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Bite “the bullet”

While its air network is still vital to the ­national economy, the high-speed trains in Japan offer an enjoyable, speedy and reliable way to see the country.

My eight-year-old son is riding the Shinkansen “bullet train” alone for the first time, returning from visiting friends in Kyoto. A friend had put him on the train, and I was awaiting his arrival at the Shin-Yokohama station. 

This is Japan, so I knew the platform number, and I knew to the minute when his super-express would pull in. Right on time, the train does pull in. The doors hiss. My friend has told me which car Taiyo will be in. And …and…he doesn’t get off.

The conductor announces the train’s imminent departure, and I run alongside car 14, looking through the portholes. Ah, there he is. Another victim of an over-large ekiben (railway bento boxed meal) and an overheated train car. On any Japanese train, 70% of passengers will be reading, playing video games or watching movies or TV shows and the other 30% will be sleeping. Taiyo was in the latter category.

I hopped aboard, shook him awake and collected his bag, but the doors had shut and we were on our way to the next station. Eleven minutes to Shinagawa. Wait for a return train. Eleven minutes back. A couple of Turkish guys standing at the end of the car with us, waiting to get off in Shin­agawa, smile at Taiyo’s embarrassment.

That was two years ago, and my expectation is that the story will survive in family legend for decades.

I’m told that in America, I could be arrested for “free-range parenting” – allowing my kids to try to do things on their own – but in Japan, the rules are different. Primary school students regularly ride trains on their own, and although they can be uncomfortably crowded, they are, for the most part, extremely safe and reliable.

The years following World War II were difficult in Japan, as they were in Europe. The economy had been devastated, and much of the country’s infrastructure had been destroyed. Tokyo had been chosen to host the 1940 Olympic Games, but they were shifted to Helsinki after Japan invaded China in 1937, then canceled by the outbreak of war in Europe.

After the war, Helsinki got the 1952 Olympics, and Tokyo was awarded them in 1964, which Japan hoped would serve as its postwar coming-out party.

On 1 October 1964, nine days before the opening ceremony, the first ­Shinkansen arrived at Shin-Osaka Station from ­Tokyo, having cut the travel time between Japan’s two largest cities from six hours and 40 minutes to only four hours.

Since the late 19th century, railway companies in Europe and the US had been developing high-speed services, but Japan’s “bullet train” brought high-speed rail to the masses. Within three years, the Shinkansen had served more than 100 million passengers, and nine years after that, the one billion mark was surpassed.

Today, the Shinkansen, dubbed “the bullet train” for its aerodynamic shape, has served more than 11 billion passengers, while still maintaining an enviable punctuality record. In 2014, the average Shinkansen finished its run within 54 seconds of its scheduled arrival time. In 1997, trains ran within 18 seconds of schedule. One reason the service is so efficient is hinted at in the translation of shinkansen, which means “new trunk line.” Since the Shinkansen runs on a dedicated track, slower traffic is not an issue.

The dedicated track also contributes to operational safety. In 52 years, Japan’s Shinkansen has never recorded an operations-related fatality (though several deaths have been recorded due to suicide and other passenger misadventures).

Today, the fastest Shinkansen travel time between Tokyo and Osaka is two hours and 22 minutes, but construction and testing are under way for a next-  generation magnetically levitated (maglev) train that will cover the distance in one hour and seven minutes. The Tokyo-­Nagoya maglev service is expected to start in 2027 and extend to Osaka in 2045.

The Shinkansen is Japan’s preferred method for long-distance travel, but the country relies even more on short-haul trains, which carry more than 7.2 billion passengers a year, mostly to and from work.

Tokyo’s Yamanote Line, which circles the city in a 29-station loop, carries 3.68 million passengers each day. In comparison, London’s Underground carries 3.36 million passengers a day and New York’s subway 5.08 million.

The world’s highest passenger volumes demand precisely coordinated scheduling, and indeed, the reputation of Japanese trains for adherence to schedule was the key to one of the country’s most famous modern novels. Police detectives in Seicho Matsumoto’s Points and Lines solve a double murder by precisely plotting the victims’ journeys via railway timetables.

Trains on Tokyo’s Yamanote Line run 2.5 minutes apart during rush hour and white-gloved railway employees are, on occasion, required to shove passengers inside like meat and herbs into sausage casings.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in a country where trains play an important role in many people’s lives, just over 10 years ago, the country was swept by “Train Man” fever. A novel, manga comic, television series and movie were produced to tell the purportedly true story of a 23-year-old otaku (a sort of nerd) who found love by protecting a young woman on a train from harassment by a drunken businessman.

In gratitude for his gallantry, the woman took the young man’s address and later sent him an expensive present. The geeky young man, never having had a girlfriend, turned to the internet for advice, and with thousands of supporters offering tips on what to wear and where to go for dinner, he eventually declared his love for the woman, who reciprocated.

The happy couple presumably rode off into the sunset by train – one that, of course, left the station on time.

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