I recently traveled to Tokyo and Kyoto in Japan, and let me tell you, they are not short on modes of public transportation. You can take the Japan Railways (JR) trains, the Metro subway, the JR and other local buses, and others. But what about traveling between major cities in Japan? If you want to get the journey over and done with quickly, you might fly. However; I strongly suggest riding Japan’s Shinkansen trains if time permits!
Shinkansen is the name for Japan’s bullet trains typically operated by Japan Railways Group. The travel time onboard the Shinkansen is longer than flying on an airplane—about 3 hours versus 1.5 hours between Tokyo and Kyoto. However; when you factor in getting through all of the well-known obstacles at the airport, it really levels out depending on where you are headed. I will say that the Shinkansen is more expensive (compared to flying economy), but I traveled with the weekly Japan Rail Pass which cost roughly the same as a round trip ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto, and allowed me unlimited travel within Tokyo, Kyoto, and Odawara (to travel to Hakone), and between each. I traveled on the Shinkansen 6 times while in Japan, and I was never disappointed.
However you spin it, riding the Shinkansen was such a delight and I would do it again and again. Seriously. Amtrak in the United States really should take some serious notes. Not convinced? Here are 5 reasons why you should be:
1. The views. Flying above the clouds is cool and all, but riding through the countryside of Japan is even cooler. Nothing compares to having the opportunity to see what’s outside of the major cities, including the cool designs of the houses people live in. My favorite part was riding through the mountains and past the monstrous volcano that is Fujisan (i.e. Mount Fuji). It is simply breathtaking. Here’s a tip: if you’re traveling between Tokyo and Kyoto, you’ll want to sit on the right side of the train to soak in the 10 minute (roughly) view of Fujisan, unobstructed.
2. The cleanliness. Oh. My. Goodness. I really could not get over how clean all of Japan is, but the trains/train stations in particular, WOW! I live in NY and ride the Long Island Rail Road and the MTA subways and they all smell like urine. So does Amtrak’s bathrooms (yes, I’m throwing major shade). I’m pretty sure they have all never been cleaned. Ever. When waiting to board the Shinkansen for the first time in Tokyo, I witnessed greatness. Upon emptying of the train, the attendants went in and cleaned that bad boy from top to bottom. I’m talking sweeping the floor, vacuuming the seats, changing out those white cloth things that go on the headrests (headrest covers?), and cleaning the windows and bathrooms. BONUS: they turn all of the seats around so people like me don’t have to be nauseous the whole ride from unknowingly sitting in a backward seat. And it doesn’t stop there—the bathrooms are pristine and well kept. What’s more is the respect and pride that ALL of the passengers have that keep the trains clean, more on that later.
3. The comfort. The Shinkansen is a high-speed train, meaning it can travel over long distances and get you there fairly quickly. Another great thing about high-speed trains is that they don’t feel rickety and you can be sure that you won’t be rocked back and forth for the whole ride. The smooth ride allows for working, eating, and walking about the train without you or your things falling over. Additionally, the seats are super comfy and recline, allowing for jetlag induced naps. Also, because they change the headrest covers between trips, you can put rest your head with confidence that you won’t be resting on someone else’s head residue (eek!). BONUS: unlike most aircrafts, there is plenty of room between your seat and the seat in front of you—you can even get up without disturbing the person in the aisle seat next to you.
4. The ease of use. Ever been on a train and had no idea if you were at the back or the front, let alone which car you were sitting in? Maybe you weren’t even 100% sure you were on the correct train. Not on the Shinkansen! One thing I loved about the Shinkansen was that the cars are in number order, so you never need to guess where you are in relation to the other cars on the train. While inside, you never have to strain your ears to hear what the next stop is, or to hear important announcements like if you should exit the train somewhere other than the car you’re sitting in. The announcements are loud enough to hear, clear and are made well ahead of time to give you the chance to prepare to get off (announcements are in English and Japanese if you’re wondering). All of these things seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised with what you have to put up with elsewhere (cough, Amtrak, cough). One more thing: the trains are extremely punctual—you definitely can’t guarantee that on an airplane!
5. The courtesy and relaxation. From visiting Japan, I’ve gleaned that courtesy and respect is highly regarded. You drop something, you pick up after yourself. You wait your turn in line. You un-recline your chair upon exiting the Shinkansen. You don’t speak loudly in public places, including the train. You take your garbage with you and don’t leave it for others to tend to. The list goes on. All of these things make for the most pleasant and relaxing experience while traveling on the Shinkansen–and I’m pretty sure respect and courtesy is what keeps the trains clean as well. Nonetheless, I was able to reflect in my thoughts, sleep, write, read my books, and look out at the sights in peace and quiet. This is what riding the train is all about!
Well, there you have it! In my opinion, the experience you get on the Shinkansen trains in Japan is truly unmatched. If you ever end up in the land of the rising sun, I urge you to take the train—it does not disappoint. I promise you won’t regret it!