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

bullet train japan
bullet train japan

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

Along with the rest of Japan’s media I was here to test-ride a brand new Japanese bullet train ahead of its highly anticipated opening. From 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 casts a perfect spotlight on Kyushu, a deliciously laid-back southern haven of hot spring onsen, volcanic peaks, citrus fruits, surfing beaches, ceramics towns and saw-toothed coastlines.

Kyushu Japan
Kyushu Japan

The six-carriage train will connect the hot spring hub Takeo-Onsen with Nagasaki city along a 66km stretch of track – and it’s blink-and-you-miss-it fast, travelling at 260km/h (although it’s capable of a scenery-blurring 300 km/h at full throttle), arriving in 23 minutes when operating at its fastest speeds. Combined with a new connective 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 inaugural run sold out within 10 seconds of going on sale. Meanwhile, the obligatory cornucopia of bullet train souvenirs (from chopsticks and socks to cookies and beers) is already selling out in station shops. It all goes some way to reflect the world’s undimmable enthusiasm for Japan’s bullet trains – from locals right down to Hollywood, with Brad Pitt’s Bullet Train hitting the cinemas 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 entrenched 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 remains incomplete without at least one bullet-train hop.

bullet train Japan
bullet train Japan

My Kyushu shinkansen experience kicked off at Saga Station, where 140 journalists gathered on a platform, herded by rail staff in red T-shirts. The journey started not on a bullet train, but the Kamome Relay – a new limited express service providing an easy cross-platform connection for travel between Fukuoka to Nagasaki. On board, I learnt 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 attracting tourists to the area,” said TV reporter Takahiro Kishimoto, lowering his voice as he sank into a seat next to me. “But locals have mixed feelings. It’s not enough. We need the line to stretch 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 talked about the appeal of bullet trains. “The shinkansen is still a symbol of our economic recovery. I was 12 when I travelled on a bullet train for the first time, between Tokyo and Osaka. It was a special moment; I can still remember the views. 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 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.

bullet train japan
bullet train japan

Weaving among the crowds, I took in the minimalist lines of the exterior: the gold seagull logo, the perforated lines of the carriage numbers, the arced apex masking the pantograph, and the calligraphic strokes of the train name (written, it transpires, by the chairman of Kyushu Railway Company himself). Then, dodging the cameras, I stepped on board Carriage 3, just in time for the doors to slide closed ahead of its prompt 10.46am departure for a 31-minute sample test ride (a fraction longer than the official 23 minutes it will take when launched) – and my journey began.

The seating textile is a deep sumi charcoal grey, with a swirly chrysanthemum pattern, while luxurious swathes of light birch wood span the backs and sides of chairs, as well as arm rests, inside which are aeroplane-style pull-out tables. The patterns continue in the light grey flooring and window blinds, with tile-like motifs hinting at Kyushu’s ceramics heritage (the island is home to porcelain mecca Arita).

By now in fully-fledged trainspotter mode, I photographed all the textiles, before talking trains with Kyushu Railway Company sales manager Noriko Mizushima, who gently reminded me that the innovations are not confined to upholstery – this N700S series train is operated by lithium ion batteries, complete with a cutting-edge 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 arrives in their hometown. They really help to build communities. There’s a strong emotional connection.”

Approximately 16 minutes into the journey I encountered reporter Mai Honda, who is studiously filming a small room between carriages, complete with a reclining gold textile bed – aka 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 captured by countless cameras. Finally locking myself inside, I surveyed the interior of the techno-loo – a “Toto Washlet” which I unscientifically concluded was clean and high-tech, and perhaps a bit more spacious, than other bullet train toilets.

Finally, we pulled into Nagasaki and the media contingent was politely escorted off. Walking out of the station, a newly purchased 50cm long bullet train-shaped sponge cake sticking out of my bag, I bumped into Kishimoto again.

“That 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 finale to a journey that not only upped my trainspotting credentials but confirmed that Japan’s bullet trains (from upholstery and style right down to the loos) remain the 21st-century masters of rail travel.

Essentials

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