There's a romance to travelling by train. The rhythm of the rails, the sway of the cars, the speed of the scenery. I can't help but think of movies like "The Spy Who Loved Me," "Trading Places," or of course the legendary classic "Under Siege 2."
My five-week adventure through Japan was coming to an end and I needed to get from Nagasaki in the south to Tokyo in the center-east. Flights turned out to be surprisingly expensive but the train cost about half as much, so I had my solution.
So it was a little over two hours from Nagasaki to Hakata station in Fukuoka on a regional train, then a transfer to the mighty Shinkansen bullet train for a high-speed burn across the islands of Kyushu and Honshu. Finally I descended into to the labyrinthian subway systems of Tokyo.
Here's what it was like.
Nagasaki is a small city by Japanese standards. Streetcars rattle down the main streets. The port is home to ships big and small. Out past the harbor is, an abandoned mining city once home to the highest population density in history. It was nearly time for me to head back to the States, but to get there, I needed to get to Tokyo first.
Buying a ticket is simple: Just enter your destination, pick a seat and you're ready to go. The computer handles all the details of lines and companies that will get you there. I splurged and went for a Green Car -- business class, essentially.
Though there are Shinkansen lines on the island of Kyushu, they don't run to Nagasaki. So instead my first leg is to Hakata station in Fukuoka on an 885 series EMU. The Green Car is classy with its wood floors and chrome fixtures. I sat towards the back of the train, with the rear driver's compartment hidden behind frosted glass and taking up the last quarter or so of the car.
At least, that was my initial thought. The back wall only appears to be frosted glass. An hour into the trip, I looked back and was shocked to see the driver's compartment and the view behind the train. Smart glass! Cool!
The train moves at about average speed for newish EMUs around the world, travelling at about 80 mph (130 kph).
I saw little of Hakata station, with enough time to find a bathroom, boxed lunch and little else. The Japanese pride themselves on the promptness of their trains, and rightly so. They're rarely seconds late, never mind minutes. So 10 minutes or less to make a transfer is plenty of time, as long as the station isn't too big. All signs have English as well as Japanese, so navigation is easy. Really, the whole transportation system is exceptionally tourist friendly.
My train arrived, and I managed to get a photo as it pulled in -- something I had been stressing about, with this article in mind.
It was an N700 series. Inside, the Green Car's seats are big and plush. Only a handful of people got on, but since I'd be arriving in Tokyo near rush hour, and passing through Osaka and Nagoya, there was plenty of time for it to fill up.
The train pulled out of the station. Acceleration was brisk, but not much more than other trains. What was different was how quiet it is. There was some mechanical and wind noise, but that's in the background. The ride is also smooth, the way trains are supposed to feel. None of the clunky and bumpy seams you'll find on other journeys. The Shinkansen rails seem like they're fused into one smooth and continuous piece of steel. Most rail lines I've been on, in countries ranging from China to Italy to the US, feel positively 19th century compared to these.
For safety, most of the Shinkansen tracks are well separated from the surrounding country or city. Tall sound-deadening barriers limit the view much of the time. When a Shinkansen passes in the opposite direction, its WHOOMPH startled me the first few times, especially given the speed at which the other train passes, a relative 354 mph (571 kph).
I stuck my phone in the window until it found a few GPS satellites and was able to give me my speed: 175 mph (282 kph). Some of the trains, on certain sections of track, can hit 200 mph (320 kph).
I took a moment to check out my seat. Turns out, it had a seat warmer, light and even a power plug. They were comfy but a little bland. Some of the newer trains are even nicer.
The next car up was standard class. Instead of the Green Car's layout, with rows of two by two seats, the seats are in rows of three. It's still nice though, much nicer than any airline's coach class. Shinkansen travel is already a step above "regular" train travel in Japan.
We slid into Osaka after just a few hours, already having covered 379 miles (611 km) in slightly more time than it took the regional to cover 95 miles (153 km). Then the cities and stops came quick. Gorgeous Kyoto and the Kyoto Railway Museum is nearby, followed by Nagoya -- home of the Toyota Automobile Museum, among other things.
Soon we arrived in Tokyo, though I had two more trains to go: the Yamanote line to Akihabara, then the Tsukuba Express to Asakusa, near my hostel and the Tokyo Skytree. The subway was crowded, being a little after 5 p.m., but not as much as you might expect. Those infamous crowded Tokyo subways aren't at every station, nor every line. There are lots of lines, though -- and they're run by two companies!
I finally arrived at Asakusa station and made my way to my hostel. Surprisingly, I wasn't as beaten up as eight hours on a plane would have left me. This is almost certainly because of the big comfy seat, the freedom to move around at leisure, and of course, not having a cabin with barely pressurized recirculated air.
I wouldn't call myself a train nerd, but I am a machine nerd and Shinkansens are glorious machines. All in all, it was a great way to see the countryside of Japan...even if it was going by at 175 mph.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, airplane graveyards and more.