If you are going to travel through Japan, there is really only one way to properly travel between major cities: The Shinkansen, or as it is better known in the west, The Bullet Train.
The Shinkansen is a high speed train that links up most of the major cities in Japan south of Hokkaido. If you look at my path through Japan, pretty much everything from Kagoshima to Tokyo was taken by Shinkansen. The Shinken stations are almost always in the middle of town and are usually connected to other local train lines or subways. This makes it very easy to get from the Shinkansen to wherever you want to go in a particular city.
What Makes Them Different
The Shinkansen can hit a top speed of 300kph (about 180mph). It is not a monorail or a magnetically levitated train. It is a normal train that has metal wheels that ride on normal metal rails. What makes the trains special however, isn’t the engine or the train itself, but rather the design of tracks. The top speed allowed for a locomotive in the United States is 70mph (112kph). Remember that the kinetic energy in an object increases with the square of the velocity of the object. You increase the velocity by a factor of 3, you increase the kinetic energy by a factor of 9. The train travels so fast that it takes about 8 kilometers to come to a stop and an accident on the Shinkansen would be on a par with an airplane crash.
As such, nothing crosses the Shinkansen tracks. Nothing. There are no railroad crossings for cars. There are no switches that would allow trains coming from opposite directions to collide with each other. The only sort of switches you have allow for rails to split at a train station to allow some trains to pass through stations without stopping. To date, the Shinkansen has a perfect safety record. (There was an accident on the German Bullet Train several years ago. Some cars in the middle of the train derailed. The engineer in the front had no idea what had happened until the train came to a halt 8km away from the accident). It is the special dedicated track, more than anything else, which is what makes the Shinkansen special.
When I started my trip back in April, I took an Amtrack train from Dallas to Los Angles. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. The total trip took 48 hours. Much of the reason for the delay is because Amtrack doesn’t own any of the tracks in the west. They are owned by cargo rail companies. Every few hours, we’d have to stop to let a cargo train past. Also, due to the nature of the tracks and the trains, we could never get past a top speed of 70mph (and I doubt if we spent much time near there. When we were next to a road, cars would always go faster).
Not surprisingly, the one part of the country where Amtrack owns the tracks is the one part of the country which Amtrack is profitable: the eastern seaboard from Washington to Boston.
People often complain how Europe and Japan have such advanced rail systems but the United States doesn’t. It isn’t really a matter of technology. It is a matter of population density. There are only a few routes where such a train would make money and be able to compete with airlines: the previously mentioned eastern seaboard, Milwaukee to Chicago, San Diego to San Francisco (via Sacramento), etc.
Assuming that a line would work, building a Shinkansen type line would be very expensive. The cost isn’t in the trains themselves, it is in building a dedicated track with no crossings. Every rail line in America (and I’d assume Canada and Australia as well) crosses a road at some point or another train track. You’d have to build miles of overpasses, underpasses, tunnels, and elevated track platforms before you can even begin to lay rail. That also doesn’t include the cost and legal battles you’d have to fight for right of ways and land.
Rail travel is a vastly superior form of travel to flying (no security, cheaper prices, transportation directly to city centers), but the externalities makes it very difficult to do in areas without high population densities.
How to ride the Shinkansen
If you are visiting Japan and plan on moving around, you really have to get a Japan Rail Pass. The JR pass will give you free access to any Japan Rail vehicle in the country. In addition to the Shinkansen, that includes almost all regional and local trains (but not metro subways), ferries to islands (like Miyajima), and buses. The trick to getting a rail pass however, is that you cannot get it once you are in Japan. You have to get it outside of Japan and you cannot be a Japanese citizen. (The reason you can’t get them inside Japan, is they don’t want people renewing them over and over to get cheap transportation if you are living in Japan).
The Shinkansen have reserved and non-reserved seating. For all but one of my trips, I was able to get reserved seating. I never had to wait more than an hour for the next train to arrive, and usually I had to rush to make it to the platform. (The trip I couldn’t get a reserved ticket was the Sunday after Japanese Thanksgiving when everyone was going home from the holiday. The train from Osaka to Fukuoka was standing room only for most of the way. Unlike airplanes, they will pack people into the trains even if they don’t have seats).
They do still have smoking cars on the trains in Japan, so be aware.
There is no baggage check. You carry your bag on the train and there is space above your seat to put your stuff. My backpack fit without problem above my seat. There is an attendant with a cart who will walk up and down the train selling stuff, but there is no beverage or food service like on an airplane.
When you get off the train, because you don’t have a normal ticket, just show your rail pass to the attendant at the gate. They will look to make sure the pass is still valid and wave you through.
Stops Along The Way
I made a stop between Hiroshima and Kobe at Himeji to stop at Himeji Castle, the oldest intact castle in Japan. It was left untouched by WWII. What was nice is that I was able to get off the train, put my pack in a locker at the train station, and just walk down the street to visit the castle. There was no need to stay overnight in Himeji. There are several stops like this you can make which take very little time, because the Shinkansen station is in the middle of town. Several of the shrines and temples in Kyoto are within easy walking distance of the station, and the station is also connected to other local trains. You can also stop at Shinfuji and take a train to the base of Mount Fuji. Both times I went past Fuji, there were clouds that covered it up. (Of all the things I took photos of in Japan, I don’t have a single one of Mt. Fuji…)
Taking the Shinkansen isn’t something you do in Japan to experience Japanese culture. It is literally the cheapest and easiest way to get between major cities.