While traveling in Japan for two weeks, I had the opportunity to ride eight bullet trains on major routes such as Tokyo to Nagano, Kanazawa to Tokyo, Kyoto to Hiroshima and Osaka to Tokyo. Given that I was going to fourteen cities in twelve days, I highly enjoyed the efficiency and smooth riding capabilities of the bullet trains. The shinkansen, known as the bullet train in English, literally means “new trunk line” in Japanese, referring to the high-speed rail line network. The maximum operating speed is 320 km/h (200 mph). The ride is comfortable and you do not realize you are going so fast; however, one disadvantage is that the scenery goes by so swiftly. Unfortunately, it is not the best vantage point for sight-seeing. I would recommend a private car and driver for some of your day trips to balance out your scenic touring. The shinkansen is operated by JR or Japanese Railways, a conglomeration of five different rail lines. Understanding the JR system can be a bit confusing and understanding the subtleties is very important as a traveler in Japan.
One question I am asked frequently – Should I purchase an ordinary class or a green class ticket (first class)? Both classes are comfortable, clean and provide a smooth ride. Snacks and beverages can be purchased by the friendly crew walking down the aisle in both classes.
The benefits of purchasing the green class service are:
- Hot towels and a complimentary drink
- More leg room
- Less crowded cabin
I would recommend the green class cabins for travelers who are accustomed to traveling on higher classes of transportation, such as first-class on flights. Another question that I am often asked – Should I purchase a JR Pass or individual tickets? On the surface, it would appear to be cost-effective to purchase a JR Pass for a 10-day trip or more. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as it appears and to be given the restrictions on certain trains and times, as well as not being able to have an assigned seat, it often is more attractive to purchase point–to-point tickets if you have concrete plans. The JR Pass has the potential to save you money but a thorough cost vs. itinerary analysis is necessary and I can certainly assist you with those trade-offs.
Observations About the Japanese Bullet Train
- Many Japanese “salary men and women“ encounter a long commute, sometimes living two or three hours each way from their homes. Because of this, sleeping on the train is often a necessity, so do not be surprised to witness sleeping on the train.
- The trains are very quiet and it is expected that all mobile phones are in the silence mode – therefore you must make sure that you have no ringtones and you are expected to go to the end of the carriage if you need to talk on your phone. Additionally, talking and laughing on the train itself is considered rude, so do not be surprised to hear no sound whatsoever on a packed train.
- You will find security assistants on the train platforms, especially during the morning rush hour in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka. The mass of humanity will make you feel like you are on a battlefield. When you confirm that it is impossible to get on the train due to overcrowding, an assistant will push you in. Railway companies hire security assistants to help hundreds of thousands of passengers trying to get on the train, so please don’t resist – they are trained and know the train’s capacity.
- The bullet and regional trains do not have as much luggage storage space as European trains. Therefore, Japan has an excellent overnight baggage forwarding service, called “takkyubin” that you may want to use when you have long travel days. You can arrange this at hotel receptions very easily and the cost averages 2,000 yen ($18) per bag.
There is nothing like seeing the sleek “space-age” bullet trains arrive in a Japanese train station. I highly recommend if you are planning a trip to Japan to put this on your “must do” list.