Tourism & Technology at the Speed of a Bullet Train

This post is inspired by my recent visit to Japan.

The Japan of Dreams

Growing up in the 80s and 90s, Japan was the always what ‘future’ was supposed to be like. Now I had never visited Japan prior to now, but through books, movies, TV shows as well as the Sony TV at my home (this was in 1984, and 33 years later, I still trust Sony TVs above every other brand); such was the trust in everything ‘Japanese’.

Basically most of the modern electronic gadgets that we were exposed to, came from Japan and even if they didnt, we just assumed it did, coz, well Japan was the most technologically advanced nation; atleast in our minds.

Anyway, to cut the long love story short, Japan has always enthralled me, and instead of the usual vacation destinations – the beaches and the hills, Japan was at the top of my list.

Quality and Efficiency

Leaving the personal positive biases aside, as we grew up, we learnt about the ‘quality’ and ‘efficiency’ consciousness of the Japanese, whether it was the Kanban, or the Japanese way of management which western world was enthralled with at that time. Ofcourse things didnt necessarily go their way through the last 2 decades but it was just assumed that the two things they stood for would be reflected in all aspects of Japanese life – quality and efficiency.

8 Hours

If you have been to Japan, you might be aware of their JR Pass. It is similar to the Eurail Pass, where basically it is supposed to make it very easy for tourists to travel through the country (or continent in the case of Europe) on one single pass. Atleast thats the promise.

So we land in Japan on a Saturday morning around 7 am at Narita Airport. Took us about an hour, hour and a half to get through the Customs and Immigration. What happened next is something I would expect in a country which is not known for its efficiency (let me not name them), but definitely not Japan.

We had paid for the JR Pass before traveling and as per the instructions, we had to collect the actual ‘hard copy’ JR Pass at the Airport once we landed. How long should that process have taken? 10 mins? 20 mins?

Two and a half hours!

The entire process is as manual as it can get. You stand in a line, thats neverending; nevermind my 5 year old, tired after a long flight getting irritated at the tiniest of things and me trying really hard to keep my patience in check. The person at the counter checks your passport, and your coupon (that you receive when you buy the JR Pass in your own country before traveling) and after verifying the data, gives you a Smartcard. Sorry… not a Smartcard! What you get is a large piece of paper which cannot possibly fit your wallet. It contains all the numbers and codes to verify that you are you.

By the time we were done with this and we travelled an hour to Tokyo city, trying impossibly to figure out the metros, trains and directions, which were mostly in Japanese, it was 3 pm by the time we stepped into our hotel room. The added hours were because of the unhelpful signs in Japanese language and the locals, who even if they wanted, could not help with directions or metros, since we just couldnt communicate with them in English.

8 hours from the time you alight to the time you step into your hotel is not what a tourist is looking for

Afternote: It took us almost 3 days to figure out Tokyo metro; and by then it was time to leave for Osaka.

Problem and the Solution

JR Pass Smartcard

Primary reason for all this circus is that JR does not want Japanese citizens to misuse the JR Pass (since it provides unlimited travels). I have to be honest; despite the high price, the pass is immensely useful even if there are those 20-30% of the times when you wish you could use the pass on the train standing in front of you, but the train (or metro) belonged to a different operator and hence you couldnt. Thats an issue for another day.

Anyway, coming back to the issue, in order to avoid this misuse, JR Passes are not sold in Japan (there is some initiative where they might start selling it next year). Which I can understand.

What I dont understand is the manual process for issue of the ‘hard copy’ passes. The way it should work is as follows:

  • Tourists buy the JR Pass coupon in their respective home country
  • All major airports in Japan have multiple Kiosks spitting out JR Pass Smartcards
  • The tourists scan their passport at these kiosks and enter their coupon number
  • Kiosk takes photo at that instant and prints out a Smartcard with the photo, Passport Number, Country of Origin and JRail coupon number. Add in a QR code if you wish.

How difficult is this? Number of Kiosks will depend upon the expected number of tourists at an airport such that the line is never more than 10-20 mins long.

English Signs

While it may take many years before Japanese ‘service’ levels match those of the most tourist friendly nations in terms of people, it can definitely be done systemically immediately.

  • English signboards across all Airports, Metros, Train Stations and Public areas (some places do but a lot of places dont);
  • Businesses across all major tourist destinations can be mandated to have the signboards in English in addition to Japanese; keep the English font at 8 if they will, but keep it.

I met a native Japanese recently, and discussed this with him; what he said, well, left me flummoxed and sad.

Japanese care about tangibles (products) and service is not tangible

Really? Ask those countries whose economies rely completely on service quality of their people, system and processes.


This vacation spread across 18 days was one of the best we had. Enjoyed every bit of it. Japan is a beautiful place with rich history and beautiful sights and is highly recommended as a ‘must visit’ place.

I just wish that at the end of it all, I didnt have to remember this one aspect so much that I had to write about it.

Japanese are super intelligent people as we have all seen and they have all the technology they need to make tourism a dream ride for everyone landing at their shore. Hope they do it sooner rather than later.

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