A Tourist’s Guide to Riding Shinkansen, Japan’s Amazing Bullet Trains

A land of pink cherry blossoms, cutting-edge technology, and heroic samurai legends, Japan exudes orderly innovation.

This is most seen in its iconic Shinkansen or “bullet trains.” How fast do bullet trains go? Test runs have reached upwards of 361 mph (581 km/h), yet the Shinkansen boasts a zero-fatality record.

These trains put new meaning into the word punctuality. Average delays from the schedule hover at no more than 36 seconds, making this a comfortable, convenient, and speedy way to get around Japan. Read on to learn more about these engineering marvels and how they continue to define land travel.

Shinkansen, Airplanes, & Rockets

If it weren’t for air travel, the first Shinkansen might have never been invented. In fact, airplanes proved the muse for the bullet train. Hideo Shima, Japan’s chief railway engineer, invented Shinkansen in the 1960s to replicate the experience of air travel.

Ask any passenger of the train today, and they’ll agree. The high speed and efficiency do prove reminiscent of air travel. What’s more, with the scenery flashing by at around two hundred miles per hour, you get the distinct impression of flying over the landscape.

When Tokyo held the Olympics in 1964, the first Shinkansen lines opened for the momentous occasion. Shinkansen helped Japan gain greater economic status by linking distant Japanese regions to Tokyo. This stimulated growth and development.

From day one, they quickly earned a reputation for efficiency, comfort, and punctuality. This reputation remains well-maintained to this day. The system is operated by the Japan Railways (JR) Group.

Interestingly, Shima went on to work for Japan’s version of NASA, the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA). There, he experimented with rockets, developing hydrogen engines to power them.

A train engineer who went on to build rockets? That’s wild!

Just how fast is a bullet train with passengers? The Shinkansen reach maximum speeds of 150-220 mph (240-320 km/h) while transporting passengers.



Shinkansen Lines

Check out a Shinkansen map, and you’ll immediately notice that bullet train routes remain separate from those of conventional trains. That way, they avoid the delays synonymous with slower freight and conventional trains.

Color-coded like subways lines, these routes include:

  • The Kyushu Shinkansen (red)
  • The Tohoku Shinkansen (green)
  • The Joetsu Shinkansen (dark green)
  • The Hokkaido Shinkansen (light green)
  • The Tokaido Shinkansen (blue)
  • The Sanyo Shinkansen (indigo)
  • The Hokuriku Shinkansen (brown)

Besides these train lines, mini-Shinkansen service smaller areas and reach speeds of 80 mph (130 km/h). Unlike their larger cousins, mini-Shinkansen connect with conventional lines. Today, most major cities are connected by bullet trains with spur lines offering additional access.

Because of the high speed of these trains, tracks do not include road crossings at grade. In fact, penalties prove high for those trespassing on the tracks, and these rules remain strictly enforced. To keep the track as straight as possible, they use viaducts and tunnels to avoid going around obstacles.

Tokaido Shinkansen

Buying Tickets for Shinkansen

Before you set foot in a train station, understand that the Shinkansen ticket system can prove a bit complicated. In many cases, you’ll need two tickets to ride one train. Why?

For train travel of any kind in Japan, you need a basic fare ticket. But to ride a bullet train, you’ll also need an express ticket. Situations do arise, however, where the two tickets come combined as one.

When dealing with two tickets, you’ll also need to understand a couple of things about getting into the Shinkansen train terminal to board your ride. First, you need to pass through the automatic ticket gates for the Shinkansen. To do this, you need to insert both tickets into the passing gates.

Your tickets will get stamped and released at the other end. In the mad rush to the train, don’t forget your tickets! You’ll need them again when JR employees come around checking tickets.



Japan Rail Passes

Japan rail passes come with beautiful artwork and truly represent a collector’s item. If you’d like a fast and economical way to get around the country, these represent your best bet. When you purchase a Japan Rail Pass, it gives you access to all JR trains-from bullet trains to local trains to special trains.

Imagine speeding silently through the countryside on a Tokyo to Kyoto bullet train. With the Japan Rail Pass, you can make this dream come true while still having the flexibility of riding local routes and min-Shinkansen.

You can even purchase a Japan Rail Pass online. But you need to do it outside of the country. So, plan ahead and get your tickets before your plane lands.

Hayabusa Bullet Train

Where to Sit on Shinkansen

When purchasing tickets for your bullet train ride, here are a few things to keep in mind. Three kinds of seats exist:

  • unreserved
  • reserved
  • green or first-class

As you may have guessed, unreserved seats cost the least. But when you factor in the fact that during rush hour you could get stuck sitting separately from everybody else OR standing the entire ride, they offer less value. You’ll pay for unreserved seats in the long run.

Choosing reserved seats lets you avoid the hassle of scrambling for a vacant one. But if you want a luxurious experience, go with the green seats. Yes, they will cost you, but they also provide a comfortable way to travel the country.

Keep in mind that if you plan on using electronics during your trip, only window seats contain charging stations. Some bullet trains have limited WiFi, but it remains sluggish.

For phone calls or smoking, move to the decks between cars. You’ll find ashtrays there and a quiet spot to take a call without bothering other passengers. Like planes, do not smoke in lavatories.



Life in Tokyo

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Then follow my blog to learn more about one of the most incredible nations in the world. From the top sightseeing spots in Tokyo to tips on doing business in Japan, I’ve got everything you need to know in one handy place.



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