Most Shinkansen ‘bullet trains’ are known to depart with traditional Japanese punctuality, usually leaving the station to the exact second that they are scheduled!
The Shinkansen network first opened to the public in 1964 and operated between Tokyo Station and Shin-Osaka Station. Since then it has been the most frequently travelled high-speed railway line in the world, with over 5.3 billion riders since its inception. Different stages of the network are known in different ways, such as the Sanyo Shinkansen and the Tokaido Shinkansen, which is by far away the busiest portions of the network. From a backpacker’s perspective, you can fly to Tokyo, and then use your Japan Rail Pass on the Shinkansen to Nagoya and Kyoto, onwards to Osaka, and potentially even to Hiroshima and beyond, if your itinerary and time permits. I have never travelled north of Tokyo on the Shinkansen, or by air for that matter. Nowadays, budget air travel can actually be cheaper and faster to travel between Japan’s major cities but nothing beats the thrill of a train ride past a snow-capped Mount Fuji at speeds of up to 320kph!
Check out my post on the Japan Rail Pass to plan your trip way ahead of time!
I think riding the Shinkansen Bullet Train in Japan was probably a real highlight of my train travel across Asia. I consider it to be a more meaningful ride than the Shanghai MAGLEV train from the airport, a smoother ride than the trains I encountered to the Blue Mountains from Sydney, and certainly a much more comfortable ride than the ones I endured in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. With this in mind then it is not hard to see how over 5 billion people have experienced the Shinkansen over the years, as it’s a great experience.
Shinkansen seating comes in the form of ordinary seats and “green seats”, which are the equivalent of aviation-style economy class and business class cabins respectively. Of course, the green seats are more expensive, but do come with additional amenities and services. Up to a month before your travel date, you have a choice of booking a reserved seat onboard your Shinkansen train regardless of choice of class, but this also comes at an extra cost. There are 3 types of train that run on the Tokaido Shinkansen, which is the part of the network where I have the most experience. These 3 types are as follows: Nozomi, Hikari, and Kodama. The Nozomi is the fastest train, with 4 departures per hour, which only stops at the major cities on the line between Tokyo and Osaka (Shinagawa, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto), whereas the Hikari (2 departures per hour) stops are many more intermediate stops, which means it will take longer to arrive at your destination. The Kodama (again, 2 stops per hour) basically stops everywhere, including Shin-Fuji for those of you that want to climb Fuji-San. It is important to note that the Nozomi trains on the Tokaido Shinkansen cannot be used with your Japan Rail Pass, so many of us will have to take the Hikari trains – unless we want to fork out extra for another ticket!
Comfort on the trains is very good, with ample leg room and comfortable reclining seats. Snacks are offered at regular intervals, with the possibility of little bento box meals to choose from as well, although I don’t know if you need to order these beforehand. Toilets onboard the Shinkansen are also very well-maintained (as you would expect in Japan).
I made about 4 trips on the Shinkansen overall, between 2012 and 2014, and when I return to Japan, I will look forward to making a 5th journey – this time perhaps going north from Tokyo!