Modern Japan's most iconic image, the bullet train symbolises the country's post-WWII rebirth as a heavyweight technological powerhouse. Travel by bullet train is a 300 km/h experience that maximizes speed without sacrificing efficiency and safety.
A brief history
In the 1930s, lofty, imperialistic ambitions surfaced for a high-speed rail network connecting Japan to the Asian mainland. However, the first shinkansen or "new main line" would not officially debut until the start of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.
The inaugural trains, which would eventually become known as the 0 Series, reached speeds of up to 220 km/h, and carried over one billion passengers by 1976. Their distinctive bullet-shaped engine cars inspired the widely known English moniker.
In the age of conventional service trains, it took nearly seven hours to travel between Tokyo and Osaka. Today, the very same journey takes less than three hours, facilitating the vital commerce fuelling one of the world's major economic machines.
Trains like no other
Bullet trains are not only extremely fast, but also hyper-efficient. Routes are timed to the second, and delays are declared if trains arrive more than one minute late. They also stop with clockwork precision, lining up passenger doors with delineated markings on station platforms, thus enabling rapid boarding.
This being Japan, safety is paramount. In the 45 plus years since the bullet train's inaugural run, not one of the more than seven billion riders has been injured or killed. A slight blemish to the safety record did occur in 2004 when eight cars derailed, though the cause of the accident was the 6.9 magnitude Chūetsu earthquake.
True to the notion of the journey being more important than the destination, travel by bullet train is one of Japan's most memorable experiences. Bullet train stations are tourist attractions in their own right, offering stylish shopping malls, food courts and souvenir stalls.
Indeed, the pre-boarding ritual for travellers involves the careful selection of an artisanal bento box and accompanying bottled tea. And if hosts are scheduled to receive you at your final destination, proper Japanese etiquette dictates that you arrive with a small gift in hand.
Once onboard the bullet train, recline your seat back, stretch out your legs and lay your meal on the countertop. Despite the chart-topping speeds, bullet trains are surprisingly smooth once in motion. Of course, if you do need a reminder of your trajectory, simply glance out the window and watch as the landscape races by.
At the time of writing, the fastest bullet trains were the N700 series Tōkaidō line between Tokyo and Osaka. But 2011 will see the release of the northern bound E5 trains, which travel at 320 km/h, and will eventually connect Tokyo to Sapporo.
Following up on the successful implementation of Japanese bullet trains in Taiwan, foreign governments have begun to weigh the costs and benefits of constructing their own rail systems. In upcoming decades, bullet trains may make an appearance in Brazil, the United States, Vietnam and possibly elsewhere.
By 2025, Japan aims to implement commercial maglev trains, which may shorten the Tokyo-Osaka trip to just one hour. While it is still in the early experimental stages, the MLX1 prototype holds the world speed record for railed vehicles, clocking in at an astounding 581 km/h.
Before arriving in Japan, consider purchasing a Japan Rail Pass, which allows for unrestricted travel on all bullet train lines. A 7-day pass costs Y28,300; 14-day and 21-day passes are also available, as are upgrades to special superior-class "green cars".
The article 'Japan: Travel by bullet train' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.