Japan is one of my favourite countries to visit, partly because of the people and culture but its also the mix of tradition and modernity that excites me. Growing up I wanted a robotic dog (alas I’m still waiting); to be a ninja (not fast or flexible enough there) and to travel (very fast) on a Bullet train.
Its still amazing for me to think that the first Bullet Train (or shinkansen translated as a ‘new main line’) opened way back at the start of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and reached speeds of up to 210 km/h – the distinctive engine cars inspiring the tag “Bullet” train. And while countries like the UK and USA still struggle with getting their train services to 100km/h on a consistent and timely schedule the Japanese not only have trains that reach 300km/h but they’re also highly efficient with routes timed to the second.
But memorable train travel is not all about speed and efficiency as some of the best train journeys are at a snails pace. What sets the Bullet train apart is the overall experience!
Arriving at Bullet train stations involves some fascinating people watching, whether its business people in neat suits or school kids in uniform everyone knows where they are going and move with purpose (except the tourists who are either in awe or confused with signage). Then there is also the shopping, most stations are a mini mall of food courts, shops and souvenir stalls. When trains arrive, passenger doors are lined up perfectly against markings on the platform, people board rapidly on and off. Inside the generally airline type seats are utilitarian but make a comfortable journey and arrival is pretty much always guaranteed to be on time.
But my favourite part of travelling on the Bullet train was the ritual, which I quickly adopted with gusto, of the pre departure selection of Bento boxes to devour on the journey ahead. At stations the selection is amazing, and the boxes almost art – they can range from the simple to elaborate with “character bento” being decorated to look like popular Japanese cartoon characters or “picture bento” decorated to look like people, animals, plants or places. Not always knowing the contents of the Bento was half the fun and I would select partly for the beauty of the packaging and partly for the mystery of what I was to eat. And if visiting someone at your final destination its good etiquette to arrive with a small gift in hand, so a Bento of something sweet and yummy doesn’t go astray.
Once on the train, pull down your tray table and enjoy the contents of the box. For a high speed train there is surprisingly little movement in the train, so smooth is the ride. Eat slowly and stare out the window and watch the blur of the landscape streak by or continue to people watch as passengers relax and look forward to arrival.
So when you visit Japan brush up on your ninja history, check out the latest in robotics and travel by Bullet train. The shinkansen network is extensive and efficient and will make your travels in Japan stress free and memorable. Single ticket purchases are straightforward at stations but if you plan to travel a lot consider purchasing a Japan Rail Pass before arrival which offers 7,14 and 21 days of unrestricted travel.
Explorer Trains – The Journey is part of the Adventure