It's fast. It's smooth. It's reliable. And it's sophisticated.
These were just a few of the terms I heard used to describe the Bullet Train before I arrived in Japan. The result? My expectations were high when it came to taking my first trip on the world famous Shinkansen.
It's definitely confusing when you hear people using both these names. And it's natural to think they are two different trains. But, in fact, they are one and the same. Shinkansen is the Japanese name for the train. In translation this means 'new main line.' And it's the name 'Shinkansen' that you'll see on all the signs, platforms and ticket offices while you're in Japan.
So how did we end up with the English name as well? Well the very first Shinkansen train was shaped like a bullet which goes a long way to explaining the choice. But even before that, when the idea of developing a high speed train in Japan was first introduced back in the 1930s, the name given to the project was dangan ressha. The literal meaning? You guessed it. Bullet train : )
Although the idea of high speed rail was up for discussion in the 1930s, it didn't come to fruition until more than thirty years later. In 1964 to be precise.
What was the deciding factor that made this the big date for high speed rail? 1964 was the year that Japan held the Olympics. There was an urgent need to be able to transport people quickly and efficiently between the main urban areas of Tokyo and Osaka. And so the Bullet Train was born.
From that date onwards, the Shinkansen went from strength to strength. The situation today? It now acts as the super fast land connection to the majority of cities in Japan.
So if you fancy a ride on this super fast train, what are the routes from Tokyo? And which cities do they connect?
From Tokyo, different Shinkansen trains run North, South and West to different regions of Japan as follows:
This is perhaps the most popular route of all the Bullet Trains, as it includes the Kyoto and Osaka run. There are 3 trains that operate on this line: the Nozomi - in English 'Hope,' the Hikari - 'light,' and the Kodama. The Nozomi is the fastest of these trains traveling at speeds of up to 300kmh. This is the only Bullet Train that you can't use your Japan Rail Pass on but don't worry, the Hikari and Kodama are both ok.
The Nozomi takes about 2.5 hours from Tokyo to Osaka or 5 hours from Tokyo to Fukuoka, and makes the least number of stops. The Hikari takes approximately 3 hours to reach Osaka with a couple more stops. If you are heading down to Kyushu, you will need to change trains. The Kodama is the local version and is generally not used for long distances. It is great, however, for some of the day trips available from Tokyo such as Hakone, Mount Fuji, or Himeji Castle.
This line connects Tokyo with Niigata to the East. The Toki Bullet Train takes about 2 hours from Tokyo Station to Niigata. If you are a skiier or snowboarder you may well be interested in the Tanigawa train. This train also leaves from Tokyo Station but only goes as far as Echigo-Yuzawa, the location of the ski resort Gala-Yuzawa.
There is only one train to worry about on this line, the Asama Shinkansen. This track includes a stop at another beautiful day trip location or short stay break from Tokyo, Karuizawa. Traveling the full length of the line to Nagano City takes about 2 hours from Tokyo.
The Tsubasa train connects Tokyo to Yamagata and Shinjo. Tokyo to Yamagata is approximately 3 hours.
If you are heading North, this is the line you'll need. There are 3 Bullet Trains that travel this route. The Hayate train is the fastest and travels through Sendai and Morioka to Hachinohe and Shin Aomori. In total this is about 3 hours. Next in line is the Yamabiko train. Similar to the Hikari, this makes a few more stops and often terminates at Morioka, so make sure you confirm whether you need to change here in order to reach your final destination. The third train is basically a fast local train - the Nasuno. If you're going to visit Nikko during your Tokyo vacation, the Nasuno is a good option.
So the Shinkansen can take you almost anywhere you want to go in Japan. If you want more information about the various routes, prices, timetables and stops on each line, see this link on the JR East website.
But what if you don't want to do all the organising yourself?
Head on over to our Bullet Train tours page and see what's on offer.
And in case you're wondering how that first trip of mine was on the bullet train? It was fantastic. Flying through the Japanese countryside with my bento box on my lap and a beer in my hand. It's difficult to beat as a way to get from A to B : )
Wouldn't you love to find a guidebook that is just for first-time visitors to Tokyo. Find those all important things that only a local would know like: what to expect at the airport, what Japanese is most useful for a traveler to know, what packing tips are specific for Tokyo, what should you do in an emergency, the basics of using the trains, and much more. Head over to Taming Tokyo today and judge for yourself.