Tokaido Shikansen, the first commercial bullet train that the world has known, celebrated its 50th birthday last year. It boasts that it has served about 5.6B Japanese commuters as well as local and international tourists (without any fatal accident) since October 1, 1964 when it started plying its Tokyo-Osaka route. Today it has grown into multiple lines to link the entire country.
Japan’s blue-and-white Shikansen is not just your regular high-speed train. In fact its speed has been surpassed by Germany’s ICE and France’s TGV, yet it remains to be the world’s first commercial high-speed train. More than that, Shikansen is Japan’s iconic symbol of unparalleled rise from the ashes of WWII’s devastation to a nation of immense economic wealth and technological power.
Walk down the memory lane, learn more about what makes it still a joy to ride after 50 years and get a glimpse of the future. Find out what a Shikansen ride can mean to its passengers today. Read about all these in this article Celebrating 50 years of Japan’s Shinkansen ‘Bullet Train’ by Simon Richmond. This is posted in Lonely Planet’s Asia Section.
It wasn’t the world’s first high-speed train, but when the Shinkansen debuted in 1964, its sleek, futuristic design and to-the-second punctuality resulted in it being coined ‘the bullet train’, making Japan’s railways the envy of the world.
Half a century later, travelling Japan by rail remains a joy, not least for overseas tourists who can buy several types of Japan Rail Pass (www.japanrailpass.net) and other discount tickets. Celebrate the Shinkansen’s 50th anniversary with one or more of these top 10 rail-related adventures and activities in the Land of the Rising Sun.
- Delve into history: Visit the Railway Museum in Omiya showcasing a driving simulator of a Shikansen (you can get behind its controls for experience), rolling stocks and the history of train in Japan from the 1870s.
- Glimpse the future: Get an advance preview of Japan’s future rail travel when you visit SCMAGLEV (super-conductive magnetic levitation) & Railway Park near Nagoya. These are trains speeding over 580km/hour. See and drive a simulator and more rolling stock in this park.
- Gourmet Express: Hop on Shikansen with an empty stomach and you’ll ride along satiated after ravishing ekiben (coined from “eki” or station and “bent?” or boxed meal) sold on platforms or trains. If you have money to spare, board Tohoku Emotion and enjoy the feasts it offers for the hungry tummy and eyes: a gourmet bent? meal you’ll get to eat while the train cruises along the scenic coast of Northern Honshu.
- Ride through the night on a sleeper service: For experience, you can board luxury sleeper trains as you travel along scenic routes. Cassiopeia and Hokutosei ply between Tokyo and Sapporo, Twilight Express connects Osaka and Sapporo, and Seven Stars ply between Kagoshima, Kyushu and Hakata.
- Indulge your nostalgia for the age of steam: Many still take the train being reminiscent of the steam trains’ old-world charm. You can do the reminiscing on board a stream train such as SL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen-go that runs from January to mid-March and there’s another that goes to Mashiko every weekend.
- Take a tram: For more reminiscing and nostalgia, you can try boarding Japanese trams that are still very much alive in several Japanese metropolises. Experience the cities on board a tram. Tokyo’s chin chin densha (or ‘ding ding trains) still rolls between Minowa-bashi and Waseda. There are also trams Kagoshima and Nagasaki in Ky?sh?, Matsuyama and K?chi in Shikoku, as well as Hakodate in Hokkaid?.
- Ride a funicular: These are cable cars that are perfect for the mountainous terrain and steep slopes of Japan. Get a great view of Mt. Fuji from the Lakeland Resort on board funicular along the Hakone Tozan railway. Go from the Sea of Japan to Nagano Prefecture crossing the lofty Japan Alps via the unforgettable Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route.
- Take a scenic journey: Enjoy a scenic ride along Kitakinki Tango Railway with the view of the Sea of Japan and an access to Amanohashidate, one of the most spectacular sights in the country. Soon (March 2015) more spectacular scenery await you when you take the Tokyo-Nagano route that extends through the Japan Alps in Kanazawa.
Japan’s Shinkansen is more than just another high-speed train ride or an economic symbol. For many Japanese, it is a ride that takes them to where they want to go just like a speedy dream. It gives every rider a visual rush of the country’s beautiful sights from the cities’ lofty skycrapers to the countryside’s scenic spots and traditional farmhouses. In between the rides, there are equally memorable train stations.
The 50th anniversary of Shinkansen bullet train brings a fusion of pride and wistful nostalgia for what it was, what it becomes today and what it will still accomplish in the coming years. To this day, no one can really say he/she has traveled Japan unless he/she zips through the country on “Shikansen.” If you have boarded it at one time, you can always brag that you shared something in common with the likes of the Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden, Prince Andrew, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Tom Cruise, Arnold Swarzenegger and billions of other riders who all have hopped and took a ride on a Shikansen car to mark their visit to Japan.