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Japan turns to bullet trains for speedy delivery of fresh seafood

Two-day shipping time shrinks to eight hours thanks to shinkansen

The Joetsu shinkansen bullet train will feature in a proving test this month transporting seafood from Niigata Prefecture to Tokyo.

TOKYO -- One of Japan's shinkansen bullet trains has started same-day deliveries to the capital of shrimp freshly caught on the other side of the island nation, in a trial that could expand the speedy passenger transport into a unique logistic tool.

The Joetsu Shinkansen, run by East Japan Railway, also known as JR East, on Tuesday began to ship on a trial basis sweet shrimp caught in the waters off the west-coast port city of Niigata. The boat-to-store time was roughly eight hours, down from as long as two days conventionally.

Shrimp caught around Sado Island arrived at 10:35 a.m. Tuesday at Niigata's port via a high-speed vessel. In less than 10 minutes, shrimp packed in two plastic foam cases were loaded on a truck, then whisked to Niigata Station another 10 minutes away.

The cases were then transferred to a shinkansen train leaving the station at 12:35 p.m., and kept in a small room between the sixth and seventh cars. The space is normally reserved for staff preparing to sell products on the train, so it contains no refrigerating equipment. The two cases weighed 6 kilograms, but the room can accommodate five cases, or 15 kg.

Shrimp is carried off a ship at a port in Niigata, Japan. (Photo by Miho Saito)

The train arrived at Tokyo Station at 2:44 p.m., and the seafood was loaded onto a truck headed to Shinagawa Station, located in a busy Tokyo business district. The shrimp arrived at an in-station seafood store called Sakana Bacca, and were placed on sale at 4:00 p.m. A pop sign declared that the shrimp were "super express fresh" as a store clerk bellowed to customers that the bullet train brought them in.

"If one were to think about shipping [the shrimp] from Sado to Tokyo, it would normally take up to two days," said Tohru Yamamoto, CEO of the Tokyo-based seafood wholesaler Foodison, which has partnered with JR East Start Up to conduct the trial. "I want people to feel surprised that the seafood caught this morning is right here" at Shinagawa Station, said Yamamoto.

A worker loads shrimp onto the Joetsu shinkansen headed for Tokyo at Niigata Station. (Photo by Miho Saito)

The proving test will be conducted six times through June, and will include sea urchins delivered from the northern prefecture of Iwate via the Tohoku Shinkansen. Up to 64 jars of sea urchins brined in salt water can be delivered in a single trip, according to the partners.

The shinkansen was previously used on an experimental basis to ship farm-fresh vegetables to Tokyo, but this marks their first use for seafood. The bullet train is well-suited for transporting the perishable product, and the level of freshness is readily apparent when compared to seafood delivered by truck.

A 200 gram pack of shrimp delivered by shinkansen costs 1,600 yen ($14.75) -- much more expensive than the 600 yen shrimp available at supermarkets. But Hiroshi Shibata, president of JR East Start Up, said the shrimp is worth the price. "I want people to feel the value of being able to eat in Tokyo sweet shrimp from Sado that is normally only available in the Niigata area," he said.

The fresh shrimp and urchin are sold at the Sakana Bacca seafood store at Shinagawa Station. (Photo by Miho Saito)

If the shinkansen does become a normal part of seafood logistics, it would provide some relief for a transport industry dealing with a chronic labor shortage. The move would also reduce the carbon footprint left by shipping. Bullet-train operators are cutting back on in-carriage product sales, so the unused vendor space can be repurposed for perishable transport.

But several issues need to be resolved. Apart from the prohibitive price tag of the seafood, the freight needs to be loaded and unloaded by hand, and the volume per trip is limited. Furthermore, using seat space for food transport would conflict with the need to accommodate the rising number of travelers coming to Japan.

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