Luxurious seats, ample room, state-of-the-art technology, beautiful interior, and high-class service.
All of that is promised to passengers who ride the GranClass section of the recently debuted E5 Hayabusa Super-Express Shinkansen.
JR East holds these promises with such high regard, that they’ve even incorporated it into the GranClass logo itself.
But first, what is GranClass?
Most Shinkansen trains in Japan offer two levels of service: Standard Class (much like economy class in an airplane), and Green Class, which offers more legroom, better seats, and a bit more attention by service attendants selling bento boxes, drinks, and other items.
When the E5 Hayabusa Shinkansen was introduced, it hailed a new generation of high-speed transportation in Japan. Not only was speed an important factor in the development process, but design, comfort, and service was considered as well. I’m guessing that JR East wanted a train that could easily be differentiated from other Shinkansen in Japan. A new body design was created, including a color scheme related to the Tohoku region, and the creation of an even higher level of service beyond Green Class.
The result was GranClass (formally known in the development stage as Super Green Class).
On July 9th, 2011, I was given the opportunity to ride the GranClass carriage from Omiya Station in Saitama Prefecture, to Shin-Aomori Station in Aomori Prefecture along the Tohoku Shinkansen Line.
It was already a busy morning at Omiya Station, a major junction just outside of Metropolitan Tokyo. With all the lines going through Omiya, it took a bit of searching to find which platform I should wait at. I then turned the corner and found what I was looking for.
On the platform, there’s a sign on the floor which shows which train stops where, and what carriage number it is. But since there’s only one GranClass carriage on the entire 10-car train, it makes it pretty easy to find where I’m supposed to go.
plus, it's the only one with the GranClass symbol!
additional signage, written in both English and Japanese
All of the sudden, lots of railfans, small children, well, just about everyone started to gather around the platforms edge and began to start taking pictures.
That’s when I knew that Hayabusa was making its grand entrance.
It was like watching a celebrity walk down the red carpet. Hundreds of little flashes reflected off the nose of the Shinkansen as it was pulling into platform 17. There were people of all ages running along the platform as it was slowing down and when it finally stopped, people were taking pictures with it as if it were Mickey Mouse himself.
With pinpoint precision and not a centimeter over, the door for Car #10 stopped right in front of me.
every JR East Shinkansen currently has a huge red seal on it showing an outline of the Tohoku region, with it saying "Don't give up, Japan! Don't give up, Tohoku!"
As soon as you step on board, there’s a friendly attendant escorting you to your seat.
this seat will be mine and no one else's for the next 3 hours.
There’s a fresh scent of leather as you enter the 18-seat carriage, and the seats were definitely as comfortable as they looked. It was almost like someone was giving you a soft hug from behind.
Under the armrest was a menu.
written on the inner flap of the menu, both in English and Japanese, surprisingly.
On the menu was a variety of drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, snacks, and a choice of a Japanese-style or Western-style lunch.
All of which are FREE. Only in the GranClass carriage are food and beverages provided at no additional cost. As far as I know, this is the ONLY carriage in the entire Shinkansen system throughout Japan to offer this type of service.
As soon as the train leaves the station, you’re handed a warm towel and an announcement begins. You’re briefly explained what kind of amenities are available and then beverage service starts immediately afterwards.
I was torn between ordering a glass of wine, or premium beer until something else caught my eye on the menu.
fresh Aomori apple juice. just like biting into an apple...but in liquid form.
Aomori Prefecture is famous for apples, so it only made sense that I try a glass of their famous apple juice. The juice itself is a bit thicker than what we’re used to, but it was the closest thing to eating an actual apple. It was better than any apple pie, any apple sauce, any apple jam, hell, any APPLE that I’ve had before it. How could a drink this non-alcoholic, taste so good?, I thought.
Soon after, lunch came.
what's in the box?
Inside were many different items grown or found in Aomori Prefecture, including scallops, regional pickles, and of course, apples. Sometimes I find it difficult to eat every item in a traditional (hardcore) Japanese bento box, but ALL of it was delicious.
not even a grain of rice left behind.
After lunch, I felt it was time to relax, put on the slippers provided under the seat, order a beer, and watch the scenery fly by at 300 km/h.
free to take home as well! i have mine sitting next to the front door at the moment.
the endless rice fields of tohoku
After watching the countryside fly by for about 15 minutes, I finished my beer, which left me contemplating what to have next. When you’re in an all-you-can-drink kind of situation, I really try to milk it for all I can.
On the opposite armrest, there is a control panel that allows you to recline the seat and raise the foot rest if you’d like. But there’s one more button that caught my eye.
see the button with the attendant on it?
The GranClass carriage has two attendants that only pay attention to that particular carriage. Not even the Green Car gets any love from them. ANY TIME you want something, you simply push the button. Within seconds, they’ll be at your side asking if you need something. I’ve ridden in Business Class on an airplane before, and I thought that service was really good, but the hospitality provided by the GranClass attendants was outstanding.
am i on an airplane?
See that picture above? The Asahi Newspaper wrote a news story about the training attendants have to go through. Coincidentally, the attendant who served me was also featured in that news article. You can see that here:
Around the same time we were making our first stop at Sendai Station in Miyagi Prefecture, I was handed a small envelope by the attendant and she informed me that it was a survey that rates the overall quality of the trip…but what she DIDN’T tell me was that there was a gift inside!
As a thank you for filling out the survey, I received a train pass holder with the GranClass logo on it. Nice, I thought until I read the note enclosed with it. It said that this train pass holder is made out of the same leather the seats in GranClass are made out of. So you’re literally taking a piece of the train home with you. This pass holder cannot be purchased anywhere and only passengers in GranClass can receive it. Awesome, huh?
With about an hour left before arriving into Shin-Aomori, I took the time to have another couple glasses of apple juice, an apple pie, a coffee and a newspaper (I cannot read Japanese newspapers…but I like the pictures!).
oh kanji, you devil
Finally, in what must have been the fastest 3 hours of my life, I arrived at Shin-Aomori Station.
And then, it was finished.
By the time I got off the train, there was already a crowd of people taking pictures.
So, that ends my ride on the E5 Hayabusa. After arriving into Aomori City, I spent the day walking around town, eating even more apples, and then made it back to the station that evening to ride the Hayate series Shinkansen back to Tokyo…via Standard Class. HUGE difference!
So, how much does it cost to ride GranClass?
From Tokyo to Shin-Aomori, it costs ¥26,360 (about US$330) one-way. That includes ¥9,870 for the fare, and ¥16,490 for the GranClass seat.
If traveling by Standard Class, the price comes down to ¥16,870, again including ¥9,870 for the fare, and ¥7,000 for the seat.
Would I do it again?? Of course! It’s a lot of cash to drop for a ride in GranClass, but I think whether you’re a rail fan or not, with everything that’s included in the trip, it makes it worth the cost.
So, let’s hope I can do it again. But until then, I’ll just have to take whiffs of the leather-made pass holder to put me back in a place when I was riding the most luxurious train in Japan.