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A Guide to Shinkansen Travel: Experiencing Japan at High Speed

the shinkansen at Tokyo station
Shinkansen at Tokyo Station

It’s at this point in my blog that I reveal that, yes, deep down, I am a teeny tiny bit of a train nerd. I mean, I’m certainly not in the league of TikTok star Francis Bourgeois, whose wholesome, childlike enjoyment of railways is like a shot of serotonin injected directly into your soul.

And neither can I hope to compete with train over-enthusiast Mr Tim Dunn, whose Twitter feed is basically a tribute to the marvels of British railways engineering.

Lastly, I feel it important to note that I am also not in the gang of anorak-clad unmarried men who hang around the edges of railway station platforms with a suspiciously large array of cameras hoping to catch a sight of a rare Class 37 engine.

I do, however, enjoy train travel for what it is – a chance to travel from A to B without having to cope with travel jams and the chaos of motorway service stations and without the requirement of my children to stop so they can urinate every 60 miles.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t enjoy every train journey I make – the 06.37 from my local station to London Bridge is prosaic in the extreme – but some of them are a genuine pleasure.

The Cornish Riviera Express from London Paddington to Penzance every weeknight comes with an honest to God proper old-fashioned restaurant car, where you can order a fantastic fillet steak (cooked to your liking) and enjoy a decent glass of red while the British countryside thunders past you at 125 mph.

Also, it’s still a long-held ambition of mine to try the Caledonian Sleeper from Paddington to Inverness and wake up as we travel through the Scottish Highlands. One day.

Japan Shinkansen Travel

Japan Shinkansen Map

During our recent trip to Japan, we divided the trip into two major cities – Tokyo, and Osaka. Mrs B and I thought long and hard about how to travel between the two cities, just 500 km/310 miles apart.

We strongly considered hiring a car and for a while, it looked like it might be the winner. Mainly because it was easy, we could just throw our luggage and children haphazardly in the back and toddle off down the Expressway and apart from the requirement to get an International Driving Permit, seemed really hassle-free.

Then we looked at Google maps.

I had to look twice. A 310-mile journey in a car would take us about 6 hours. But the Shinkansen express train would only take us 2 hours and 15 minutes.

It took some time for my car-centric brain to accept this level of efficiency. For comparison, we regularly drive to Cornwall to see Mrs B’s family and it’s a similar journey and distance. To be able to travel the same distance on a train, and/or a car, in the UK would take a minimum of five hours.

There’s no way that distance could be covered in just over 2 hours. The Japanese are good, but they can’t surely have invented magic trains – could they?

Of course, not – although it might feel like it. What they have done is realise that connectivity is the lifeblood of any country, and in a spirit of “just get on with it and ignore what the naysayers/planning processes say” have built, without remorse, some of the best high-speed rail links in the world. Enter the 200 mph Shinkansen, also affectionately known as the Bullet Train.

Shinkansen Routes in Japan

the gates of the Shinkansen
The gates to the Shinkansen

There are nine main Shinkansen lines in Japan and a quick Google will show you the finer detail. In short, from Tokyo the Tokaido Shinkansen line runs in a southerly direction, connecting Tokyo with Osaka.

Once you get to Osaka, the Sanyo Shinkansen line continues south to Fukuoka. From Fukuoka, it’s the Kyushu Shinkansen line which runs through the beautiful island of Kyushu.

There are also six more lines that head inland or north of Tokyo; Akita, Hokuriku, Joetsu, Tokoku, Yamagata lines, plus the Hokkaido line which, as the name suggests, takes you all the way to the north of the country to the equally lovely island of Hokkaido. There’s an extension to the very north planned to open in the 2030s.

As we were travelling between Tokyo and Osaka, we were going to travel on the Tokaido Shinkansen line – and what a treat it proved to be!

Booking Shinkansen Tickets

Tokyo station
Tokyo Station

Regular readers of this blog (hello!) will know I do a lot of my research on Google and punching “Buying Shinkansen tickets in advance” will return you a huge number of hits from third parties who, for various markups, will navigate the bewildering Japanese rail ticketing system for you and buy your tickets and promise to e-mail them to you/have them delivered to your hotel for you.

Do not do this.

I promise you, there is absolutely no need to entrust your hard-earned money/credit card details to any third party when booking Shinkansen travel in Japan. A lot could go wrong. It could be a scam site. Your tickets could never arrive. You may accidentally buy a ticket to the wrong side of the country.

Simply visit any Japanese mainline railway station when you arrive in the country and either press the “Help I’m English and therefore an idiot” button on the dedicated Shinkansen ticket machines you find, and put in what you need, or, visit one of the many travel offices dotted around Japan, explain you are a tourist with a minimal grasp of their beautiful language and need some help buying some Shinkansen tickets. They will literally fall over themselves to help you. The Japanese are really nice like that.

Of course, you’ll have a couple of choices to make – most, if not all, Shinkansen trains are reservation only, especially during busy periods (which is most times in Japan) so you’ll need to have a good idea of when you want to travel.

You’ll also need to decide what class of travel you want to travel in – there are two main classes, Ordinary and Green, which equate to standard and first class. Some routes also have the super premier Gran Class available, which is the most luxurious type of Shinkansen, with sumptuous leather seats, acres of legroom, and complimentary meals and drinks.

Mount Fuji
One of the best sights whilst travelling on the Shinkansen – Mount Fuji

Frankly, the standard class on a Japanese Shinkansen makes British Rail’s First-Class offering look quite shabby. Even in standard cars, the seats are reclinable, comfortable, and wide enough for the larger traveller, the air con works, each seat has access to a power point, there’s WiFi on board and the windows are huge – very important for the all-important gawping at Mount Fuji as you go past at 200 mph.

However, if you’re flush, by all means, give the Green car a whirl. Let me know what it’s like.

You’ll also need to let them know if you’re taking large luggage with you. Only the most brave or foolhardy people travel with full-sized suitcases in Japan. We deliberately chose to travel light at all times, surviving out of cabin-sized bags for the entire trip, because in such a crowded country, why you’d want to try and cram full-sized suitcases in tiny hotel rooms and trains is a mystery.

The reason for this restriction is that luggage space is at a premium on Shinkansen trains so you have to book a space to put your bags in the luggage rack. Unauthorised bag owners are strictly fined a large amount of Yen for taking up unnecessary space, so be warned!  

Finally, you’ll need to decide how quickly you want to get from A to B. There are 3 types of Shinkansen – Express Shinkansen trains go straight from A to B; Limited Express Shinkansen trains stop at the larger stations on the route and Local Shinkansen trains will stop at every Shinkansen station on the line.

It’s also worth noting that, unlike other countries, the Shinkansen line is built entirely separately from the local rail network, so a local Shinkansen service is still much, much, quicker than a local regular train.

Ultimately, the price of your ticket will depend on these variables and factors in the distance you’re travelling, if you want to pay to reserve a seat (strongly recommended), the class you travel in and your luggage reservation if you’re taking any.

Due to the strangely bureaucratic way the Japanese rail fare system works, you’ll be charged the “base fare” (I assume the equivalent price of taking a non-Shinkansen train) plus an “express fee” (Shinkansen supplement) added on top.  

What to Expect on Board a Shinkansen Train

the inside of the Shinkansen
Inside the Shinkansen

Once you’ve got your tickets in your excitable hands, you’ll notice the ticket shows you your train type (Express Shinkansen, Limited Express Shinkansen, Local Shinkansen), departure time, carriage, and seat number.

Much like any railway station in the world, once you’ve found the platform your train departs from, make your way up to the platform where your departure platform will be marked with where your carriage will precisely stop. And precisely stop it will.

Unlike British railway stations where the arrival of your train is announced by the rasping of an asthmatic-sounding diesel engine chugging down the tracks and the ramshackle rattling of carriages, you may very well miss the smooth, almost silent arrival of your Shinkansen train as it effortlessly pulls into the station on electric power.

Suddenly, it’s there, in all its glory, looking very much like a cross between a bird, a rocket ship and a vision of the future. You won’t know if you should get on or if you’re about to be abducted by aliens. The doors will silently slide open and disgorge the offboarding passengers and then it’s your time to board.

If you are a genuine train aficionado, now is not the time to nip to the front to take a photo of you with your supertrain. There’s literally no time. Japanese railway companies haven’t reached peak efficiency by allowing every Tom, Dick and Harry to take happy snaps with an inanimate object like some sort of mental patient when they should be swiftly making their way on board and sitting the hell down.

a Shinkansen train guard

We navigated to our seats without any problems, stowed our cabin baggage in the overhead luggage racks and sat the hell down. Whistles blew. The doors slid closed. White-gloved station staff conducted a terrifying-looking and efficient departure routine of pointing rapidly at things they were checking were closed, locked and secured and, to my surprise, bowed as the train departed.

I can’t imagine that catching on in England. The motors piled on the acceleration as soon as we cleared the platform and before we knew it, we were heading to Osaka at 200 mph.

Once we were safely underway, I grabbed my bag and got the children sorted out. The Boy suffers from uncontrollable anxiety if the battery power on his tablet drops below 99.99% so using the power sockets under his seat, we got him sorted and placed his tablet, his train snacks and a drink on the airline-style drop-down tray he had on his seat before logging him into the complementary WiFi.

The standard class carriages in a Shinkansen train are set out in a 2 + 3 layout with the central corridor down the middle, so The Boy and I sat in one row, with The Wife and Girl just in front. It’s also worth noting that all seats in Shinkansen trains face the direction of travel to combat motion sickness.

And again, because the Japanese think of absolutely everything, they’re all on a pivot, so when they reach the end of the line, they press a button, and the seats spin around so they’re facing the right direction for the journey home.

On the back of your seat tray, there’s a little map of the train so you know where the nearest exit is and where the nearest male, female and unisex toilets are. The male toilet is, surprisingly, just a urinal in a small room, the female/unisex ones are the traditional immaculate Japanese toilet.

To my surprise, there was even a very small smoking room for people who still smoke, although when I walked past it was just big enough to hold a single depressed-looking Japanese businessman, like the worst sort of party.

the shinkansen going over a bridge

When it comes to food and drink, it’s worth noting that most Shinkansen lines offer a seat-side buffet trolley service except the Tokyo – Osaka line. Apparently, due to falling demand post-COVID, they decided to stop it, and on what is one of the shorter Shinkansen journeys, it makes sense.

If you’re travelling this route, grab a few snacks from the station shops or vending machines before you board. We’d stocked up on cans of Coke and the ubiquitous Pocky sticks before boarding, so we were happy to munch away on those.

Apart from that, there was very little to do apart from relax, doze and watch the Japanese countryside rocket past. The on-board announcements and in-carriage display screens are both in Japanese and English so there’s no need to worry about missing your stop and the staff regularly patrol the carriages in case you have any problems.

Again, they bow when entering and leaving each carriage.

Can You See Mount Fuji From the Shinkansen?

Mount fuji through the Shinkansen window
The view of Mount Fuji as we sped by

Yes! If you’re heading from Tokyo to Osaka, ask for a seat on the right-hand side of the carriage for the best view, and the left-hand side of the carriage coming from Osaka to Tokyo. About 30 minutes out from Tokyo you’ll see it loom into view and you’ll have loads of time to get a few happy snaps!          

Final Thoughts About the Shinkansen

The Shinkansen is a hugely enjoyable and efficient way to get around Japan and it’s one of the few times in my life where it has objectively made sense to take a train over a car. Mrs B is still quite mad that she can travel to the equivalent of Cornwall in 2 hours in Japan, but not in England where we invented the train. She’s got a point.  

I guess you can see and learn a lot about a country from its railway system. Given that the vast majority of countries have nationalised railway systems, it’s fair to say trains are very much a microcosm of the country they run.

Kenya railways, for example, are chaotic, excitable, and hugely fun, if not exactly the most efficiently run. The French TGV system is almost arrogant in its excellence. Britain is … well… they’ll get you to your destination eventually, right?

And Japanese railways are exactly like Japan – immaculate, efficient, unerringly polite if somewhat bewildering to understand.  I’d really like to understand Japanese railways more, but as I said right at the start …   I am not in the gang of anorak-clad unmarried men who hang around the edges of railway station platforms.

Yet.  

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