The Shinkansen, or “Bullet Train” is a high speed train that can take you in between cities in Japan. It is more similar to flying than it is to taking the train. Though it costs about as much as flying from city to city in Japan, it will drop you off at the city center, so you don’t have to worry about getting all the way to the airports. Each Shinkansen line has its own name, and each train has its own name. If you go to Japan, you won’t see “Bullet Train” on any of the English signs; they will only be labeled with “Shinkansen.”
The Shinkansen has been open since 1964. When it opened, it traveled at 210 kilometers per hour (130 miles per hour); today it travels at about 300 kilometers per hour (186 miles per hour). It can go even faster if it needs to. Since opening, it has also carried almost 6 billion passengers, and without one major accident.
Many Bullet Trains recommend you to make a reservation in advance. If a Bullet Train contains 16 carriages, it is common that only five operate without reservation, and only two of those would be non smoking. If you are taking a popular journey, like from Tokyo to Kyoto on weekends, that it is strongly advised. Japan is very crowded and populated, so there’s no guarantee that the trains won’t get filled up. You can reserve a spot anywhere from a month in advance until a few minutes before the train departs. They also offer overnight trains.
If you miss your proposed Shinkansen trip, you’ll probably be able to catch the next one without much delay. For instance, there are 6 trains per hour between the Tokyo and Shin-Osaka stations.
The Shinkansen system is built so that the trains use tunnels and viaducts. They go through and over objects instead of going around them. Trespassing on the tracks is very illegal, and you’ll get strict penalties. The trains use a 25,000 V AC overhead power supply. The vehicles are light compared to most trains, so that eliminates some of the track damage. The cars are air sealed, so they have stable air pressure when they go through tunnels at high speeds.
Other than the Shinkansen, the country of Japan has an extensive 12,400 miles of track. You can travel to almost anywhere using the rail system. Keep in mind that the other trains are completely separated from the Shinkansen, which is part of the reason they are so efficient.
Click here for a Shinkansen map.