I love trains. Though the precise reason for this escapes me whenever I`ve tried to put it into words, at the moment something does come to mind. It`s that seemingly endless track that gives the impression that you`re being led by the hand to someplace unknown, that no matter the dark forest or deepest canyon, it will be traversed. Perhaps i`m getting too deep now as well but since I was a kid, the train symbolized the possibility of exploration and I will never forget my own trip across the United States on Amtrak`s Empire Builder. That was a three day jaunt in a sleeper car, but here in Japan there is another experience awaiting travelers with less patience to spare; the Shinkansen.
Shinkansen, or “bullet train” as they are known as in the west, means “new trunk line” and though the trains themselves have come to carry this name, it actually refers to the tracks. The term bullet train was coined in the 1930`s when the trains were first being discussed and initial designs of the 0 series cars were actually bullet shaped. This early incarnation was to run on the Tokaido Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Osaka, constructed in 1959 with the first service launching in 1964. The Tokyo Olympics was in full swing at the time and passengers enduring the 6hr rides between cities on standard trains were amazed at the 4 hour trip of the Shinkansen. The trains maxed at speeds of 210 km/hr (130 mph) but later increased to 220 km/hr (137 mph). Today, Shinkansen trains are capable of much faster speeds, traveling at 240–320 km/h (149–199 mph).
The reason for this incredible speed is the inventive technology and strategy that the Japanese employ. For starters, Shinkansen travel on their own lines separate from other trains and so are unaffected by slower local lines or freights. This gives them the opportunity to operate at uninterrupted maximum speeds if necessary. The thinner and longer tracks used also aide in continuous speed as there are fewer gaps in-between tracks therefore lessening the need for trains to slow down at turnouts and crossings. An automatic safety system, networked and controlled by computers, eliminating the need for a traffic signal and light material, air-sealed cars guarantee a smooth and safe ride.
Now reading all of this is nice but until you get on a bullet train yourself, you just don’t appreciate how all of that technical information melds together into an enjoyable ride. I took my first step back in 2001 and the first thing I noticed was the clean and modern design of the cabins, like being on an airplane on the ground. The stillness and quiet was due to the sealed cabins and as we started to move, I barely noticed a thing. Actually, once seated, the only way I realized we had started our journey was the scenery whizzing by outside of the large windows, streaks of white sky and emerald trees. A train attendant announced her presence as she effortlessly rolled a cart of snacks and drinks down the aisle. I reclined my seat after buying a mitsuya cider and started to turn on my walkman when I hesitated for a moment and decided to surrender to the natural silence not afforded to me on a regular train.
I traveled for 3hrs from Tokyo to Kyoto but there are Shinkansen racing to further corners of Japan with new lines being constructed all the time. I’m still a sucker for those storied rail journeys of long ago, but if you don’t have the time? Visit one of Japan’s major train stations and try out the Shinkansen, you won’t be sorry or late.