One exciting way to experience Japan is traveling via the bullet train or Shinkansen. You can cut travel time between cities and spend more time enjoying the tourist sites. The original Tokaido Shinkansen linking Tokyo and Osaka was launched in 1964 on the occasion of the Tokyo Olympics.
Up to 13 trains per hour run on this line with a seating capacity of more than 1300. It travels at very high speeds of 320 KPH and carries 424,000 passengers a day. To a novice traveler to Japan, the railway network system may seem intimidating and confusing. So, before you even arrive, research the rates, transfers, and timetables of all Shinkansen cars on Hyperdia.
How Safe is the Shinkansen?
Shinkansen has a remarkable safety record. It has now operated for 50 years without a single passenger casualty. The Japanese are uncompromising when it comes to public safety and disaster prevention. Knowing that Japan is in the Pacific ring of fire and often experiences earthquakes, the train has an earthquake warning system that is designed to stop the trains safely. This attention to detail and innovative use of technology allows the trains to run at such very tight, three-minute intervals, without schedule delays.
Why Get a JR Railway Pass?
If you plan to visit various destinations, it would be a good idea to avail of the Japan Railway Pass. You can choose cards with validity periods of 7, 14 or 21 days. The ticket fare starts at $253 per adult and $127 per child (6 -11 years old). It is much cheaper than buying individual tickets on each journey.
The JR Pass can be purchased online or agencies outside Japan. You will receive a voucher via courier if you purchased online. You can also purchase the pass in Japan at limited places (this service has just started for trial base), but purchasing outside Japan is cheaper. The voucher is valid for a 3-month period following the date of issue. To activate your pass, you must proceed to a JR office at the airport or at the main train stations and present your voucher. Just fill-up a form and show the entry stamp on your passport. You are then asked to select a date when you want to begin using your pass. The Japan Rail Pass validity is calculated in days, not in hours. It doesn’t matter what time you start to use your pass on the first day.
Not everyone can avail of the pass, you must be a non-Japanese national on a temporary visitor visa and staying less than 90 days. People who are coming to Japan for work, study or diplomatic purposes are not eligible. For Japanese nationals who lived overseas over 10 years in a row with valid evidence are also eligible for purchasing JR railway pass.
The pass also provides access to other types of transportation including the JR bus, JR ferry (with some exceptions) and certain monorails. It is however not valid for private rail lines and the Super Express Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen. For these you would have to purchase regular tickets.
What is a Green Car?
The Green Car is considered the business class section of the train. Notable advantages of a Green Car are the larger legroom (475mm compared to the regular 430mm), seats that recline 40°, a footrest, bigger gaps between seats and space for your luggage. You can also have other perks such a hot towel (oshibori) and free drinks on certain routes. There are generally less people on these trains so you can relax and enjoy the peace and quiet. Tickets start at $338 per adult and $169 child per child. Reservations should be made for Green Car seats except during peak seasons such as the Obon Festival or the New Year. There are special JR pass which is also valid for Green Car as well, so you may want to try it too.
Experience Luxury with Gran Class
In 2011, the Gran class was introduced in the Tohoku Shinkansen line. It is considered the ultimate luxury train travel experience. Named after the French word for “big”, each car has only 6 rows of large, plush reclining chairs. Gran Class passengers will have the added benefit of access to the upscale lounge at the JR Tokyo Station where you are offered free softdrinks or alcoholic beverages until your train arrives. An attendant is also at hand to take care of your needs throughout the trip. Amenities provided include a blanket, slippers, and an eye mask. Your ticket also comes with a set meal and bottomless drinks. Most of the food and beverages on the menu are locally sourced such as the Aomori apple juice and bento with local vegetables. Don’t forget to try the sake created by the Sogen sake company exclusively for Gran Class passengers.
The Future of the Shinkansen
JR East will start testing a new model of the Shinkansen bullet train capable of reaching speeds up to 360 KPH by 2019. The Advanced Labs for Frontline Activity in rail experimentation (ALFA-X) will serve as the basis for a new generation of Japanese bullet trains which is expected to be in operation by 2030.
In order to develop higher speed bullet trains, engineers must figure out a way to reduce noise and air pressure when the trains enter a tunnel. Thus, the proposed design of the ALFA-X features a longer nose compared to older trains. Another suggestion is a nose of the same length but of a different shape.
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