How To Explore Japan on the Country’s Bullet Trains
Japan is a paradise for train lovers. Roughly 18,600 miles of rail lines stretch across the island nation, carrying billions of passengers every year. And at the heart of the vast train system is the Shinkansen, Japan’s high-speed rail line, which lets travelers and locals alike travel throughout the country in record time.
Cruising on the Shinkansen at nearly 200 miles per hour will not only get you to your destination quickly, but also provide an intimate view of Japan. You’ll be able to relax and look out the window while sipping a cold Sapporo as you zoom by centuries-old temples, towering volcanoes, and natural landscapes that look straight out of a painting.
The Shinkansen system links significant cities across the islands of Kyushu (the southernmost island), Honshu (Japan’s main island), and Hokkaido (Japan’s northern island). Connected to these lines are other high-speed and local train networks that carry passengers to even the most rural corners of the country.
Train travel in Japan is fast, punctual, and more popular than driving. Unlike in the United States, people in Japan rely on trains for local and long-distance commutes. Although the growth of remote work and the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily slowed the need for train travel, Japan has the third-highest percentage of conventional rail travel and the second-highest percentage of high-speed rail travel in the world (as per the International Energy Agency). That dependence on rail travel led to the continued development of one of the most advanced railway networks on earth: the Shinkansen.
What is the Shinkansen?
Japan’s Shinkansen trains are the pinnacle of the country’s rail industry and has become an iconic symbol of the country itself. In 1964, just in time for the first Tokyo Olympics, officials cut the ribbon on the first train of the high-speed Shinkansen, or “New Trunk Line.”
After the first line – the Tokaido Line, running from Tokyo Station to Osaka Shin Station – the Japanese National Railways and the private Japan Railways Group built eight more lines, spanning from the southern tip of Kyushu to Hakodate, on the northern island of Hokkaido.
Shinkansen trains use advanced engineering, wider and more aerodynamic body designs, and gently curved rail lines to push their speeds to the limit. And, of course, Shinkansen engineers have to factor in Mother Nature, as well. Japan is one of the world’s most active countries for earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis, and Shinkansen trains also need to function in diverse climates, from the subtropical heat of the south to the bitter cold of Hokkaido.
The Shinkansen are not only fast, but also safe, sleek, and comfortable. Shinkansen trains have two main classes: the “ordinary class,” where cars have double rows of three seats each, and the “Green Car,” which offers passengers more legroom and soft, reclinable seats. Green Class cars only have two seats on each side of the aisle and are equivalent to first class on other train systems.
On the newest Shinkansen lines, there’s a “Gran Class” option with even more personal space, amenities like blankets and eye masks, more padded and luxurious seating, and a personal attendant. Some trains go a step further with their aesthetics, like the Hello Kitty Shinkansen, decked out in pink Hello Kitty designs, complete with pink seats.
How fast do Japan’s bullet trains go?
The Japanese press attributed the term “Bullet Train” to the early Shinkansen because of their top speed of 130 miles per hour. Today, thanks to decades of research and development in technology, the Shinkansen trains can reach a top speed of 200 miles per hour. Most trains run just under that number, though some trains have reached 275 miles per hour during test runs.
That may seem impressive, but the next generation of Maglev trains are set to bring that top speed even higher. Maglev trains use magnetic repulsion to levitate above the tracks, minimizing the drag caused by friction. In 2015, a Maglev train broke the world speed record by effortlessly hitting 375 miles per hour. Once these next-gen trains debut, they’ll cut travel times between Tokyo and Osaka – currently a 2.5-hour ride – by at least 30 minutes.
Other rail lines in Japan besides the Shinkansen
In the hierarchy of Japanese train travel, the Shinkansen is the most elite. But the country is connected by a vast web of private rail lines that tie even the most remote corners of the country with the big cities. More than 100 railway companies manage Japan’s railway infrastructure and trains, but Japan Railways, or JR, dominates by owning more than 70 percent of the lines.
In addition to the Shinkansen, four other lines that use a wide range of trains. The next fastest are the Limited Express trains, which travel between major stations and link cities in distant prefectures. Next up in terms of speed are the Express Trains that stop at smaller stations on their routes, making them slower. And at the bottom end for speed are the Local Trains and Rapid Trains that take passengers to the Japanese countryside.
While the Shinkansen may have international stardom, the other trains in Japan are beloved at home and essential to easily traveling throughout the country.
Shinkansen tickets and passes
Buying tickets for Japanese trains is easy, but it can feel daunting for first-time visitors. For the subways, buses, Local Trains, and Rapid Trains, you buy an IC Card (a refillable ticket card) from ticket vending machines in almost any airport or train station in the country. The machines have an option for English and are easy to use. Once you get your card, you can add funds at convenience stores or via the app on your smartphone. The cost of your ride will be automatically deducted from the card when you scan it at the station entrances and exits (similar to many subway systems in the US).
While IC cards work for local lines, they aren’t valid for Shinkansen, Limited Express, or Express trains. For these lines, you’ll need to either purchase tickets at a train station ticket counter or buy the convenient JR Pass. A JR Pass covers all long-distance trains within the JR system and is only for foreign visitors. You can buy it online (in one-, two-, or three-week versions). But from there, you’re ready to go. If you’re making more than one or two trips on the trains while in Japan, a JR Pass will likely be cheaper than buying separate tickets.
The best day trips on trains in Japan
Few train journeys can compete with a Shinkansen trip to Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto. And once you’ve explored Kyoto, there are several local trains to epic places. The most popular and historically significant is the Kintetsu Line to Nara, Japan’s oldest capital city, where you can come face-to-face with inspiring temples, multiple UNESCO World Heritage sites, and dozens of deer that frolic through the parks.
You could also take the Sagano Scenic Railway. This journey runs from Saga Torokko Station (in the western suburbs of Kyoto) through sweeping landscapes of old-growth forests with dramatic views of the Katsura River. To make the most of the trip, visit during cherry blossom season (usually around the end of March), where you’ll be immersed in a sea of colorful pink flowers.
If you’re based in Tokyo, take the Yokosuka Line from Tokyo Station to reach the seaside city of Kamakura; it takes about an hour. Disembark at the Kita-Kamakura Station to walk around bamboo forests and temples like Tokei-ji. Nearby, you can hop on the Daibutsu Hiking Trail, a one-mile trail through dense forests, to reach the Great Buddha of Kamakura: Kamakura’s most famous landmark.
Alternatively, if you want to see Japan’s picturesque countryside and the famous Mt. Fuji, take the Odakyu Electric Railway line’s “Romance Car” from Shinjuku to the town of Hakone. The small community is just under 90 minutes from Tokyo and sits in the geothermally active mountains next to Mt. Fuji. Walk through the forested trails and small area villages, or take a dip in one of the many hot springs the area is famous for. From most hotels in Hakone, you can walk to the Hakone Railway to experience the most sought-after views of Mt. Fuji.
Tips for traveling by train in Japan
Japan has somehow turned its massive labyrinth of lines and stations into a functional, safe, and highly efficient system. Fortunately for visitors and locals alike, it’s easy to use, especially since ticket machines and nearly all announcements are available in English. But to make it even easier, here are some important things to remember before hitting the rails.
Be on time
Japanese trains are punctual in the most extreme sense. Trains arrive and depart up to the scheduled second, and being just a few seconds late can make you miss your train.
Keep your tickets
As technologically advanced as the country is, it still relies on paper tickets. So if you receive a paper ticket, hang on to it. If you lose it, you’ll most likely have to pay for your ticket again.
Even with a handy JR Pass, you’ll want to make reservations for popular routes during the tourist season (vaguely spring and fall in Tokyo). For the Shinkansen, go to the ticket desk a few days ahead of time to make a reservation. But there’s an app called the Tokaido Sanyo Kyushu Shinkansen app you can use to buy tickets for travel from Tokyo to Kagoshima (on Kyushu) online, up to a month in advance.
Eat and drink to your heart’s content
Finally, my favorite tip: Japan is one of the few countries on earth where you’d be hard-pressed to find a bad meal. Either grab your lunch or dinner in one of the many fantastic to-go meal (bento) stores in and around the train stations, buy on the train, or bring your leftovers. You’re allowed to eat on trains, and it’s nice to enjoy your meal while gazing at the marvelous scenery. And if you want to drink, go for it. Japan has some of the world’s most public drinking laws, which apply to trains. Sipping on a fine nihonshu (sake) or cold beer while enjoying your food is not only permitted, but encouraged.
Like anywhere in the world, being respectful and paying attention to local customs and behaviors is a must. People in Japan are polite, patient, and helpful, and it pays to return the favor. Respect people’s space, clean up after yourself, and be mindful of the volume of your voice. Respect goes a long way in Japan, and by showing it, you’ll have a better chance at meeting some cool locals to share your food and drinks with on the train.