Travelling through Japan by bullet train
Travelling through Japan by rail is an experience in itself. Fifty-five years ago, Japan’s bullet train completed its first journey and was welcomed by hundreds of people who had waited overnight in the stations. The new high-speed line connected two massive economic hubs – Tokyo and Osaka – cutting the travel time between them from about seven hours to just under four. Since then, the Shinkansen, as it’s known in Japan, has transported more than 12 billion passengers, with a faultless record for safety and reliability.
In November 2017, the Japanese government even issued a national apology after a bullet train departed 20 seconds early. “We sincerely apologise for the inconvenience caused,” the rail company said. “The crew did not sufficiently check the departure time and performed the departure operation early.” They assured customers that staff had been given additional training to ensure it would not happen again.
After a couple of days in Tokyo, I was excited about beginning my Japanese rail adventure, exploring some far-flung corners of the island nation, all beautifully linked up by the world-renowned Shinkansen. I had heard tales of immaculately dressed ticket inspectors bowing upon entrance in each carriage, the freshest of bento boxes being delivered to your seat on request and catching a glimpse of Mount Fuji if you sit on the left side on the way from Yokohama to Tokyo. In reality, it is all of this and so much more.
I handed over my Japan Rail pass, and in return, was given 16 individual Shinkansen tickets, corresponding to each part of my route. The writing on each one was fully Japanese, and it seemed this was going to be a real challenge. However, after my initial hesitation of trying to navigate Tokyo Station’s countless platforms, with all announcements and departure boards in Japanese, my train journeys quickly became one of the highlights of my trip. Every time I took one, I learned another snippet about daily culture in this fascinating country, the most efficient commuter workforce on Earth and how the country operates. I was also able to get a closer glimpse into everyday life in rural Japan.
Inside the Shinkansen, I was struck by how much it felt like being on an aeroplane – but perhaps in the upper-class cabin on the world’s top airline! The aptly named ‘bullet’ trains are indescribably fast, but because it’s all over so quickly, you need to use your imagination to fill in the blurred gaps. Not only are they incredibly fast but also very quiet. Some passengers chat in hushed tones; some longingly gaze out of the window; and others take photographs of passing villages and terraced rice fields.
One thing that struck me time and time again on my travels was the national respect for the Japanese rail network. From the ticket inspectors and the platform staff to the ladies who deliver bento boxes and the cleaners polishing the handrails in the stations, every single person seemed to take a huge amount of pride in their personal role in this ever-growing and pristine transport empire.