Shinkansen disappointingly means ‘new trunk line’ and not ‘bullet train’ – just one of those words that sounds more exciting than it’s actual meaning. Bullet Train is actually a literal translation of the Japanese term ‘dangan ressha’ which was the original project nickname.
The first route built ‘Tōkaidō Shinkansen’, connects the largest cities of Tokyo and Osaka and is the world’s busiest high-speed rail line. At peak times, the line carries up to thirteen trains per hour in each direction with sixteen cars each (1,323-seat capacity and occasionally additional standing passengers) with a minimum headway of three minutes between trains.
Last October/November, we visited Tokyo for four days, staying at the Mercure Hotel. Then flew to Sydney (Hilton) for four days and back to Tokyo where we took the bullet train to Osaka (Hilton), then back four days later. We looked at the Japan Rail Pass and even though it is only sold as a seven- or fourteen-day ticket, it was still cheaper than a Tokyo-Osaka return. The pass also allows unlimited free seat reservations. Local routes, including Osaka-Kyoto are included. The JR Pass is only available to tourists and should be purchased before you visit Japan – although I’ve read that you can now purchase on arrival, it’s still easier to order and pay for before you go.
We ordered the pass online (currently £235 per person) from https://www.japan-rail-pass.com/ and everything arrived quickly, including a travel guide. On arrival in Tokyo Haneda, we took our vouchers to the JR office and exchanged them for actual tickets (with a start date for when we returned from Sydney). That office isn’t 24-hours so don’t rely on being able to change the vouchers there if you arrive early or late.
Back from Sydney, we should have taken the monorail into Tokyo using our JR Rail passes, but instead made the mistake of paying for the metro. At the Shinkansen station we went to a ticket office where they booked us on to the next train. The travel guides say you should book in advance, there were plenty of seats available, although they were in the rows with three seats and not two. The rows with two seats were also on the right side of the train – the Mount Fuji side. We took the three seat row.
The signs are also in English and it wasn’t difficult to work out what platform and where to stand for the number of our carriage. The staff are all polite and wave your JR Rail pass through without a second look. The bullet train arrived in spectacular fashion:
There was more space than we thought on board, but we were still glad that we’d sent our large case from the Mercure Hotel to the Hilton Osaka.
The train was away quickly and soon we were speeding through the countryside. Top speed is 200MPH but sadly there isn’t a readout to show how fast the train is going. Instead I downloaded an app on my iPhone and got this readout:
That was the fastest speed I saw during the journey – still pretty fast though!
A trolley service came along with a poor selection of sandwiches and snacks – no sushi!
There was a Chinese couple in the two seat row the man spent most of the time coughing and snorting mucus in the most disgusting way possible. I went for a walk.
I couldn’t find a dining car, although some Shinkansen have them. There were tiny smoking rooms in the same area as the toilets. Apart from that, the train looked the same in every carriage.
Within three hours we arrived to Osaka. Again, we made the mistake of taking the metro to the stop we needed for the Hilton Osaka, instead of using our JR Pass on a different, faster route for free.
Over the next four days, we wised up a bit and managed to use the JR Pass within Osaka and also to visit Kyoto.
We booked (two-row) seats for our return and managed to JR Pass all the way to Tokyo Haneda, where we stayed overnight at the Royal Park Haneda Hotel.
If your Japan plans include at least one return trip between Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto, the JR Pass is worth buying. Travel further than that and you’ll be saving a fortune.
We ordered the pass online (currently £235 per person) from https://www.japan-rail-pass.com/