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Guest writer: Urusai_Uni#0007

This last summer I had the privilege of traveling to Japan for the second time in my life, specifically to play taiko drums. While I was there, I travelled all around the country using the train system. The bullet trains in particular captured my attention, so this article is dedicated to the wonderful technology that makes traveling long distance in Japan fast, safe, and affordable!

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What are bullet trains?

Bullet trains, or Shinkansen (lit. “new trunk line”), are a specific type of high speed train that run different lines all across Japan. These are the trains that you would use to travel long distances such as from Tokyo to Kyoto. They first appeared in 1964 for the Tokyo Olympics that year. The original bullet trains (the 0 series) were white and ran from Shin-Osaka to Tokyo in 3 hours and 10 minutes, half the time it took to get there on conventional trains! Bullet trains now run as far south as Kagoshima in Kyushu and as far north as Hakodate in Hokkaido, with plans for a trains to begin running to Sapporo (mid-Hokkaido) in 2030.

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Almost each line runs a different series (type) of bullet train and some have distinct color schemes and styles! Some notable series are the following:

  1. The 0 series, which ran at 220km/h (135mph). These were the first shinkansen built and serviced the Tokaido and Sanyo lines. They began service in 1964 and were taken out in 2008.
  2. The N700A series, the newest model of train to replace the 0s on the Tokaido and Sanyo line. They are an upgraded version of the N700s which began service in 2007 and run as fast as 300km/h (185mph).
  3. The E4 series, a bilevel or double-decker train that has been in service since 1997 and run up to 240km/h (150mph).
  4.   The E5 and E6 series, which run the Tohoku, Akita, and the Hokkaido lines. These trains often are linked together as they both can operate up to 320km/h (200mph) and are currently the fastest trains in service! The E5 is painted green, pink and white, and runs the Hayabusa service while the E6 is red and white and runs the Komachi service.
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Even with all of these amazing trains, the Japan rail companies are always looking to improve their systems. An example of this is the ALFA-X (Class E956), an experimental train being tested by the East Japan Railway Company (JR East), which operates at speeds of up to 400km/h (250mph). The technology used on the ALFA-X will hopefully be incorporated into current bullet trains to bump their max speeds up to 360km/h (220mph). Another set of experimental trains are the Maglevs (from magnetic levitation), trains that rely on a set of magnets, one to push the train up off the track and make it levitate and the other to push the train forward. The most current are the L0 series which are being developed by the Central Japan Railways Company (JR Central).

Riding Bullet Trains

Bullet trains are not only fast, they’re very comfortable to travel on! They are very similar to riding an airplane, although bullet trains are by far more comfortable in my opinion, as even the normal class has ample leg room and comfortable seats. Bullet trains offer two and sometimes three classes for travel, as well as reserved and non-reserved seating.

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  Ordinary Class
Ordinary Class is the regular bullet train class and would be like economy on an airplane. They do still have plenty of legroom and often are arranged in rows of three on one side of the aisle and two on the other.

  Green Class
Like traveling business class, Green class offers more spacious seats and even more leg room. These also tend to be less crowded than Ordinary Class. These seats are arranged in sets of two and two.

  Gran Class
Gran Class is not available on every bullet train line, but is comparable to flying first class. Gran Class seats come in sets of two and one, are even more comfortable than Green Class, and often offer extra services and amenities, such as free food and drinks.

Riding a bullet train is relatively easy as well. A ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto is roughly JPY 13000, but all shinkansen lines (except for the Nozomi and Mizuho Super Expresses) are included in the JR Rail Pass for foreigners previously mentioned in our travel guide for Osaka. If you’re taking a trip to Japan and are planning on doing a lot of traveling, the JR Rail Pass may be helpful! It’s even free to reserve your seats ahead of time.

Doctor Yellow

In addition to all the public passenger trains that run the tracks, another kind of train is imperative for safe operation: Doctor Yellow. A set of diagnostic trains, Doctor Yellows are nicknamed as such because of its bright yellow color, as well as its job of monitoring the tracks and the overhead wires to make sure everything is running smoothly. Doctor Yellow runs a few times a month, but does overtime after events such as earthquakes in order to make sure everything is safe. Its schedule is not released to the public, and catching a glimpse of it is considered good luck. Since its opening in 1964, Japan’s bullet train lines have had zero collisions or accidents, thanks in no small part to Doctor Yellow.

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Bullet Train Culture

Bullet trains in Japan are very popular among young and old. “Trainspotters” watch the tracks for an appearance of Doctor Yellow in attempt to track it’s schedule. There are toys modeled after bullet trains that are popular among children in Japan. The toy store Plarail is dedicated to all things trains and sells merchandise of everything from electric toys to hand towels. They also sell merchandise for the anime/video game series “Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion”, a transformers-esque series based on several of the real life trains that currently service Japan.

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Additionally, there are several museums across Japan which are dedicated to bullet trains, so if you have some time to spare while you’re there, go take a look!

Bullet trains are a fast and fun way to see Japan! I personally rode the Hayabusa E5 several times while there, making a daily commute between Aomori and Hachinohe. Even riding it every day didn’t change how amazing it was to watch a train speed through the station on the way to its next stop. (I may also have indulged in my fair share of Doctor Yellow merchandise whenever I saw it..) I hope this article gave you a little bit of insight into the amazing technology that helps Japan race into the future!

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