Shinkansen: A Voyage Like No Other
It’s been 10 years now since I first visited Japan. Back in those days I was a young, idealist 3rd year university student. As much as I was in awe of this magnificent country and its wonderful people, as a young, naïve student journalist, never did I imagine I would someday have the opportunity to actually write about this amazing place for a living. And yet, here I am.
That first two weeks spent firstly in Akita Prefecture and later in Tokyo was one of the most formative and inspirational experiences of my life, and still conjures up a vast array of memories and anecdotes. However one memory in particular still resonates with me today. My first experience of the shinkansen, Japan’s high-speed rail network.
Although it has been in service since the 1960s (the network was originally conceived as part of Tokyo’s preparations to host the 1964 Olympic games), even today the shinkansen still retains a very modern, futuristic feel to it. At speeds in excess of three hundred kilometers per hour it is certainly one of the fastest trains in the world to run on a conventional railway line. However the Shinkansen is far more than just a fast train. It’s not so much a means of getting to your holiday destination as a part of the holiday experience in of itself.
There are a number of unique quirks, charms and distinct features that set the shinkansen aside from other modes of transport in Japan. Today we will look at just a few of these.
I’ll be honest, I’ve never really seen the appeal in cross-country railway travel. In the modern day of cheap flights and budget airlines, taking a flight from one urban hub to another seems not only more efficient, but also more comfortable.
Not so in the case of the shinkansen however. Even in the “economy” class, the seats are large, comfortable and fully adjustable. No need to worry about getting your oversized belly wedged between your crushingly small seat and the inadequately sized tray table in front. As a man of somewhat larger build, I find this is a particularly troublesome hazard of budget air travel these days. The shinkansen seating is both spacious and comfortable, with ample legroom, and of course the ability to get up and have a walk around as you please.
Unlike a number of the smaller local trains in some parts of Japan, the tannoy system in the shinkansen is fully bi-lingual, offering both English and Japanese updates throughout the journey, so even if your Japanese listening isn’t what it should be, you won’t miss your stop.
The staff that patrol the shinkansen are also a sight to behold. The immaculately turned out conductors, who bow sincerely and deeply upon entering each carriage conjure up images of the classic railways of yesteryear like the Orient Express. Likewise the food and drinks staff always have a smile and a cheery disposition, whatever the time of day.
I remember the first time I took the shinkansen, from Tokyo to Akita all those years ago. The extremely pretty young girl pushing the food cart strode towards me. I politely raised my hand and asked what drinks were available. She stopped, gave a deep bow, and presented me with a Japanese menu, which of course at that time I couldn’t read. Undetered by our lack of a common language she proceeded to use a combination of gestures, pictures and broken English delivered in that wonderfully high-pitched “kawaii” accent reminiscent of so many Japanese TV hosts these days, to explain the drinks menu to me fully. I made my choice, she gave another warm smile, and deep bow.
She poured me my drink, gave another lovely smile and a slight bow. I handed over my money and she smiled and bowed once again before giving me my change. Our exchange concluded with another deep bow of gratitude from her, and a “thank you very much” in her broken English. Needless to say as I watched her make her merry way down the carriage it was love at first sight.
When the shinkansen reaches its final destination, you can also witness another marvel of Japanese ingenuity and work ethic, the shinkansen cleaning team. With a gap between departures of as little as just three minutes on the main Tokyo to Osaka line, a fast turnaround for each train is essential. The small band of cleaners certainly don’t let the side down. Despite only one or two cleaners entering each carriage, they are trained to such a level that they are able to clean the entire train in just a few short minutes. I challenge anyone to find any rubbish or dirt anywhere, as the trains are always cleaned to immaculate standards.
For first time visitors to Japan, the shinkansen also presents a great way to explore beyond just the big cities. I recommend that you purchase the Japan Rail Pass. The pass costs around 29000 yen for seven days and can be used on most shinkansen services as well as all local JR trains across Japan. The only exceptions to this rule are the Nozomi and Mizuho express shinkansen services. These high-speed express services are geared towards business travelers and as such do not accept the Japan Rail Pass.
Another important point to remember is that should you wish to use a Japan Rail Pass you will first have to buy a voucher. The voucher can only be purchased at selected travel centres outside of Japan. Upon arrival in Japan, take your passport and Rail Pass voucher to the nearest Japan Travel Centre. Here, once the staff have verified that you are indeed a tourist to Japan, you will be able to exchange the voucher for your new Japan Rail Pass. Please also remember to keep your passport with you as you travel, as both your passport and the rail pass must be presented when boarding trains. In fact, for visitors to Japan it is a legal requirement to carry your passport with you at all times.
For high speed luxury transportation, with a distinctly Japanese character, the shinkansen is hard to beat. Next time you come to Japan, make sure you have a ticket to ride.