A quick guide to Japan's bullet trains

Want to whiz through Japan with the greatest of ease? Hop on board a bullet train to cover maximum ground for minimum Yen

7 mins

Why are we talking about trains?

The shinkansen – a network of high-speed lines plied by ‘bullet trains’ – is an icon of modern Japan. But, despite the locos’ sleek, futuristic style and enviable to-the-second punctuality, they’ve actually been around a while: the ‘new main line’ (the translation of shinkansen) recently turned 50. The network opened on 1 October 1964 – just nine days before the Tokyo Olympics – and since then has carried more than 5.5 billion passengers.

Wow, so it’s come a long way

Literally. When it first opened, there was only one shinkansen route, between Tokyo and Osaka; now there are six lines, covering nearly 2,400km, at speeds of up to 320km/h. The bullet trains zip travellers all over the Land of the Rising Sun, from Aomori in northern Honshu to Kagoshima in southern Kyushu, via towering Mount Fuji and all the sights in between.

So it will take me everywhere?

Not yet, but expansion continues apace – there are plans to extend the network as far as Sapporo, on northern Hokkaido.

Also, in other developments, there’s talk of introducing a luxury footbath service between Shinjo and Fukushima. And in 2013 Japan National Railways tested a train that can hit 498km/h.

Sounds good. But surely expensive…

Surprisingly, not necessarily. Yes, a typical Tokyo-Kyoto return (a journey of two hours, 20 minutes by bullet) costs around £180, but you can cut the cost of long-distance trips by buying a Japan Rail Pass www.japan-rail-pass.com. A pass costs from just £161 for a week’s unlimited use on most shinkansen, plus other trains, local buses and some ferries and monorails.

Great! So where should I start?

The Tokaido shinkansen, which connects Tokyo and Osaka, is a popular choice – it whizzes west from the capital, via Kyoto; at Osaka you can join the Sanyo line to continue to Hiroshima and Fukuoka. The Tohoku line links Tokyo and Shin-Aomori, a good jumping-off point in northern Honshu for further forays across the Tsugaru Straits to Hokkaido.

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Main image: Mt. Fuji in Japan (Shutterstock)

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