Shinkansen. The bullet train. This is probably the Japanese technological achievement of which I am most jealous. I’ve ridden Amtrak a few times before, and the experience was, let’s say, sub-optimal.

All aboard!

For a country with so many people and such a small area, rail transportation makes a lot of sense. Train stations take up much less space than airports, there are no restrictions on how tall the buildings can be, and because security needn’t be as rigorous, your total travel time is often less than flying between the same cities.

Local tracks at Kyoto Station

Since so many rely on this mode of transportation, the Shinkansen don’t mess around. They have an on time performance of roughly 100%. This is a huge boon for the Japanese-deficient traveler, as often the only way to know that this is your stop is the fact that it’s the time marked on your ticket.

Figuring out if you’re about to get on the correct train is a little more challenging

They pull into the station, and you only have a few minutes to disembark before they leave again. This can make loading and unloading a little stressful, especially if you have a lot of luggage. Tiff likens it to how Space Mountain used to be, where if one of the cars was late getting out of the station, they had to reset the whole ride.

I don’t have a good profile shot of the shinkansen, but their funny nose shape helps cut down on noise when the train exits tunnels at speed
This guy really preferred that I just get on the train already

My fear is that if I were too slow during the process, they would have to reset all of Japan.

View of the tracks from Fushimi Inari station

Inside, it’s quieter than a library. Nobody talking, much less talking on a phone. Conductors walk up and down the train and politely inspect tickets. Stewardesses with carts selling snacks and drinks come and go, politely bowing to the passengers as they enter and leave each car. It’s all so polite and considerate that I felt uncomfortable even taking a picture of the inside for fear of offending the other passengers.

Riding the Shinkansen between cities – especially between Tokyo and Kyoto – can be a great way to see the countryside. All manner of things can be seen along the way. Tea plantations, rice paddies, and even the occasional pile of rocks.

That is one big pile of rocks

Think of it as a “Tour Japan in Fifteen Minutes” if your eyes are fast enough. Mom had her camera at the ready the whole time, trying desperately to get pictures out the window. It went a little something like this:

Mom: “OOH! Look, the ocean” Lifts camera, pushes button
Mom: “Oh shoot”


Mom: “Oh, is that a tea plantation?” Lifts camera, pushes button
Tunnel: DENIED
Mom: “Augh!”


Mom: “Look at how close together those houses are!” Lifts camera, pushes button
Camera Batteries: Dead.
Mom: “Oh, Mikey, my camera needs new batteries!”
Mount Fuji (on the other side of the train): sits and waits

…and so on.

I may or may not have gotten a good laugh out of this. Sorry, Mom!

The truth is, getting around in Japan via train is very easy. We’ve gone the Japan Rail Pass route both times we’ve visited, a great option which tourists can use on Japan Rail trains all-you-can-ride.

You can even ride the really ugly green trains for free

In some places going JR-Pass-only can make your life a bit harder though. In Tokyo, there are private subway lines that don’t honor the pass, but they’re a) cheap and b) generally go exactly where you need to. I took Mom and Mike to the Tokyo Skytree on JR lines, which took four transfers. On the way back we took the Tokyo Metro and only had to transfer once. And it was only about two dollars each.

All this station map is missing is a gorilla throwing barrels down at you

On the surface, the sheer volume of options for getting around the city can be completely overwhelming. While things like the JR Pass are really convenient, I found it way more fun to just figure out each rail trip using whatever method made the most sense.

Then again, I’m also a little bit of a train nerd.

I really wish they could somehow uproot the Japanese train system and bring it to America, though I know it would absolutely fail miserably here. Even if we could somehow convince all the Japanese train engineers and conductors to come too, the passengers would still be American, and therefore, several handfuls.

As an example, I remember several times on the DC Metro where a commuter would defiantly put his arm between the closing doors and stare down the driver. The driver has to open the doors again, and that’s just enough window to get on train, but it’s also another ten seconds of lateness.

In Japan, that bullet train’s going to be flying along at 300kph, with said commuter flapping against the outside, arm still trapped in the door. Ain’t nobody got time.

The biggest reason why Japan’s rail system is so awesome is pretty simple: it’s Japanese.

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