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Bullet-nosed and sleek, the shinkansen train glides into Tokyo station. Current speed tests clock the train at over 500 kilometres per hour although a top limit of 110 applies in some built-up areas. The shinkansen is the equivalent of our VFT (Very Fast Train) and the French TGV (Tres Grand Vitesse) and floats around 10cms above the track when it reaches its highest speeds. Ironically, while the French and the English use the same term for these fast trains, the Japanese translates as 'new trunk line'!

The history of the shinkansen
The first shinkansen ran in 1964 from Tokyo to Osaka doing a speed of around 200 kilometres per hour on the Tokaido Line. In 1982, two northern lines were opened, the Ohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Morioka and the Joetsu Shinkansen to Niigata. Future trains will run south as far as Kyushu and north as far as Hokkaido.

The different types of shinkansen
There are three main categories of shinkansen; the nozomi, the hikari and the kodama. Of the three, the nozomi is the fastest and stops only at major stations. the hikari, the second fastest, stops at more stations, and the kodama, slowest of the three but still a bullet train, stops at every station.

When you are travelling on the shinkansen, you pay 2 fees. The first is a distance fee which is the same irrespective of which train you take, and the second is the speed fee which differs according to which of the three options above you select. To have a reserved seat, another fee is payable. A reserved ticket will have the carriage and seat details on it so that you can queue in the appropriate place on the platform. Unreserved tickets mean first-come, first-served as far as seating in the unreserved carriages. These are marked as juuseki (free seats).

Inside the train
On board the shinkansen, facilities and service are excellent with telephones, food and drink, and more. While there are no restaurant facilities, there is a cafeteria/buffet service as well as food and drink trolleys. Seats swivel so that you can either face the direction you are travelling or face your friends and over half the carriages are now non-smoking carriages so there is something for everyone's tastes and needs. Shinkansen run from around 6am to midnight with the same timetable seven days a week except in peak holiday periods where additional trains are available.

The carriages on both the shinkansen and regular trains are divided into different classes. A green logo next to the door means the carriage is for first class passengers who must have a reservation. Certain trains even have private compartments which may be reserved. Non-reserved carriages are for passengers without a previously reserved seat number. In peak times, these are usually standing room only and packed to 200% seated capacity.

Safety
The shinkansen have a very good reputation for safety with no passenger deaths recorded to date (with the exception of those who suicided). The average annual lateness for the shinkansen is less than one minute and, even in peak times, there must be a 3 to 4 minute interval between shinkansen depending on the speed of the train.

Japan Rail (JR) offer rail passes which can be purchased outside Japan and which make travelling on the shinkansen and other public transport very affordable. If you are wanting to see the many sights throughout the country, it is the only way to go.