These days, the section of Tokyo Station serving regional destinations is a shadow of its former self. Gone are the usual crowds, and on a mid-week afternoon in late September, just a handful of commuters browsed bento-box stores.
"I see more cleaning staff getting off trains than passengers,” said Taro Aoki, who oversees 18 fast-food outlets in the capital’s main intercity rail terminal. "People used to swiftly pick which bento to buy and wait in line, but now, there’s hardly anyone around.”
It isn’t only airlines the coronavirus pandemic has upended. At a time of year when many people in Japan should be getting out of the city to enjoy the changing fall colors and nip in the air, there’s little holiday making going on. And the nation’s treasured bullet trains are ailing.
East Japan Railway Co. and West Japan Railway Co., two of the largest by ticket sales, are forecasting their deepest losses since the country’s rail network was privatized in 1987. JR East is expecting a loss of ¥418 billion for the year ending March 31, versus a ¥198.4 billion profit the previous period. JR West sees a deficit of ¥240 billion.
Pictures posted on social media show how empty the superfast trains have become.
"This is what it looks like even after halving ticket prices,” wrote one Twitter user, who took a bullet train operated by JR East. "After departing Morioka station, it’s deserted,” he said, with reference to the jumping off point for Iwate Prefecture.
The government's Go To Travel campaign aimed at spurring domestic travel hasn’t provided the fillip hoped for shinkansen. Rolled out in July, the campaign provides subsidies of up to 50 percent on transport, hotels and tourist attractions within Japan. Tokyo was originally excluded but was added this month.
However, with coronavirus case numbers heading in the wrong direction and people reluctant to take even short breaks for fear of infection, some politicians have labeled the Go To campaign a failure.
Others have expressed concern that promoting tourism will spread COVID-19 in Japan more widely. And many people who do want to travel prefer to drive in their own car to avoid human contact.
It’s probably "not possible to go back to the pre-COVID era,” said Yoshitaka Watanabe, who manages JR East 's marketing department. The industry had been expecting a V-shaped recovery — now it will likely be an L-curve, he said.
JR East’s bullet train passenger volumes plunged 74 percent in August from a year earlier. The measure for Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Central) tumbled by a similar amount.
JR East, which kicked off its own cheap ticket offer in August independent of the Go To Travel campaign, had over 300,000 reservations as of Sept. 25 and is aiming to reach 1 million by March. The 50 percent discount is effective for any bullet train route.
With such steep discounts and considering railway companies’ high fixed costs, shinkansen operators will struggle to return to profitability even after the pandemic is over, said Hiroshige Muraoka, an analyst at Nomura Research Institute.
JR Central, which reported a profit of ¥656 billion for the 12 months ended March 31, is now offering half-price day trip packages. Its bullet trains connect cities including Tokyo, Hakata and Kyoto.
In July, international tourists to Kyoto were down 99.8 percent from a year earlier, and their numbers have hovered at close to zero for four consecutive months, while domestic travelers halved, according to the city’s tourism association.
"Our neighbors went out of business or closed their stores,” said Mari Koike, 69, who manages a hostel in downtown Kyoto. "There have been a flood of cancellations.”
One strategy that JR East is considering involves expanding its logistic business to deliver local food and regional delicacies such as grapes, pears and fish to consumers.
Yui Muranushi, a 24-year-old geisha who works in Gion, Kyoto’s high-end entertainment district, had been planning to visit Tokyo once a week in July by bullet train to perform at events as the nation readied for the Olympic Games, which have been delayed until next year.
"Now, all of my business in Tokyo has been canceled,” Muranushi said. Company executives are no longer visiting tea houses and "I’m lucky if I have a single client,” she said.