I took a ride on Japan’s legendary bullet train and there’s one thing I would change for my next trip

Shinkansen

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Shinkansen
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Jonathan Garber

  • Japan’s bullet train system, or Shinkansen, was the first high-speed rail system.
  • On a recent trip to Japan, I had the chance to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Shinkansen.
  • Here’s what it was like.

Japan’s bullet train system, or Shinkansen, is the granddaddy of high-speed rail.

It debuted in 1964, allowing commuters to travel between the major cities of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka, at speeds of up to 210 kilometers per hour (130 miles per hour). Through technical advances over time, the Shinkansen has been upgraded to reach speeds of up to 320 kph (199 mph) and added numerous other lines.

And while Japan was the first country with high-speed rail, China has more than 15,000 miles of track – more than five times the amount as Japan – and has plans to connect Southeast Asia by rail.

Meanwhile, high-speed rail networks can be found all across Europe, with France, Germany, and Spain being the early pioneers and other countries joining later.

Read more: I rode Africa’s first superfast bullet train that could go from New York to Washington, DC, in 90 minutes, and I understand why it’s controversial.

But, the US still lags behind its peers in Asia and Europe and still doesn’t have a network dedicated to high-speed trains. By comparison, Acela Express trains, the fastest in the US, travel at a top speed of 150 mph, and operate at an average speed of 72 mph.

There’s also the privately operated Brightline trains that currently serve South Florida.

While politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have recently made a push to build a network in the US, the most advanced plans hit a snag when California pulled the plug on a $77 billion project that would have connected Los Angeles and San Francisco.

I had heard about how awesome of an experience it was to ride Japan’s bullet train, and on a recent trip to the country decided to check it out.

After spending the previous night getting acclimated to the time change compared to New York, I slept in and checked out of my hotel at 9:40 a.m. local time. My train was at 10:03 a.m., but I had plenty of time because I had booked my ticket the night before, and my hotel was connected to the train station.

Here’s a closer look at my trip on Japan’s bullet train.


Before my trip, I bought a one-week Japan Rail Pass online for $263. I was sent a voucher that I traded in upon landing at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. For an extra $100, you can upgrade to first class, but I stuck with the ordinary pass.

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Jonathan Garber

The JR Pass would give me access to a number of train systems across the country. I could use it for some, but not all of the trains around Tokyo, and other major cities like Kyoto and Osaka. The map below shows JR train lines in Tokyo (thick lines) that I could use the pass on and the metro train lines (thin lines) that I couldn’t use the pass on.

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Japan Rail Pass

I could also use the pass to travel between cities on traditional trains.

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Japan Rail Pass

However, the real benefit of the JR Pass is for use on most, but not all of the Shinkansen bullet trains. My trip was from Tokyo to Kyoto, on the Tokaido Shinkansen route. Unfortunately, the JR Pass can’t be used for the Nozomi train, the fastest line, which takes 2 hours and 20 minutes.

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Japan Rail Pass

Instead, I settled for the Hikari train, which would reach top speeds of 270 kilometers per hour (168 miles per hour). The 364 km trip (226 m) would take 2 hours and 40 minutes. I booked my trip the night before so I would have a reserved seat.

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Jonathan Garber

After finding my way through the station, I walked up the steps to the platform and saw the Shinkansen in all of its glory.

Shinkansen

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Jonathan Garber

Today’s trains have benefited from decades worth of upgrades. Here’s a look at the original 0 Series bullet train.

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Youtube/British Pathe

Amazingly, there has never been a fatal bullet train accident during its more than five decades of service.


I still had about 10 minutes before my departure, so I decided to get some lunch.

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Jonathan Garber

Conveniently, there was a Delica Station on the platform.

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Jonathan Garber

I walked in and immediately saw snacks like Pringles and Haribo gummy bears.

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Jonathan Garber

Along the back wall was a refrigerator with drinks ranging from beer to juice to soda.

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Jonathan Garber

When I looked to my right i saw a wall full of bento boxes. Options included sushi, roast beef, rice balls, and more. Typically the bento boxes cost between $7 to $14, depending on the contents.

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Jonathan Garber

I opted for sushi and a Coke. The total came to 1231 Japanese yen, or about $11.24.

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Jonathan Garber

I boarded just as the train was getting ready to depart.

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Jonathan Garber

I walked onto the train an immediately noticed how spacious and clean it was. I also saw a knob on the top of every seat, which I presumed was used for balance when walking through the aisle while the train was moving.

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Jonathan Garber

I settled into my reserved seat, and found it rather comfortable. I have been on many commuter trains in my life, but never one with this much leg room. I’m short, but I had plenty of room even with my legs stretched all the way out.

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Jonathan Garber

There was a plug where I could charge my phone.

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Jonathan Garber

And two coat hooks on each side, which looks like they would be convenient for businesspeople wearing a suit. Hanging a winter coat there looked a bit bulky.

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Jonathan Garber

The seats also had serious reclining capability. They went back several inches past where a typical airplane seat would, which was especially impressive considering every other train I’ve been on hasn’t had a reclining option.

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Jonathan Garber

One of the nice things about taking the train is the chance to see different parts of the country. Here’s a shot of Nishioi, Shingawa, on the outskirts of Tokyo.

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Jonathan Garber

After sitting back and enjoying the smooth ride for a bit, I decided to dig into my bento box. The tray table had plenty of room, and seemed to be almost double the size of one you would find on an airplane.

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Jonathan Garber

I opened my bento box and to my delight the sushi looked pretty good for being in a box (There was another row that didn’t make it into the picture). I took my first bite and was surprised by how fresh it tasted. The Coca-Cola tasted similar to what we have in the US.

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Jonathan Garber

Unfortunately it was a cloudy day, so I wasn’t able to see Mt. Fuji. However, I was still able to enjoy the scenery.

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Jonathan Garber

If I had been able to see it, here’s what it would have looked like.

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Flickr/Peter

A lady with a cart passed by several times. She sold beverages, snacks, and cups of noodles.

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Jonathan Garber

While I didn’t get to see Mt. Fuji, I still got to see some snowcapped mountains. I think that’s Nagano, where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held, but I’m not positive.

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Jonathan Garber

One of the things I noticed as I looked out the window were the rows and rows of solar panels…

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Jonathan Garber

…and the vast amounts of farmland as we got closer to Kyoto.

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Jonathan Garber

After arriving in Kyoto, I walked past rows of lockers that would be useful for ditching your stuff for the day, making it easier to enjoy the sites if you’re just stopping by. It only costs a few dollars to put your bags in there.

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Jonathan Garber

Now it was time to enjoy the sites.

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Kinkaku-ji
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Jonathan Garber

Overall, I thought the Shinkansen experience was an enjoyable one.

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Jonathan Garber

I was impressed with how smooth and quiet the ride was. The cabin was also very clean and had lots of space. It was nice to be able to charge my device to ensure I had enough battery for when I explored the sites after exiting the train.

I also thought the food options on the platform were a nice touch. The sushi I bought was better than something I could get for a comparable price in the US.

While I enjoyed the experience, next time I would spend the extra $100 and splurge for a first-class ticket.