Japan: A Bullet Train Journey to Hokuriku

The Hokkaido Shinkansen runs all the way up to the top of the country.
The Hokkaido Shinkansen runs all the way up to the top of the country.

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

The Shinkansen conductor in Kyoto, Japan.
The Shinkansen conductor in Kyoto, Japan.

Back in the 1990s, Americans watched in amazement as visiting executives rode the famous Shinkansen, or Bullet Trains, across Japan.

On my first trip to the country, in 1981, the bullet train was a highlight of the trip, I remember watching the speed indicator in the coach with awe.

Today, Japan is no longer held up as the model in business, but one thing that people around the world still marvel at are those wonderful and efficient trains that Americans can only dream of.  Speeds of up to 320 km per hour, about 200 mph, are routine.

listenradioTunnels have been built in so many places in Japan that much of the journey is often speeding through dark tunnels, since it’s easier to go through than over big mountains.

And as more and more countries, including the US, are realizing how great  high-speed rail can be, Japan just keeps rolling out new lines and even faster trains.

Japan’s MagLev Train is Coming

Japan is thinking ahead now, with a new much faster train–a mag-lev system that will run mostly through tunnels from Tokyo to Nagoya starting in 2027. Speeds in excess of 375 mph are going to be routine!  There are now nine Shinkansen lines around Japan, last year the final large island, Hokkaido, was linked to Tokyo.

Lockers in the Kyoto Railway station make it easier for travelers to explore the city if traveling by train.
Lockers in the Kyoto Railway station make it easier for travelers to explore the city if traveling by train.

A recently completed bullet train route built in an arc across the north of Japan gives visitors the chance to practically fly through Japan’s mountainous area of Hokuriku through tunnels dug through the mountains.  They call it the Alps of Japan!

One of the big attractions of the north is that it snows–and for many Chinese and other visitors from warm climates, this is a magical experience.  Some cities in the region get more visitors in the winter than summer for this reason.

We took the Shinkansen from Omiya, home of an impressive railway museum located in a former locomotive factory, where kids can pretend to drive the train in front of a realistic video screen showing it in motion.

Sushi to go at the Ekimise, below the street at Asakusa station in Tokyo.
Sushi to go at the Ekimise, below the street at Asakusa station in Tokyo.

Ekiben to the Rescue

While you might think a train as sleek and fast as this would offer a bar, or even a cafe car, you will only find a snack, soda and beer trolley on some Shinkansen trains and not more.

But the secret are the Ekibens, which a combination of Eki, or station and ben, for bento box.

One of the most impressive array of prepared foods and delectable seafood was in the Akasuka train station in Tokyo.

You can find all sorts of really tasty take-out foods in these Ekiben’s located in every major train terminal in Japan. You might not know what everything actually is, but if you like fish, you’ll be in heaven. At one stop during our trip, we found whale meat for sale in a bustling seafood market.

I visited one of these in Tokyo’s Asakusa station, and I’ve never seen a more beautiful array of fresh fish and all manner of delectables that I could have brought on the train or took home.  Too bad I don’t live there, if I did this would be my nightly dinner stop.

Always on Time and So Clean!

One thing you can be assured of in Japan, if a train is scheduled to arrive at the station, it WILL be there right on time. The average delay time for an entire year is one single minute!  Imagine that, Amtrak.  Every time the Shinkansen comes into a major terminus, an army of uniformed train cleaners sweeps in and literally, in minutes, cleans the train from front to back.  To say the trains are spotless might be an understatement.

The mountain town of Shiragawa, preserved old houses dating back to the 1800s, is just one of the many sites to behold as you explore the Alps of Japan.
The mountain town of Shiragawa, preserved old houses dating back to the 1800s, is just one of the many sites to behold as you explore the Alps of Japan.

Japan Railways’ JRPass

Up close, the Shinkansen looks like an alien, and the surface of the train feels like hard plastic. Dedicated tracks serve these high speed trains only.
Up close, the Shinkansen looks like an alien, and the surface of the train feels like hard plastic. Dedicated tracks serve these high speed trains only.

Japan Railways offers many different options for buying Railpasses.  Prices start at $248 for seven days, and $330 for a first-class pass.  The passes are good on the Shinkansen as well as all of the regional lines across the country. Order your JR Pass online (not sold in Japan).

You will receive an Exchange Order (delivery in Japan available), which then needs to be exchanged and activated in Japan for the actual JR Pass. All foreign nationals who visit Japan for tourist reasons can purchase it.  The pass gets sent to your hotel and you activate it when you’re in Japan at one of hundreds of train stations.

The promised benefits of the first class pass aren’t worth it…a smoking area on the train, private restrooms, slightly bigger seats.  The fact is that Japanese trains and especially the Shinkansen, are so sleek and comfortable you’ll be just fine with the regular pass.

Buying Tickets

Here are some tips on buying Railway tickets in Japan from The Man in Seat 61, an authority on rail travel around the world.

Mackerel and bream ready to take home or on the Shinkansen train in Tokyo's Asakusa station.
Mackerel and bream ready to take home or on the Shinkansen train in Tokyo’s Asakusa station.

Use the self-service ticket machines.  At any main station you’ll find a row of these with a big network map above them near the ticket gates onto the local platforms.   You’ll soon get the hang of buying tickets, like this…

Look at the big network map on the wall above the machines.  Find your destination station & note the fare shown next to it.

On the touch screen, press English.

Press the side button for the number of adults/children in your party.  For 2 adults & 2 children you’ll have to buy as 2 transactions.

You’ll now see a screen full of possible one-way fares for one adult.

Touch the fare for your destination.  So if the fare shown on the map against your destination is 350, touch the 350 button.

It’ll now show the total cost for the number of adults & children you have selected.

Enter coins or notes, the machine gives change, but they don’t take cards.

Kanazawa station in northern Japan, a recently built outpost for the latest bullet train service to the Horujku region. Max Hartshorne photos.
Kanazawa station in northern Japan, a recently built outpost for the latest bullet train service to the Horujku region. Max Hartshorne photos.
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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.