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 midweek afternoon late last month, 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 is not only airlines the COVID-19 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 is little travel going on and the nation’s treasured bullet trains are ailing.
East Japan Railway and West Japan Railway are forecasting their deepest losses since the nation’s rail network was privatized in 1987.
Pictures posted on social media show how empty the bullet 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 East Japan Railway.
“After departing Morioka Station, it’s deserted,” he wrote, referring to the jumping-off point for Iwate Prefecture on the northeastern coast.
A national “Go To” campaign aimed at spurring domestic travel has not provided the fillip hoped for Japan’s shinkansen, or bullet trains.
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 COVID-19 case numbers heading in the wrong direction and people reluctant to take even short breaks for fear of infection, some politicians have labeled the campaign a failure.
Others have expressed concern that promoting tourism would spread COVID-19 more widely, and many people who do want to travel prefer to drive their own vehicle to avoid human contact.
It is probably “not possible to go back to the pre-COVID era,” said Yoshitaka Watanabe, who manages East Japan Railway’s marketing department.
The industry had been expecting a V-shaped recovery, now it would likely be L-shaped, he said.
East Japan Railway, which began its own cheap ticket offer in August independent of the “Go To” campaign, had more than 300,000 reservations as of Sept. 25 and is aiming to reach 1 million by March next year. The 50 percent discount is available for any route.
With such steep discounts and the companies’ high fixed costs, the operators would struggle to return to profitability even after the pandemic is over, Nomura Research Institute analyst Hiroshige Muraoka said.
Central Japan Railway is offering half-price day trip packages. Its bullet trains connect cities including Tokyo, Hakata and Kyoto, Japan’s cultural heart.
In July, international tourist visits 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 have halved, the city’s tourism association said.
“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 cancelations.”
Yui Muranushi, a 24-year-old geisha who works in Gion, Kyoto’s entertainment district, had been planning to visit Tokyo once a week in July by bullet train to perform at events ahead of 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.
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