Why Japan’s latest bullet train puts Britain’s rail network to shame

japan bullet train

In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the smartest move to spend five of the precious 31 minutes aboard Japan’s newest and shiniest bullet train trying to get into the bathroom. I realized this when I pressed the “CLOSE” button from inside the new tech bathroom on wheels and watched as the curved door slid almost closed, before my hand accidentally triggered a sensor and it slowly opened again, four times. Perhaps even more troubling was the fact that every second of my inability to close the door was captured by a courteous group of Japanese TV media in the hallway, cameras pointed directly at me.

Along with the rest of the Japanese media, I was here to try out a new Japanese bullet train ahead of its long-awaited opening. Starting tomorrow, the new Nishi Kyushu Shinkansen (West Kyushu Bullet Train), also known as Kamome (meaning seagull in Japanese), will transport passengers at high speed around the island of Kyushu in southern Japan just in time for the reopening of the country to international tourism.

The new route casts a perfect spotlight on Kyushu, a delightfully laid-back southern paradise of hot spring onsen, volcanic peaks, citrus groves, surfing beaches, pottery towns and sawtooth coastlines.

Japan

Japan

The six-car train will connect the Takeo-Onsen hot spring resort with the city of Nagasaki along a 66km stretch of track, and it’s quick and fast, traveling at 260km/h (although it’s capable of scenic – blurring at 300 km/h at full speed), arriving in 23 minutes when operating at full speed. Combined with a new connecting train service, the journey between two cities in Kyushu, Fukuoka and Nagasaki, will be cut by half an hour to around 80 minutes.

And make no mistake: the nation is very excited. Tickets for the inaugural race sold out within 10 seconds of going on sale. Meanwhile, the obligatory cornucopia of bullet train memorabilia (from toothpicks and socks to cookies and beers) is already selling out at station shops. In some ways, it all reflects the world’s ongoing enthusiasm for Japan’s bullet trains, from locals to Hollywood, with Brad Pitt’s Bullet Train hitting theaters earlier this year.

Today, maglev trains may be the fastest on the planet. But Japan’s iconic bullet trains – sleek, punctual and futuristic – remain as deeply embedded in the nation’s cultural identity as sushi and sumo. Ever since the first bullet trains were unveiled to the world during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the shinkansen has shone brightly as a symbol of the nation’s post-war recovery. Fast forward six decades and a trip to Japan is still incomplete without at least one bullet train ride.

bullet train japan

bullet train japan

My Kyushu shinkansen experience began at Saga Station, where 140 journalists gathered on a platform, led by red-shirted railway staff. The journey did not begin on a bullet train, but on the Kamome Relay, a new limited express service that offers easy cross-platform connection for travel between Fukuoka and Nagasaki. On board, I learned that this particular bullet train was first announced in 1973, highlighting the time-consuming bureaucracy and logistics of bringing such projects to life.

“The new train is a big step in attracting tourists to the area,” said TV reporter Takahiro Kishimoto, lowering his voice as he sat down next to me. “But the locals have mixed feelings. Is not sufficient. We need the line to be extended all the way between Fukuoka and Nagasaki. No one knows when that will happen. It’s very political.”

The conversation took a more nostalgic turn, as is often the case, when he spoke about the appeal of bullet trains. “The shinkansen remains a symbol of our economic recovery. I was 12 years old when I traveled for the first time on a bullet train, between Tokyo and Osaka. It was a special moment; I can still remember the sights. My 12-year-old son feels the same excitement about this new train.”

And then the fun began. When we arrived at Takeo-Onsen Station, my eyes fell on the elegant silhouette of the new bullet train on the other side of the platform. Designed by Eiji Mitooka, the godfather of Japanese train design, it revealed a clean, modern edge and a crisp palette of white and red.

japan bullet train

japan bullet train

Weaving through the crowd, I took in the minimalist lines of the exterior: the gold seagull logo, the perforated lines of car numbers, the arched apex masking the pantograph, and the calligraphic strokes of the train’s name (written, it seems, by the president of the Kyushu Railway Company himself). Then, dodging the cameras, I boarded Car 3, just in time for the doors to close before it departed at 10:46 a.m. for a 31-minute test ride (a fraction more than the official 23 minutes that will take when released) – and my journey began.

The fabric on the seats is a deep sumi charcoal grey, with a spiraling chrysanthemum pattern, while luxurious light birch wood stripes run down the backs and sides of the chairs, as well as the armrests, within which are pull-out airplane-style tables. The patterns continue on the light gray floor and window shutters, with mosaic-like motifs hinting at Kyushu’s ceramic heritage (the island is home to porcelain mecca Arita).

Now in train spotter mode, I photographed all the textiles, before discussing trains with Kyushu Railway Company sales manager Noriko Mizushima, who kindly reminded me that innovations are not limited to upholstery: this train in the series N700S is powered by lithium-ion batteries. , complete with a state-of-the-art self-propulsion system, so you can keep going in emergencies or natural disasters.

“Bullet trains are not just a necessity,” he added. “Many people are very proud of the shinkansen when it comes to their hometown. They really help build communities. There is a strong emotional connection.”

About 16 minutes into the ride, I bump into reporter Mai Honda, who is carefully filming a small room between carriages, complete with a gold fabric reclining bed, also known as the Multi-Purpose Room.

“This is very special,” he said seriously. “I’ve never seen a bed on a bullet train before.”

My newly discovered train credentials were then shattered by my interlude with the bathroom door, as captured by countless cameras. Finally locking myself inside, I inspected the interior of the techno-loo, a “Toto Washlet” which, without being a scientist, I concluded was clean and high-tech, and perhaps a bit more spacious than other bullet train toilets.

Finally, we stopped in Nagasaki and the media contingent was politely escorted away. Walking out of the station, with a newly bought 50 cm long bullet train shaped cake sticking out of my bag, I ran into Kishimoto again.

“That was exciting,” he said. “This train is like a nerve in the human body – it will connect everyone in Kyushu and beyond.”

Their enthusiasm was the perfect ending to a trip that not only enhanced my credentials as a train spotter, but also confirmed that Japan’s bullet trains (from the upholstery and styling to the toilets) remain the masters of train travel. of the 21st century.

essentials

Danielle Demetriou was a guest of the Kyushu Tourism Organization, see visit-kyushu.com. For more information on the Nishi Kyushu Shinkansen, visit jrkyushu.co.jp.

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