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A white bullet train in Japan.
A white bullet train in Japan.

The Bullet Train of Japan: Your Ultimate Guide!

James LauJames Lau
Published Time
Posted on October 26, 2023

The bullet train of Japan, or the shinkansen, has earned praise as a marvel of modern transportation. Their incredible speed and unique features offer a travel experience unlike any other. Let’s examine the history and differences between the shinkansen train types and why you should ride one of these iconic high-speed trains!

When was the bullet train invented?

The history of the shinkansen is a story of invention, progress, and a search for a more efficient mode of transportation. It all began in the early 1960s when Japan needed a transportation solution to keep up with the growing demand. The existing railway system needed to be better, and change was necessary.

A yellow shinkansen speeding through the countryside.
The first bullet train debuted in 1964. Image via Shutterstock

In 1964, Japan unveiled its first-ever bullet train, the shinkansen 0 Series. They also released the Tokaido Line, which connected Tokyo to Osaka in just over three hours! Fun fact: shinkansen means “new mainline” in Japanese, so why do we call it the bullet train in English? During development, the trains were nicknamed “dangan ressha” which means bullet train in Japanese!

The new trains were not only fast, but they also completely transformed the way people traveled in Japan. The first trains reached a top speed of 210 kilometers (130 miles) per hour and changed Japan forever!

What’s the bullet train network like?

Beyond their fantastic speed, the shinkansen network in Japan has grown a lot since its inception in 1964. These high-speed trains connect nearly every corner of the country today, and more routes are under construction now!

In 1975, the completion of the Sanyo Shinkansen Line allowed passengers to travel from Shin-Osaka to Hakata Station in Fukuoka City in Kyushu. This made traveling from Tokyo to Hakata possible in five hours!

A shinkansen coming through a tunnel.
Bullet trains can take you all over Japan! Image via Shutterstock

The Tohoku Shinkansen, launched in sections starting in 1982, also links Tokyo to Shin-Aomori in the north. In 2016, the shinkansen extension to Shin-Hakodate brought high-speed rail service to Hokkaido for the first time, with further expansions planned to connect to Sapporo in 2030!

New “mini-shinkansen” lines also debuted in the 1990s, connecting Fukushima to Shinjo and Morioka to Akita. These lines have a maximum speed of 120 kilometers (75 miles) per hour and run on different tracks than regular bullet trains, allowing more access to remote areas. The expansion of the Shinkansen network has made exploring Japan’s diverse destinations easier, combining speed and convenience for all to explore and enjoy Japan.

What are the different types of bullet trains? 

One of the unique features of the shinkansen network is the diversity of train types available, each offering its own set of features and experiences. While they all share the iconic sleek and modern design of the shinkansen, each type has something unique.

The flagship N700 Series is a 16-car train famous for its elegance and speed of 300 kilometers (186 miles) per hour. It serves the popular Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines and is recognized by its white-blue design and duckbill-shaped nose.

The Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train at a station. It's red.
The Tohoku Shinkansen connects Tokyo to Atami. Image via Shutterstock

For those who seek a unique travel experience, the E2, E4, and E5 series are excellent choices! These trains serve the Tohoku, Joetsu, and Hokuriku Shinkansen Lines. The E4 series stands out for its double-decker cars, providing passengers with more space and a view from above, while the E5 series has top speeds of up to 320 kilometers (200 miles) per hour, catering to speed enthusiasts!

The Akita and Yamagata Mini-Shinkansen lines are served by the E3 and E6 series, offering a distinctive travel experience. Although they share tracks with regular trains, these mini-shinkansen trains provide efficient connections to more remote regions while maintaining the speed and comfort associated with the Shinkansen.

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What can I expect on a bullet train?

Amazing views! 

An amazing view of a bullet train in Japan near Mt Fuji.
The views from a bullet train in Japan are breathtaking! Image via Shutterstock

One of the best aspects of a bullet train journey is the scenery outside your window. From towering mountains to coastal plains, nature provides beauty for your adventure. You’ll have the chance to see lush forests, charming villages, and, on clear days, the iconic Mount Fuji if you’re riding on the Tokaido or Sanyo Shinkansen!

Delicious food!

A person eating an ekiben on a bullet train in Japan.
Many ekiben feature luxury food! Image via Shutterstock

Ensure you buy an ekiben (bento box) before you get on the train! These specially made bento boxes are filled with regional specialties! These culinary delights range from sushi and tempura to hearty noodle dishes and delightful sweets. If you’re traveling on the Tohoku and Hokuriku Shinkansen lines, you can also enjoy their premium gourmet bento boxes! Some bullet trains also have onboard attendants who will push a cart full of goodies and bento!

Top-notch speed!

The bullet trains of Japan live up to their name, offering incredible speed. With the ability to reach top speeds of up to 320 kilometers (200 miles) per hour, these trains provide a fast way to travel long distances.

A high speed bullet train in Japan with motion blur.
Bullet trains can go as fast as 320 km (200mi) per hour. Image via Shutterstock

Advanced engineering makes their speed possible, including designs that reduce air resistance and automatic train control that helps keep a safe distance and speed between trains! The result is fast and comfortable travel, allowing you to rest before your next adventure!

These high-speed wonders offer a great way to travel and an unforgettable experience. The views, food, and incredible speed make each journey an adventure, but beyond these advantages, there’s something magical about experiencing a piece of Japan’s advanced technology! Riding a shinkansen is more than just getting from one place to another: it connects to Japan’s rich history and bright future!

The Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train. It's blue and white.
The Hokuriku Shinkansen connects Tokyo to Fukui Prefectures. Image via Shutterstock

So, the next time you plan a trip to Japan, include a bullet train ride in your itinerary. Strap in and get ready to experience the magic of Japanese bullet trains! Have you ever ridden the shinkansen? How was your experience? Let us know in the comments below!

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