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Japan’s Bullet Trains

| Words by Rachel McCombie |

We take a look at Japan’s iconic bullet trains

Perhaps it’s the enigmatic snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji. Maybe it’s Kyoto’s elegant geisha, peaceful temples or delicate cherry blossom. But there’s a fairly good chance that the image that springs to mind first is that of the iconic bullet train speeding through the Japanese countryside. Fitting right in with Japan’s reputation for cutting-edge technology, the bullet train is a fundamental part of the experience of visiting Japan.

Japan’s iconic Bullet TrainJapan’s iconic Bullet Train.

What is the bullet train?

Japan’s bullet trains are pretty much the most famous contemporary trains the railways of the world have to offer. These sleek, futuristic-looking white trains - known as Shinkansen (literally “new trunk line”) in Japanese - are high-speed trains famous for their exceptional punctuality.

Bullet Trains are known locally as ShinkansenBullet Trains are known locally as Shinkansen

Where does it go?

The bullet train connects the major cities on Honshu and Kyushu (Japan’s two biggest islands) with Tokyo, the capital. Operated by Japan Railways, the routes go as far north as Aomori and as far south as Kagoshima, with various offshoots connecting cities with the main line. Among the new lines being built, one will connect the northern island of Hokkaido with the rest of Japan, with another planned extension eventually connecting Nagasaki in the far south. The three-hour stretch of railway between Tokyo and Kyoto is one of the most famous - it gives travellers a fantastic view of Mount Fuji, if the cloud allows.

A Shinkansen passing by Mt FujiA Shinkansen passing by Mt Fuji

How fast does it go?

Bullet trains are allowed to operate at speeds of up to 320km/hr, or just under 200mph. However, they’re capable of going much faster, with some achieving speeds of 581km/hr (361mph) during tests - a world record. Despite their great speed, the trains are very quiet and comfortable, with forward-facing seats that can be turned around so that they always face the direction of travel.

How much does it cost?

The cost of travel on the bullet train obviously depends on how long your journey is, but it isn’t especially cheap - though you can get a Japan Rail Pass to get better value for money and free seat reservations (which you normally have to pay extra for). There are two ‘classes’ of ticket for travel on most bullet trains: Ordinary and Green Car, the latter being the equivalent of Business Class. Green Car seats are bigger and comfier, though Ordinary seats are still perfectly comfortable, with adequate leg room. Some newer trains also have ‘Gran Class’, which has even better seats and more services available to travellers.

There are two classes of travel: Ordinary and Green CarThere are two classes of travel: Ordinary and Green Car

Fun facts and tips

  • Luggage should not be taken on a bullet train. There are no luggage compartments, so the bags have to be placed in front of your feet and if you are sitting with other people it makes things very difficult and uncomfortable. Indeed, taking luggae on a train is not considered polite. it is a big no no!
  • It’s very rare for a bullet train to be late. They run on time to the second, and it’s only an unavoidable natural event, such as an earthquake or heavy snow, that will disrupt the schedule.
  • They have an excellent safety record, with no fatal accidents.
  • The Tokyo-Osaka route sees up to thirteen trains an hour operate each way, each with sixteen carriages.
  • Shinkansen trains are all fitted with an earthquake warning system, called the Urgent Earthquake Detection and Alarm System, which automatically applies the brakes in the event of an earthquake.

Experience the bullet train yourself on one of our small group tours to Japan.