Sunday, June 12, 2016

To Kyoto by Shinkansen

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Today (Sunday, June 12) I'm headed to San Francisco, to put my son (in the blogging realm, I call him The Junior, though he's starting his senior year this autumn so that might have to change) on a plane for Tokyo. He's spending the summer working at a children's home (essentially, an orphanage) just outside the Japanese capital.

I must confess, I'm more than a little jealous.

Admittedly, my jealousy has less to do than spending eleven weeks surrounded by small, demanding humans than with the weeks before and after the internship, which my son will spend traveling in Japan.

This is what he'll be seeing.

And this.

In honor of his departure (and also in anticipation of my next research trip, which will fall sometime in the next 18 months), I thought I'd share a little about the joys of travel by Japan's most popular mode of transportation . . . high speed rail.

The distinctive nose of the "bullet train."

The shinkansen (or, in English, the "new trunk line"), also known as the "bullet train," is the world's busiest high-speed rail line, carrying over 150 million passengers per year.  Although the shinkansen can operate at speeds in excess of 325 miles per hour, the maximum operating speed on public lines is "only" 200mph (320 kilometers per hour).

The Japanese countryside at 200mph

The original shinkansen rails were laid in the early 1950s, and by 1957 the Odakyu Electric Railway set a world record of 90 mph (145 km/h) with its high-speed narrow-gauge train. The Tokaido Shinkansen line opened for service in October 1964, and the high speed trains have been one of Japan's most popular (and most famous) forms of transportation ever since.

It takes about two hours--including stops--to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto by shinkansen (a distance of just over 300 miles).

Another shot of that lovely, aerodynamic nose.

Travelers can either opt for "reserved seating" or "open seating"--and travelers with a Japan Rail pass (think Eurail....for Japan) can either hop into any open car or reserve a seat at the ticket counter for a specific train. During last year's research trip, we opted for reserved seats, and realized fairly quickly that it's a fantastic way to ensure a quiet ride:

Apparently, we're the only ones who plan ahead...

(Truthfully, Japanese train etiquette requires silencing mobile phones and either reading, listening to music via headphones, or talking at whisper levels so as not to disturb or inconvenience those around you. Japanese trains are thus a delightful, quiet way to travel.)

Although the landscape rushes by, the train is silent and surprisingly still--you hardly feel it moving.

Again - taken at almost 200 mph.

Periodically, the door at the front of the car will open to admit a uniformed woman pushing a "snack cart" laden with a breathtaking array of treats, everything from cookies, candy, and sodas to entire bento box lunches. (One variety of travel lunch even includes a "heat pack" that warms the sesame beef and rice inside to restaurant-quality temperatures in less than three minutes. Japanese travel food technology is something I dearly miss in the U.S.A.) If you've ever wished to partake of the snack trolley on the Hogwarts' Express . . . the shinkansen snack cart offers an excellent stand-in.

Chocolate matcha (green tea) sponge. DELICIOUS.

Electronic signboards at the front of every car announce the name of upcoming stops and, in between, gently remind travelers to silence mobile phones and show respect for those around them. "Thank you for traveling on the shinkansen," one message reads, "we hope you have a pleasant day."

Some lines have these messages in English, too.

I never thought I'd consider an afternoon on public transportation "pleasant" but the shinkansen always proves me wrong.

Any day when I get to cross Japan by train is a pleasant day, indeed.


  1. I did that trip last year with a friend. It would have been the highlight of our trip, except then we got to Kyoto...

    1. So true! Everything about Japan feels that way to me . . .you think you've seen the best possible thing you can see, until the next thing you see makes you feel precisely the same.

  2. Susan, your timing could not be better, or perhaps worse for me. I just boarded Amtrak 661--NYC to Harrisburg. The 176 mile trip will take 3.25 hours. High speed rail was invented in the USA, but we are not allowed to have any. I grumble about this whenever I take the FrecceRosa (Red Rails) from Florence to Rome and look up and see the speed on the display. 234km per ora. GRRRR

    1. Dare I ask why Harrisburg? Though it is half-way to Paradise.

    2. I was the guest of honor at an event--author talk, signing, Brtish East African themed tea, jointly sponsored by tea room and mystery bookstore in Mechanicsburg, just outside of Harrisburg.

    3. Okay, explanation accepted. :)

    4. I'm so with you, Annamaria - I adore traveling by train, but I have to admit that I like it much, much better in Europe and Japan. U.S. trains leave so much to be desired in comparison with their more rapid (and cleaner) counterparts across the sea(s).

    5. And what FUN about the signing!! I hope you're having a lovely afternoon!

  3. Thanks, Susan! I'm afraid the mentality of Americans just doesn't support the concept of high speed rail. Too much wide open spaces and "goddamned independent" attitudes. (Pluses and minuses to both of those...)

    But maybe if the Hyperloop between LA and SF is built and becomes a success, that can bootstrap our own form of high-speed rail, although unfortunately, the experience would lack the beautiful views, more spam-in-a-can experience.

    1. I keep hoping for rapid rail (or even *uninterrupted direct rail*) between L.A. and SF. It would make my life so much more pleasant. I currently make that trip several times a year, and the current choice is between airport hassles and a 6-hour drive - neither of which makes for nearly as nice an experience as a decent train.

  4. And for a completely different hi-speed experience, welcome to Greece!

    1. LOL! What is transportation like in Greece, Jeffrey? I'd love to get the "planes, trains, and automobiles" version of how you get around while you're there.

  5. Canadian trains are very good indeed!!