On The Bullet Train | 新幹線

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.
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6 Responses to On The Bullet Train | 新幹線

  1. Laura says:

    As a former smoker, I also must commend the Shinkansen on its super cool airtight smoking rooms. Nothing cooler than watching the world fly by WHILE SMOKING.

  2. acat says:

    The video doesn’t seem to show anything moving that quickly, until you realize that the speed is causing the video to shear objects in the immediate foreground.

  3. Pattie says:

    I sense a strong anti-pug sentiment in this post!

  4. Hi, Eryk — I looked for a way to email you directly, but failing that, this is the best place I could find for a comment, since I rode on a lot of bullet trains. Anyway, I just published Japan’s Tipping Point: Crucial Choices in the Post-Fukushima World as a short ebook and hope you will take a look at it. A paperback will be available soon. For info, see http://www.markpendergrast.com. I could email you a review copy. Here’s an overview:

    Japan’s Tipping Point is a small book on a huge topic. In the post-Fukushima era, Japan is the “canary in the coal mine” for the rest of the world. Can Japan radically shift its energy policy, become greener, more self-sufficient, and avoid catastrophic impacts on the climate? Mark Pendergrast arrived in Japan exactly two months after the Fukushima meltdown. This book is his eye-opening account of his trip and his alarming conclusions.

    Japan is at a crucial tipping point. A developed country that must import all of its fossil fuel, it can no longer rely on nuclear power, following the massive earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011. Critically acclaimed nonfiction writer Mark Pendergrast went to Japan to investigate Japan’s renewable energy, Eco-Model Cities, food policy, recycling, and energy conservation, expecting to find innovative, cutting edge programs.

    He discovered that he had been naive. The Japanese boast of their eco-services for eco-products in eco-cities. Yet they rely primarily on imported fossil fuel and nuclear power, live in energy-wasteful homes, and import 60% of their food. That may be changing in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Maybe. But as Pendergrast documents, Japan lags far behind Europe, the United States, and even (in some respects) China in terms of renewable energy efforts. And Japan is mired in bureaucracy, political in-fighting, indecision, puffery, public apathy, and cultural attitudes that make rapid change difficult.

    Yet Japan is also one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with friendly, resilient people who can, when motivated, pull together to accomplish incredible things.

    As an island nation, Japan offers a microcosmic look at the problems facing the rest of the globe. And as Japan tips, so may the world.

    Mark Pendergrast, the author of books such as For God, Country and Coca-Cola, Uncommon Grounds, and Inside the Outbreaks, entertains as he enlightens. As he wrote in Japan’s Tipping Point: “The rest of this account might seem a strange combination of critical analysis, travelogue, absurdist non-fiction, and call to action. It might be called ‘Mark’s Adventures in Japanland: Or, Apocalyptic Visions in a Noodle Shop.'”

  5. Ashley says:

    How much did the train ticket cost you? I am travelling to Japan in a few months and I was just wondering so I could ballpark how much it would cost me if I happened to want to arrange a trip somewhere via Shinkansen :) Thanks for the help! -Ashley

    • owwls says:

      You should absolutely look into a JR rail pass. You pay a lot, but can travel on almost any train car in the country. The cost from Tokyo to Fukuoka is about $500 USD; the rail pass costs about as much. You have to buy the rail pass in advance and it has to be mailed outside of Japan… so do it before you come!

      Here’s more info:

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