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

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

bullet train japan

bullet train japan

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the smartest decision to spend five of just 31 precious minutes aboard Japan’s newest, shiniest, soon-to-open bullet train trying to get into the toilet. This realization hit me as I pressed the “CLOSE” button from inside the swish new techno-loo-on wheels and watched the arched door slide almost closed, before my hand accidentally activated a sensor and it slowly opened again – four times. Perhaps even more worrying was the fact that every second of my inability to close the door was captured by a polite scrum of Japanese television media in the corridor, cameras pointed directly at me.

Along with the rest of Japan’s media, I was here to test drive a brand new Japanese bullet train before its highly anticipated opening. Starting tomorrow, the new Nishi Kyushu Shinkansen (West Kyushu Bullet Train), also known as Kamome (which means seagull in Japanese), will carry passengers at high speed across Japan’s southern Kyushu island – just in time for the nation’s reopening to international tourism.

The new route shines a perfect spotlight on Kyushu, a delicious, laid-back southern oasis of hot springs, volcanic peaks, citrus fruits, surf beaches, pottery towns and serrated coastlines.

Kyushu Japan

Kyushu Japan

The six-carriage train will connect the hot spring hub of Takeo-Onsen with Nagasaki city along a 66km stretch of track – and it’s blink-and-you’ll-drop-it fast, traveling at 260km/h (although it’s capable of a landscape – blur 300 km/h at full throttle), and comes in 23 minutes when driving at the highest speeds. Combined with a new interconnected train service, the journey between two Kyushu cities – 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 opening round sold out within 10 seconds of going on sale. Meanwhile, the obligatory cornucopia of bullet train souvenirs (from chopsticks and socks to cookies and beer) has already sold out in the station shops. It all somehow reflects the world’s undying enthusiasm for Japan’s bullet train – from locals right down to Hollywood, with Brad Pitt’s Bullet Train in theaters earlier this year.

Today, maglev trains may be the fastest on the planet. But Japan’s iconic bullet trains – sleek, punctual, futuristic – remain as deeply rooted in the country’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 jump.

bullet train Japan

bullet train Japan

My Kyushu shinkansen experience began at Saga Station, where 140 journalists gathered on a platform, herded by railway staff in red T-shirts. The journey did not start with a bullet train, but the Kamome Relay – a new limited express service that provides a single 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 involved in bringing such projects to life.

“The new train is a great step to attract tourists to the area,” TV reporter Takahiro Kishimoto said, lowering his voice as he sank into a seat next to me. “But local people have mixed feelings. It’s not enough. We need the line to go all the way between Fukuoka and Nagasaki. Nobody knows when that will happen. It’s very political.”

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

And then the fun began. As we pulled into Takeo-Onsen station, my eyes were caught by 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 sharp palette of white and red.

bullet train japan

bullet train japan

Weaving through the crowds, I took in the minimalist lines of the exterior: the golden seagull logo, the perforated lines of the carriage number, the curved tip masking the pantograph and the calligraphic strokes of the train name (written, it turns out, by the chairman of the Kyushu Railway Company himself). I then evaded the cameras and boarded carriage 3, just in time for the doors to slide shut before its immediate departure at 10.46am for a 31 minute test drive (a fraction longer than the official 23 minutes it will take when launched) – and my journey began.

The seating fabric is a deep sumi charcoal grey, with a swirling chrysanthemum pattern, while luxurious pieces of light birch wood span the chair backs and sides, as well as armrests, inside of which is a pull-out airplane-style table. The patterns continue in light gray floors and blinds, with tile-like motifs that hint at Kyushu’s pottery heritage (the island is home to the porcelain mecca of Arita).

Now in full trainspotter mode, I photographed all the textiles, before chatting with Kyushu Railway Company sales manager Noriko Mizushima, who gently reminded me that the innovations aren’t limited to upholstery – this N700S series train is powered by lithium-ion batteries, complete with a ground-breaking self-propulsion system, so it can continue in emergencies or natural disasters.

“Bullet trains are not just a necessity,” she added. “Many people are very proud of the shinkansen when it comes to their hometown. They really help build community. It’s a strong emotional connection.”

About 16 minutes into the journey, I met reporter Mai Honda, who is busily filming a small room between the carriages, complete with a reclining gold textile bed – also known as the Multi-Purpose Room.

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

My newfound train credentials were then shattered by my interlude with the toilet door – as caught by countless cameras. Finally locking myself in, I examined the interior of the techno-toilet – a “Toto Washlet” that I unscientifically concluded was clean and high-tech, and perhaps a little more spacious than other bullet train toilets.

Finally we entered Nagasaki and the media contingent was politely escorted off. As I walked out of the station, a newly purchased 50cm bullet train shaped sponge cake popped out of my bag and hit Kishimoto again.

“It was exciting,” he said. “This train is like a nerve in the human body – it’s going to connect everyone in Kyushu and beyond.”

His enthusiasm was the perfect end to a journey that not only boosted my trainspotting credentials, but confirmed that Japan’s bullet trains (from upholstery and style right down to loose) remain the 21st century champions of rail travel.

Essential

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

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