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Japan: The Shinkansen’s 50th anniversary

I’m being winked at by a bus. This shuttle, transporting people to a Tokyo amusement park, is designed to look like a panda, complete with eye-shaped headlights that flutter at the driver’s command. They bring new meaning to the words, ‘being picked up by a bus’.

Japan: The Shinkansen’s 50th anniversary
Mt. Fuji and Shinkansen Express Image: megawheel360 / CC BY 2.0.

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Even without the animatronic attributes, Japan’s public transport is a joy. From pillar-box-red mountain railways to cable-cars with VIP views of Fuji’s white cap, getting around this country is one of its greatest pleasures. But the best experience, by far, is a journey on the Shinkansen.

A futuristic dream devised for the Tokyo Olympics, the ‘bullet train’ celebrates its 50th birthday this month. It may be half a century old but there’s no sign of the Shinkansen slowing down. When it pulled out of Shin-Osaka Station in October 1964 it reached speeds of 130mph; today it tops out at 199mph. And this is no one-line wonder. The original 320 miles of track between Tokyo and Osaka has since grown to become a sprawling 1,500-mile nationwide network, along which trains run with a metronomic regularity you can set your watch by.

It’s efficient stuff. But before I can sit back and bask in Shinkansen superlatives, I’ve got to find the right platform. Japanese railway stations don’t stint on signage. There are seemingly infinite maps and signs, indicating everything from which part of a platform lines up with which reserved carriage, to which bit of the train is best to board for the quickest interchange at your transfer station. Most of these are pictorial — in theory, for universal understanding. In practice this only works if you’re either Japanese or proficient in Tetris. Or both.

I waste crucial time attempting to decode a sign featuring an image of a girl apparently trying to rescue a frog from a railway track (no idea), before making my platform within minutes of departure. I only just spot the Shinkansen’s distinctive Moomin-like nose ploughing benignly through the platforms. Before it’s stopped, the doors have swooshed open and the guard, dressed in the sort of natty uniform favoured by 1940s US bellhops, beckons me briskly on board with a flick of a white-gloved hand.

With its signature glockenspiel jingle, we’re off. Speed is relative, and when there’s little movement or sound inside the train — thanks to a pneumatic suspension system that detects and regulates tilt and lateral movement — it’s hard to credit the velocity. Passengers crack open bento boxes and soup thermos, expertly transporting impossible to identify foodstuffs to their mouths with chopsticks as we take corners at almost 200mph.

The landscape flashing by in a blur should aid an understanding of speed but, as with most times I’ve travelled by Shinkansen, it’s tipping down outside so I can’t see a thing. I entertain myself instead with the mystery packet of crackers impulse-purchased at the station. Both sweet and salty, I now realise they have tiny silver fish embedded in them. They’re rather good, despite the somewhat reproachful gleam of all their little eyes.

That Fuji moment rolls around an hour from Tokyo. Positioned on the right of the train, nose pressed to glass, camera in hand, I pray for its peak to poke through the black clouds. Alas, once again, it’s a ‘Fuji-too-shy’ day. Ah, well. I’m just along for the ride.

Inside Japan Tours has a 50th anniversary, two-week bullet train trip incorporating every Shinkansen line in Japan. insidejapantours.com