Just Japan Things: Shinkansen-ing

I’ve been missing Japan lately. Must be the horrible Singapore weather. I miss my flat and all its natural light, I miss my early morning weekend walks through the park, and gosh I miss the trains.




It was around this time last year when I started taking weekly shinkansen trips for work. No matter how horribly my meetings with our customer went, or how late I got home (in the middle of the work week, no less), I never got tired of it.

The shinkansen is Japan’s very own network of high-speed trains, connecting Tokyo with most major cities. They’re often referred to as bullet trains, although the name simply means “new trunk line”. The maximum speed during operation is 320 kph, but during test runs the trains can breach the 400 kph mark (up to 600kph for the maglev trains).

The Tōkaidō Shinkansen, which is what I take during my business trips, connects Tokyo and Osaka, and is the world’s busiest high-speed line. In true Japanese fashion, it is extremely punctual. Like, to the second. In the eight months or so of going back and forth, I’ve only been delayed twice – once because of a power outage, and then another due to a crazy strong typhoon (and even then they still had one train running). The rest of the time, well, an 8:55 train leaves at exactly 8:55 (a common mistake is to assume that the time on the ticket is the time the train arrives on the platform, but it's actually the time the train leaves). I usually make my way to the platform a good five minutes before the departure time, because the bullet train waits for no one.



A couple of other tidbits I’ve picked up:
  • There are three types of trains on the Tōkaidō line: the Kodama, which stops at all stations; the Nozomi, which only stops at major cities; and the Hikari, which is somewhat of a cross between the two. To provide some context, Tokyo to Shin-Osaka takes 2.5 hours via Nozomi, 3 hours via Hikari, and 4 hours via Kodama. If you have the Japan Rail (JR) Pass, you can only take the Kodama and Hikari.
  • Seat classes are organized by car: there are cars with non-reserved seats, cars with reserved seats, and green cars (business class). The JR pass does not cover seat reservations, so you either go the non-reserved routes or pay extra (you need to go to the ticket counter for this). The Kodama line usually has more non-reserved cars compared to Hikari and Nozomi. The car number with non-reserved seats varies per train, so you have to check the signboard outside. The kanji for non-reserved cars is: 自由席. The first character means “self” and in this context it’s the only one that you need to commit to memory (think: three-layer chest of drawers with top handle: 自).
  • Tickets can be purchased over the counter or on specially marked vending machines, which accept credit card and cash payments. Most of them have English menus, and can also do a route search – you input your origin and destination stations and it will present several options depending on time, cost, number of transfers, etc.
    I can't tell you what the tickets mean, though.
  • Before boarding, make sure to take note of your train number and car number. In major stations such as Tokyo, and especially during rush hour, there is a train departing every five minutes, and the boarding time is usually all of two minutes, which makes hopping aboard the wrong train a bit difficult to rectify (i.e. by the time you realize it, the train is likely to have left the station already). The car number is important because the shinkansen can be twenty cars long, so if you show up on the wrong end you're in for quite a hike. 
  • If you wish to see Fuji-san (assuming, of course, that she wishes to show herself), pick seat E. The direction, whether to Osaka or to Tokyo, does not matter, because when the train reaches the terminal, it does not turn around; instead, they just rotate the seats to face the other way. So the side facing Mt. Fuji is always seat E. You’re welcome.
    This was when I bought my ticket too late and got seat D instead,
    hence anonymous kuya by the window XD.
  • If you’re traveling from Tokyo you should see Mt. Fuji around the 45 minute mark. If you don’t get a good picture after the first sighting, don’t fret, because the next one is going to be at a better angle.
  • The electric outlets are only on the window seats (except in some Kodama trains, where they have none) and the front row seats.
  • If you have huge luggage in tow, it is best to reserve the seats in the back, so you can store them in the space behind the seats. Sometimes you can get away with leaving your bags at the back even if you are seated in the middle, but I’ve seen several cases where the train staff did not allow this and the owners had to hoist the bags up into the overhead compartments. I sometimes travel with a smaller rolling luggage, and I can just squeeze it in front of my seat, butat the expense of legroom.
  • While eating inside the trains is generally frowned upon, the shinkansen is an exception – it’s practically a requirement. You don’t want to be the person staring longingly at other people’s pretty (and yummy) bento boxes. There is a wide variety available in almost every major station, from the (relatively) cheap 500JPY boxes to the fancy schmancy lacquered ones that cost upwards of 3000JPY. And yes, sometimes I eat McDonald’s. #sorrynotsorry
    I can really use a tako (octopus) nigiri right about now
  • Shinkansen “regulars” are mostly businessmen (“salary men”), so beer and beer-adjacent snacks (nuts, cheese, beef jerky, et al) are ubiquitous.
  • The shinkansen platforms are one of the few public places in Japan with garbage bins. Half of the people who alight head straight to the nearest one to throw away their bento box remnants, and I suggest you do the same, because who knows when you will see the next trash can?
  • Should you forget to buy food before boarding (WHY), there is an in-train service in Hikari and Nozomi (tough luck for Kodama passengers) that sells coffee and bento and beer things. And super premium ice cream. However there have been cases when I would not see the cart until I’m about to alight from the train, so really, buy snacks beforehand.
  • There are smoking cars. Gah. If you are as averse to cigarette smoke as I am, avoid this like the plague. Even just passing through was enough to give me a headache, and the adjacent cars reek of smoke as well. Ugh.
  • Riding the shinkansen is not so different from a normal train ride, but during the first couple of rides I did get dizzy when working on my laptop (working on the train because Japan).
  • If you’re not working, there’s not much to do apart from eating and looking outside the window so remember to bring some form of entertainment. This was how I got addicted to podcasts.
  • There are payphones on board. Yes. Payphones. Should you have a need to call someone while speeding away at 300kph (kinda cool tbh) , you can purchase a phone card onboard.
  • Some cars have mirrored booths at the end so you can do your brows before you alight.
  • Selfie sticks are not allowed on the train platform. True story.
  • Selfies are allowed though. And shoe-fies.
  • Have I mentioned Seat E? ;p

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