The Shinkansen trains - known as ”bullet trains” outside Japan - is an amazing way of traveling. Japan is a physically small country with a lot of mountains and forest, so despite the country being the size of California, the population is very concentrated in the cities. And while there are slow trains that stop almost wherever there are two houses together, those do not go on the Shinkansen tracks.
I have written before about how much better the Shinkansen is for almost every destination in Japan except Okinawa, which does not even have a railway. Actually, I have written twice about the convenience and efficiency of Japanese trains. I have written about how much easier it is to take the train than driving in Japan. I have even written about our best travel hack so far, getting a platform ticket to see the Shinkansen trains. But I have not written about what it is like to take the Shinkansen itself.
Separate Elevated Tracks
The first thing to remember about the Shinkansen is that part of the reason the trains are so fast is that the tracks are physically separated from other train tracks. The trains run in a straight line (well, as straight as they could make it in a country full of mountains and rivers). And most of the way they run on elevated tracks, so there are no crossings to worry about.
Stations Outside The Centers
This means the second thing to remember about traveling on the Shinkansen is a consequence of the first, and it is much more noticeable for travelers. The stations are way outside the city centers, otherwise they would not be on the straight line. So this is why the Osaka station is in Shin-Osaka, and the Yokohama station in Shin-Yokohama. “Shin” means new, except in Shinagawa, where it has to do with goods being transported on a river.
Kyoto Station Controversy
The Shin-Osaka station is quite far from Osaka city center - not like the Tokyo or Kyoto stations, which are smack in the middle of the city. The Tokyo station was placed there because the powers that be wanted to make travel convenient for the emperor. Originally, trains terminated in Ueno and Shinbashi. Kyoto is somewhat different. The station is in the middle of the city, but it was created with great controversy, family homes being torn down in the process and the winner of the architectural competition being somewhat less than a public favorite, to put it mildly.
Taking Additional Trains
For travelers this means your trip is not over when you arrive at the central station. That is a third thing to remember. There will be additional trains you have to take, except in Kyoto. You will have to transport the family through a huge complex like the Tokyo and Osaka stations, and get on the right train for your destination - which is one of those trains that stop at every two houses, since these are local commuter trains. And then you may have to change to another train to go where you are finally going. Or a bus.
Planning In Advance
This is the part of your trip that you need to plan out carefully. That is the fourth thing to remember. Getting to a different place in Japan is as simple as jumping on a train, but to jump on - or off - that train and get it right you need to plan your trip. Sure, stopping in the middle of Tokyo station with three toddlers and a ton of luggage (and no baggage carts) to look up your destination in Google map may work. There is free wifi and your kids will enjoy the snack or lunch. But knowing in advance where you are going and how will make things so much more expedient.
No Luggage Space
That is related to the fifth thing you should remember: There is no luggage storage space on Shinkansen trains. Well, there is a small space behind the seats at the end of each car, and there are overhead shelves. But even if the train is roomier than a low-cost carrier flight, like with Peach Air or Vanilla Air (which I have personal experience from), there is no hold where the train crew could store your luggage. Even if you paid extra.
Send Your Luggage Ahead
The Japanese send their luggage ahead. You can have the courier company come to your place and pick up the luggage the day before your trip, and it will be waiting for you when you get there (unless you are going to Hokkaido). You only need to bring the stroller (or strollers), and a small going-out bag with change and diapers.
Very Short Stops
The sixth thing to remember about the Shinkansen is that it is fast. It takes less than six hours to go to Hakata in Kyushu, and less than 2.5 hours to go to Osaka from Tokyo. If you were to take a regular train, a day may be enough to go to Osaka, but you would have to either take an overnight train or stay on the way if you took the regular trains from Tokyo to Hakata. This of course makes it more convenient for you as a traveler, but there is one thing you have to look out for, and that is that the stops in the stations are really short. The Shinkansen is fast not just because it travels in a straight line, but also because it has fewer stations, and because it stops for a shorter time in those stations. You have to be careful to get everything together in good time before you need to get off. Including your kids and their toys. It is like getting ready to deplane but only have a few seconds to do it.
Be Prepared To Get Onboard
The seventh thing to remember is that unless you are entering the train at the end station, you have only that short time to get onboard. Here, too, you really have to be prepared if you board in Odawara, Nagoya or Atami. Make sure you are ready to get your kids and luggage (and/or husband/wife) on the train as soon as you can. In a country where the train company is investing hundreds of millions of yen on shaving one minute off the travel time, causing a delay because your toddler is having a tantrum will not be appreciated.
Bring Snacks And Drinks
Thing number eight is to bring snacks and drinks. For your kids. There is a vending machine on the train, and a cart who goes around and sells coffee and sandwiches (and more things). And there are hostesses (I have yet to see a train host (although I am sure they exist). But the trains are long and at lunchtime or around breakfast they will be really busy. And you do not have to be a very seasoned family traveler to know that your kids are no fun to others when they are hungry or tired. Or hungry and tired.
Let Them Sleep
Number nine: Let them sleep. Fuji will not go away. Because one of the great things to do from the train is see the view of Mt Fuji. But if you are traveling early in the morning or around naptime, then you know that it is going to be hard work to keep them awake, and ultimately futile. Let them sleep and have a beer while you watch Mt Fuji. You have probably earned it.
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I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four and a half - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.