Shinkansen spotting


Shinkansen 700 series, Tokyo Station

It didn’t take long for me to become seduced by shinkansen, Japan’s version of high-speed rail.  In fact, I couldn’t have been happier with our hotel in Hiroshima, located directly above the railway station and providing an unobstructed view of shinkansen movements below.

The name shinkansen means “new trunk line”.  These trains run on a dedicated standard gauge track which was purpose-built for the service, powered by an overhead electricity supply.  The trains operate at speeds of up to 300km per hour, using tunnels and viaducts to cut through and over obstacles rather than around them.[1]  They take about three and a half minutes to slow down before stopping.

The reason for building a high-speed rail network in Japan was increasing congestion in the densely populated Tokyo-Osaka corridor, where some 45 million people were living immediately after World War 2.


Shinkansen O series (Osaka Railway Museum)

The first shinkansen service – indeed the first high-speed rail service in the world – opened on 1 October 1964 between Tokyo and Osaka, just in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games.


The closest I’ll ever come to sitting in the driver’s compartment of a shinkansen (O series, Osaka Railway Museum)

The service became an instant success and has since been extended throughout Honshu and the northern part of Kyushu, with plans underway to link to Hokkaido.   As of November 2010, 4.9 billion people had travelled on these trains.[2]

The service is one of the most reliable in the world, with departures and arrivals occurring within 6 seconds of scheduled times.

As with so many things in Japan, there are certain protocols and rules that go along with travelling on a shinkansen.

The first is lining up in the correct place.


The signs on the platform show the length of train and where your carriage will stop in relation to the location of your pre-booked seat (if you have one).  This is where you join the queue.  And when the train stops, the door of your carriage will open at that very spot on the platform marked by the sign.

According to Japan Rail regulations, each traveller is allowed to bring up to two pieces of luggage (excluding small bags), with each piece not weighing more than 30kg and not measuring more than 250cm in width and depth, with length not exceeding 200cm.  If anything, this allowance seems more generous than I observed the capacity of the overhead space to be able to accommodate.  Once this fills up, the alternative is a small space behind the last row of seats where bags can and do pile up quickly..

Fortunately, common sense – and several planned stops – dictated that we travelled light.  We learned our lesson well all those years ago dragging 60kg of luggage on and off European trains.

Good manners are de rigeur and include refraining from stowing your luggage in the aisles, talking quietly, reclining your seat gently so as not to inconvenience the person behind you, and setting your mobile phone to silent mode.  You can SMS, email and web surf to your heart’s content.  You will probably lose signal in a tunnel, of course.

When you think of it, none of the above protocols is exactly onerous and it makes for a much more pleasant trip for everyone.

So what is the shinkansen experience like?  Well, it’s fast.  Very fast.  And very smooth.  The only time you might notice a slight “adjustment” is when another shinkansen passes alongside.  Even entering and exiting tunnels is seamless.

Seats in ordinary class are generally in 3X2 configuration, comfortable and with plenty of leg room.  A smiling woman pushes a food cart up and down the aisle; we were not tempted by the offer, but were more intrigued with her uniform which would easily have passed muster on Tokyo’s Takeshite-Dori of a Sunday morning.

The trains are squeaky clean, both on the inside and outside.  The exteriors are blissfully clear of graffiti, one of the defining characteristics of Sydney trains.  Maybe the shinkansen travel too fast and don’t stop long enough for any latent Japanese graffiti artists to point a spray can at them?

Upcoming destinations and announcements are repeated in English, so there is no excuse to overstay your stop, even though it’s often tempting to do so.  On the other hand, because Shinkansen work so closely to their scheduled times, you will miss your train if you’re late.

However, there is always the next one.

You may only have to wait as long as five minutes.


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