genbi Shinkansen” brand.

As of this writing, JR East generally operates 6 runs on the Genbi Shinkansen’s service days: 3 outbound (Echigo-Yuzawa to Niigata) and 3 inbound (Niigata to Echigo-Yuzawa). The train runs on weekends and public holidays, with some dates blocked off for maintenance and so forth. If your itinerary isn’t flexible, I’d suggest enquiring with JR East or referring to their website before making any firm travel plans involving this service, just in case it isn’t available on a particular date.

PRICE

Thanks to my Japan Rail Pass, the entire journey cost me absolutely nothing. Now if I were to book a reserved seat for, say, next Saturday – 13th January 2018 – on the same train and without using a pass, the one-way trip would set me back 5,380 yen. (Expect to pay a couple of hundred yen more for high-season travel.) A non-reserved ticket would cost me a bit less, coming in at 4,860 yen.

Note that one would pay exactly the same fares to board an Ordinary Car on any Jōetsu Shinkansen train between Niigata and Echigo-Yuzawa. Although the Genbi Shinkansen is a special themed service, designed more for leisure travellers than for regular commuters, no extra fees or charges are required to ride it.

ROLLING STOCK

The base unit is a six-car E3 Series Shinkansen trainset, number R19, delivered in 2002. Initially assigned to JR East’s Akita Shinkansen, set R19 was later remodelled into a so-called “Joyful Train” for the Jōetsu Shinkansen (also run by JR East), with service commencing under the “Genbi Shinkansen” brand in the spring of 2016.

As part of set R19’s transformation into the moving gallery that is the Genbi Shinkansen, the original livery was stripped away and replaced with wrap-around art – in effect, making the train exterior itself the first exhibit. The new livery consists of blown-up images of summer fireworks taken by photographer and director Ninagawa Mika. Appropriately enough (given the area served by this train), the snapshots were originally made during the annual fireworks festival at Nagaoka, a city located right here in Niigata Prefecture.

A large depiction of the train was on display in Niigata Station…

…but, needless to say, I’d much rather look at the real deal.

Now then, let’s head inside.

INTERIORS AND SEATING

My assigned place was in Car 11, the Genbi Shinkansen’s only reserved-seat compartment. (This is the train’s first car when it travels in the direction of Echigo-Yuzawa, but the last car when heading towards Niigata.) The conversion of R19 from an ordinary train into a leisure vehicle entailed the removal of nearly all standard transverse seating except in this car, where the former Green Car seats were refurbished and retained. Note that even though this was formerly R19’s Green Car (first class), seats are priced and sold as if it were an Ordinary Car.

The decorative scheme was conceived by artist Matsumoto Nao.

Moving aft into Car 12, we see a mirror-like installation of stainless steel panels designed by artist Komuta Yūsuke.

All seats from Car 12 to the end of the train are non-reserved, so anyone who’s paid the appropriate fare can take whichever unoccupied seat they like. And speaking of seats, note the forward-facing (or rear-facing, depending on the direction) armchairs wedded to two-person couches – certainly not the sort of thing one might expect to see on a typical shinkansen train.

Wherever one chooses to sit, it’s worth keeping in mind that passengers are free to wander from car to car in order to appreciate the different artworks installed throughout the train. This is a high-speed art gallery, after all – where’s the fun in staring at the same exhibit for the duration of the ride? (That said, a good number of passengers did seem quite content to stay in place from beginning to end … but that’s their choice, not mine.)

Car 13 is divided into two sections. The forward half was fitted out according to a design from “Paramodel”, an artistic collaboration between Hayashi Yasuhiko and Nakano Yūsuke. An elevated platform furnished with model train kits serves as a play area for younger travellers.

The rear section is the onboard café, decorated with art made by Kobuke Kentarō. The menu features an assortment of beverages and light snacks made with local ingredients from Niigata Prefecture.

Next is Car 14, featuring a collection of snapshots taken by photographer Ishikawa Naoki.

Car 15 contains one of the Genbi Shinkansen’s more interesting exhibits: a colourful installation contributed by artist Kōjin Haruka. Although it’s not apparent from the static images below, this is actually a piece of kinetic art – note the fine transparent strings from which the different sections that make up the work are suspended. As the train sways and vibrates, the different elements also move and shift in response to the car’s motion. (It’s all fairly subtle of course, and not suprising in that regard given the legendary stability of shinkansen trains.)

Adding an international element to the mix is the last section, Car 16. This part of the train is fitted with flat screens showing a brief film made by American artist Brian Alfred, the scenes of which were inspired by the seasons and landscapes of Niigata Prefecture.

OVERALL IMPRESSION

The Genbi Shinkansen is certainly worlds away from the sterile, business-like efficiency of your typical Japanese high-speed train service. Now I don’t have a particularly high opinion of the contemporary art scene, and I tend to avoid modern art museums like the plague. That said, as a railway enthusiast, I certainly appreciate the effort that’s been taken in uniting contemporary culture (even if it’s really not my cup of tea) to contemporary transportation technology. My own qualms and predilections aside, I’d rate this as a highlight of my travels in the region.

If you don’t mind a change of trains at Echigo-Yuzawa, I heartily recommend taking the Genbi Shinkansen if you should find yourself travelling between Tōkyō and Niigata on a weekend or holiday.

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