Say Farewell to Shinkansen Food Carts

Say Farewell to Shinkansen Food Carts

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A shinkansen bullet train driving past Mount Fuji with a clear sky in the background, with a superimposed illustration of a Japanese woman in train uniform with a food cart saying "sayonara" in a speech bubble.
The food cart service on the Tokaido Shinkansen, a decades-old staple of riding a bullet train in Japan, is coming to an end.

For over half a century, passengers on Japan’s high-speed rail lines have relied on trusty food carts, pushed by polite, uniformed staff, for drink and sustenance needs during the long rides between the island nation’s major cities.

Sitting in their well-appointed seats, salarymen would purchase beers from the cart, gleefully cracking them open to celebrate the end of business trips. Passengers would buy coffees, attempting to stay awake as Mount Fuji zipped past their windows.

Part of that staple Shinkansen experience is now at an end. While beers, snacks, coffee, and train bentos will remain bullet train mainstays, those trusty carts are about to become a thing of the past.

On August 8th, Central Japan Railway announced the termination of its food cart service for the Tokaido Shinkansen route. The busiest high-speed rail route in Japan, the Tokaido Shinkansen covers the hyper-populated region between Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, and Osaka. The last carts will roll down the bullet train aisles on October 31st.

This change comes alongside the recent announcement of price hikes for the popular JR Pass for foreign visitors. Simultaneously, IC chip shortages are resulting in the stoppage of sales of convenient IC cards for local trains. The end of the cart service is just one among many changes brewing at JR; amongst these, it may have the biggest impact on national nostalgia.

Food Carts No More

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, the reasons for the termination of the cart service are twofold. One issue is the difficulty JR is experiencing in finding staff for their shinkansen routes. This is occurring amidst a general labor shortage affecting much of Japan. In fact, JR has been unable to adequately staff around 30% of its Nozomi and Hikari services on the Tokaido route. The company says it has been forced to place only two attendants on trains that would usually have three.

The other reason is the increased purchase of food and drinks to be consumed on the bullet train at in-station stores. Since shinkansen stations usually have various bento stores adjacent to track entrances, it’s become easier to purchase meals for one’s trip prior to boarding.

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Sales are down, and staff are hard to come by. So, it’s out with the carts, and in with the QR codes – if you’ve already shelled out for premium seats, that is. JR is planning to start a new service from November, aimed solely at Green Car ticket holders. Passengers in the premium cars will be able to purchase drinks and food and hail service staff via QR code. Regular reserved and unreserved seat ticket-holders will have to be sure to purchase food and drink ahead of time. (Shinkansen do not feature vending machines, so woe upon the thirsty whose schedules are too tight for a pre-departure stop at the bento store.)

The shinkansen.

A Part of Shinkansen History

The earliest stages of what is now the Tokaido Shinkansen were tunnels dug before WWII, meant to be the start of a rail system that would extend across Japan’s vast imperial holdings. The war put a stop to such plans. By the 1950s, the standard train route for Tokyo-Osaka was increasingly congested. Japanese National Railways president Sogō Shinji saw a chance to introduce newfangled high-speed rail to help mitigate the issue. The result was Japan’s first shinkansen service, running alongside the old Tokaido highway of the feudal era.

The Tokaido Shinkansen opened in time for the epochal 1964 Tokyo Olympics, announcing Japan’s re-entry into the “brotherhood of nations.” As part of this first-of-its-kind train route came a more traditional fixture; the train food cart service. (ワゴン販売, wagon hanbai in Japanese.) Trains the world over were home to push-carts bearing food and drink for sale, and these carts became a major part of the bullet train experience in Japan.

By 2018, however, sales from the carts were way down. They accounted for about half of what had been sold ten years previous. And so we find ourselves in a train-bound world where we’ll have to be a bit more careful about preparing for our journeys across the Tokaido. If you want one of those ever-popular post-work shinkansen beers, you’re going to have to bring it in yourself.

The opening of the Hikari service in the 1960s.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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