Shinkansen: Japan's High Speed Bullet Train
The Japanese Shinkansen, otherwise known as the bullet train, is widely regarded as the most reliable high-speed train system in the world today. It is a sign indeed of Japan's phenomenal post-war development that such high speed technology was introduced as early as 1964, ready for the Tokyo Olympic Games held that year. All bullet train routes start and terminate at Tokyo's main station, and are operated by Japan Rail (JR) Companies. Principal routes include the Tokaido (to Osaka), the Sanyo (to Hiroshima and the island of Kyushu), the Joetsu (to Niigata) and the Tohoku (to Aomori). Plans are currently afoot to upgrade the Tokaido Shinkansen Line to accommodate 500-kilometer-per-hour trains by the year 2030, cutting journey times between Tokyo and Osaka to just one hour. Tickets can be purchased from the "midori no madoguchi" (green window) or bullet train ticket machines at larger stations on the Japan Rail network.
For long journeys inside Japan, the Shinkansen is often more convenient than air travel due to the shorter check-in times and location of stations in city centres (as opposed to airports like Tokyo Narita which are far out in the countryside). Transferring to other train lines is also made easier by all bullet train tickets including one-day travel cards, which can be used on local trains inside the cities in which you start and finish your journey. Time wise, when travelling from Tokyo, the break-even point is said to be Hiroshima, beyond which an airplane journey is faster but not necessarily more comfortable.
The quietness of the bullet train engine and smoothness of the high-speed journey are particularly impressive. Furthermore, every seat has access to an electrical socket making the high speed train particularly useful for passengers with laptops. The train's safety record is impeccable, and its reliability was such that it was still able to continue running some southward-bound services on the day of the Great North Eastern earthquake in March 2011.
The most popular bullet train journeys are to the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Fukuoka (to the south) and Sendai, Niigata and Nagano (to the north). Kyoto is world-famous for its traditional temples, beautiful shrines and luscious greenery, while Osaka offers tourists a completely different cultural experience to Tokyo, especially with its legendary okonomiyaki cooking. Fukuoka, famous for its ramen noodles, is the gateway to the hot spring havens of Nagasaki and Beppu, and the historic castle town of Kumamoto. Many tourists visit Sendai for its local cuisine (including premium ox-tongue) and the tanabata summer festival held every August. Niigata and Nagano, of course, are the skiing hotspots.
The disadvantage of using Shinkansen is the price – it is the most expensive train line in Japan. However, there are certain ways to obtaining cheap tickets. Women over 60 and men over 65 can, at midori no madoguchi, join a special membership program which entitles them to 30% discounts on any bullet train journey. The membership fee is 3000 yen per year. And even younger passengers can obtain 20% discounts by making advance ticket reservations via the JR East website. It is also possible to book a "train ticket plus hotel" through tourist companies such as H.I.S. or jrtours, which will lead to significant discounts in price. Customers buying tickets on the day of travel should note that unreserved seats (jiyuu seki) are slightly cheaper than reserved seats (shitei seki). Tourists seeking to undertake several Shinkansen journeys should consider purchasing a Japan Rail Pass, with further details provided on the Japan Rail Pass page.
The bullet train is best avoided during holiday periods, while the Tokaido Shinkansen should especially be avoided during cherry blossom and autumn leaf seasons, a time when throngs of passengers flock to Kyoto. Other than that, it's a Japanese treasure to be enjoyed.