One of the enduring postcard images of Japan is of a snowcapped Mount Fuji dominating the background, while a sleek, white bullet train cuts through the frame. The shinkansen, as it’s known in its homeland, is not only the sexiest train set out there; its serpentine silhouette cutting a futuristic path through the landscapes it traverses, it is the quintessentially iconic image of Japanese design and engineering ingenuity.

Original images : : copyright fuji train :; bullet : oimax @ flickr.

High speed rail travel was conceived in Japan before the War, but it was in the 1950s – the era that also saw the dawn of commercial jet travel and the spread of freeways and cars in the world’s wealthier nations – that it became a reality, when the Odakyu 3000 SE, 小田急3000形SE, also known as the Romancecar, reached speeds of 145 kph when it debuted in 1957.

The era of the shinkansen was about to begin. Shinkansen, 新幹線 – or new trunk or main line, actually refers to the standard gauge tracks that the high speed trains need to run on – though the term has come to encompass the whole high-speed rail system. Major public works commenced, instigated by Japan National Railways, to build the high-speed Tōkaidō shinkansen line, which saw the first modern electric shinkansen, now decommissioned and known as the 0 Series – 0系, begin service just in time for the crowds attending the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. The designers, people like Tadano Miki and Matsudaira Tadashi, had backgrounds in Naval aviation and marine engineering and they applied aerodynamic principles and wind tunnel testing to arrive at the bullet shaped design of these white and blue bullet trains, while the innovations in engine and electrical technology came from technical experts like Tatsuo Yamamura and Ikuro Kumezawa, their efforts resulting in trains that could travel at speeds of 210 kph and soon enabled commuters to travel between Tokyo and Osaka in just over three hours.

Long distance train travel has become an established feature of the Japanese buisness traveler’s lifestyle, not just between the country’s two biggest cities, but throughout the islands of Honshu and Kyushu. Travel by plane may be quicker in theory, but high speed rail offers the convenience of boarding and alighting in the center of town; offers more frequent services that are less susceptible to the weather and are punctual to the second; has a better safety record – more than six billion passengers transported without any deaths and each night around 3000 workers inspect the tracks and equipment for faults and imperfections; greater comfort – lots of leg room, a quieter cabin and a smoother ride; and much nicer views.

The Japanese shinkansen also heralded high speed train travel in Europe, with services like France’s TGV and Germany’s ICE, as well as in China, which has recently developed its CRH2 trains.

Technological advances have led to the creation of ever sleeker shinkansen and sped up the services. Tokyo to Osaka now takes around two and a half hours as the faster trains run at 300 kph – 186 mph; this is expected to increase to 320 kph in the next few years. But the future is set to get even faster. Maglev technology – magnetic levitation – has seen trains reach phenomenal speeds, with a record speed of 581 kph set in 2003 on a test track.

In Tokyo, shinkansen trains depart from and stop at Tokyo, Shinagawa and Ueno stations.

Tokyo & Shinagawa stations have shinkansen platforms that service the Tōkaidō shinkansen, which is both the original and the world’s busiest route, roughly following the old Tokaido Road that served as the main trade route to and from Edo. Passing through Yokohama (Shin-Yokohama Station) it heads west to Kyoto and Osaka and on to Hiroshima, passing the iconic Mount Fuji along the way.

The three classes of shinkansen that service this line are:
Nozomi のぞみ – hope : : the fastest train service (2/12 hours from Tokyo station to Shin-Osaka Station; a one-way reserved seat will set you back 13,850 yen – or around US$180 at current rates.)
Hikari ひかり – light : : has a few more stops than the Nozomi and takes around three hours to get to Osaka from Tokyo. It also travels to Okayama on the Sanyo shinkansen line.
Kodama こだま – echo : : is the slowest service, stopping all stations and taking around four hours to reach Osaka. The Kodama also services Nagoya.

Tokyo and Ueno stations service the Tōhoku and Joetsu shinkansen lines to Aomori in the northern tip of Honshu.

The recently introduced Hayabusa、はやぶさ – or peregrine falcon、service of JR East is a fast 300 kph between Tokyo station and Shin-Aomori, although it bypasses Ueno. The slower Hayata (to Aomori), Yamabiko (to Morioka) and Nasuno (to Koriyama) lines do stop at Ueno, as does the Komachi line to Akita and the Tsubasa line to Yamagata and Shinjo.

Ueno and Tokyo stations also have Jōetsu shinkansen lines to Niigata (Toki and Tanigawa services) and Nagano (the Asama shinkansen service).

For the curious, the shortest, cheapest service is from Tokyo to Ueno stations; a trip that is over in a matter of minutes and will set you back somewhere between around 1000 yen for an unreserved seat to around 3000 yen for a first class seat in a Green Car. The return trip by regular Yamanote train services will cost 150 yen. Note, though, that Japan Rail passes are not valid for travel on Nozomi. Click on the link for further information on shinkansen routes, ticketing and amenities.

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