Maybe the Shinkansen, Japan’s cross-country bullet train, is only interesting until you’ve ridden it.
I was ecstatic to take the Shinkansen on a trip from Fukuoka to Tokyo. It’s a 14-hour drive by car achieved in a little under 5 hours at 186 mph. We’d see the entire countryside of Japan at blinding but comfortable speeds and plenty of leg room.
When the Shinkansen arrives, it keeps going. There were 19 cars on our trip. My girlfriend got in at the tail end of the train once and took 20 minutes to walk to the right end. When she got to her seat, the train had arrived at her destination – a journey trains usually make in 2 hours.
When the Shinkansen gets out of the gate, it’s not like being shot out of a cannon. It’s like rolling down a hill until you reach cannonball velocity. Here’s a video I shot of the train leaving the station and approaching its first full-speed burst between Fukuoka and Kitakyushu:
The train is moving fast enough that the windows stay dry in rainstorms, but so quiet that you can hear the rustling of a plastic bag. No rickety railway thumps to inspire hobo songs.
The Shinkansen is a modern engineering marvel, a viable alternative to cars and airplanes, and yet, it’s still totally boring after 30 minutes.
Eating Healthy at 186
Traveling on the Shinkansen costs as much as a plane. And it shares the worst traits airline travel: Carts of exclusively unhealthy food with a propensity for high-calorie, sugar-filled snacks and sodas. I ate candied almonds and a small sandwich for lunch. The choice was ham cutlet or ham and egg, and I usually don’t eat ham – and it cost 700 Yen, or about $9.00 US. The Shinkansen, despite being a monument to Japan on rails, does not present the nation’s finest culinary opportunities. Shinkansen food is airline food. Be warned: Bring a bento.
The Trouble With Landscapes
My hopes of seeing the Japanese countryside were crushed beneath Japan’s still-shifting geology. The volcanic and mountainous landscape seems designed by a God who wants to keep the Internet from working on smart phones. By the time the found finds a signal coming out of a tunnel, it’s entering another tunnel. After 5 hours of rapid changes in elevation it can feel as if your head was packed into a can of tomatoes.
Hell is Other People’s Dogs
The Shinkansen also has the unairplane-like trait of hosting passengers who use it for one stop. That’s why I sat next to a pug for the tail end of my travels. The pug was in a small carrying case but would go berserk when the owner left; leaving the responsibility in the hands of an ascot-wearing train stewardess who may have never seen an animal before. Anything but silence on a Japanese train is a national crisis, and her response was to tap the side of the dog’s container as if she was shaking her hands dry.
That’s no way to soothe a pug.
By the time you resign yourself to a rhythm of subterranean darkness with short bursts of rice paddy, the train hits Nagoya and suddenly, the world is bright and beautiful. From Nagoya to Tokyo the Shinkansen rides close enough to the sea that you can see the shoreline, cut up by patches of beautiful coastal cities and eventually Mt. Fuji, the site that spawned 100 and 36 paintings by Hokusai (in two sets). Seen from the bullet train it’s no less impressive.
American Rail vs Japan
I’ve ridden Amtrak across the East Coast of the United States, a journey equidistant to my Kyushu-Tokyo route. The Shinkansen got me to Tokyo in the amount of time Amtrak was stopped for priority railcars to pass it. Furthermore, the sound of a neurotic pug is a choir compared to the sound of an Amtrak train headed south of Washington, DC, where families leave portable DVD players on “deafening” to soothe petulant children, treating the entire car to simultaneous waves of rail noise, “WALL-E” and “Madea Goes to Jail.”
If America ends up with a high-speed rail even half as comfortable, quiet and fast as the Shinkansen, and it might get somewhere when it comes to alternative transportation. Throw in some decent food and you might even have a rivalry.
Shinkansen Tips From An Old Pro Who Rode It Once
- Bring a bento. Food is expensive and not delicious.
- Travel during the day if it’s your first or only time. The train is so quiet and solid that you’ll have no sense of its speed in the evening.
- When buying a ticket, the Green cars are first class. Two seats and lots of leg room. The other cars can be two-three seats and less leg room (though more than a plane).
- If you are fast and have nothing to lose, you might be able to pick up a suite of regional Kit Kats at each stop by running outside, looking to see if there’s an on-track conbini, grabbing a box and throwing your money. I don’t recommend it, but if you do this, get it on videotape.