From the world’s fastest train to the longest rail bridge, find out our Top 10 Amazing Facts About Japan’s Trains.
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Japanese trains are amazing - even more so than you might realise - and we’ve got the facts to prove it. Thanks to the JR Pass for unlimited rail travel, Japanese trains are undoubtedly the best value way to explore this unforgettable country, but they are also a world-renowned attraction in their own right. Japan’s domestic rail network is much more than just a mode of transport. If you love trains, it’s fair to say there is no better place in the whole world for you to visit than Japan. The country’s train system is famous for its exceptional quality, ingenuity and efficiency. Japan’s trains are more than just technological marvels too – they are beautiful, charming, in some cases nostalgic, in others futuristic, and in all ways completely unique. And it’s not just international visitors who love Japanese trains, the people of Japan do too. This is a nation of train lovers (in fact, they geek out for their own trains more than anyone!). Want to know more? Get ready for our Top Ten Most Amazing Facts About Japanese Trains.
A Brief History of Japan’s Railways
While Japan’s railways can be traced back to the 1800s and the end of the country’s self-imposed isolation, the modern day history of Japanese trains begins after the end of the Second World War. Following the war, Japan’s rail network was rebuilt under the control of Japan National Railways (JNR) and over the next 20 years, new trains, including limited express and night trains, and new routes were introduced as well as a programme of electrification. However, it was the 1964 Tokyo Olympics that proved the catalyst for Japan’s revolution in rail travel that would see it become a world-leader in trains with the opening of the Shinkansen – the world’s first high speed train to coincide with the games. This ‘bullet train’ became synonymous with Japan and ushered in a golden age for the country’s trains over the course of the next decade. Today the Shinkansen carries more than 150 million passengers every year. Japan has continued to build on its legacy with new innovations and achievements year after year. These included the world’s longest undersea train tunnel (until 2016) and the world’s first maglev (magnetic levitation) metro train. The country’s trains are not just futuristic and technical marvels however, there are also hundreds of beautifully designed vintage trains, as well as quirky and colourful trains designed to look like Hello Kitty, Pokémon, Mickey Mouse, and more. For a longer history of Japanese trains going all the way back to 1800 read our Guide to Trainspotting in Japan.
Top Ten Facts About Japan’s Rail Network and Trains
1.) The Fastest Train In The World
One of the things Japanese trains are most famous for is speed. The world record for fastest train is held by the Japanese L0 Series Maglev, which has a speed record of 374 mph or 602 km/h. While this is a special train designed for breaking records, Japan is known for its super-fast trains, especially its shinkansen ‘bullet trains’. For example, the Alpha X train shinkansen is one of the fastest in Japan and can make the journey from Tokyo to Sapporo in three hours - a route that even recently took seven hours. The Class E956 “Alpha-X” Shinkansen is a 10 car experimental bullet train operated by JR-East on the Tohoku Shinkansen line. It is the latest in speed and safety. And did you know, Alpha-X is an acronym for Advanced Labs for Frontline Activity in rail eXperimentation?
The world-renowned shinkansen bullet trains are arguably Japan’s best known trains thanks to their high-speeds and iconic design. Since their launch in 1964 for the Tokyo Olympic Games, Japan’s bullet trains have led the way in fast and efficient passenger journeys. The word shinkansen, which can refer to both the lines and high speed trains on them, while the term bullet train comes from the early stages of planning the shinkansen back in 1939 and comes from the Japanese word dangan ressha (弾丸列車), as well as a clear reference to the bullet shape noise of the first Shinkansen train series. However, today the design has been streamlined into different, more aerodynamic nose shapes, including a duck-billed design, to overcome a noise issue created by sonic booms while going through tunnels. One of the newest shinkansen models is the N700S ‘Supreme’ Shinkansen, the latest 700 series operated by JR Central, which runs on the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines. The train runs at an impressive new top speed of 362 km/h (225mp/h). For more, read our guide to Why Bullet Trains No Longer Look Like Bullets. A bonus amazing fact: the shinkansen transported 11 million passengers in its first year of service alone!
2.) They’re Also The Safest
Despite being the fastest, Japan’s trains are also incredibly safe with no passenger accidents in almost 50 years of continuous service. Shinkansen trains feature special automatic air brakes for earthquakes and the latest trains, such as N700s supreme shinkansen, have full active suspension and an all new ATC braking system for safety stops during earthquakes and other emergencies. The Alpha X, meanwhile, also features the most innovative safety technology. The train comes with a new set of technologies for a safe and quick stop in the case of an emergency, like an earthquake. These include air brakes on the roof and magnetic plates near the rails to slow down, in addition to the conventional braking system. Safety is a big plus about life in Japan generally. It is an extremely safe and orderly country with a very low crime rate - perfect for international visitors, couples, lone travellers, and families too. As well as being incredibly safe, Japan’s trains are impeccably clean and tidy too. You’ll likely never travel on better public transport.
3.) The Biggest and Busiest Train Station On The Planet
Incredibly, Japan has 45 of the 51 busiest train stations in the world and the No.1 biggest and busiest - Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, which sees a staggering 3.6 million train travellers pass through every single day. It’s such a huge complex that a special app was designed to help visitors navigate the station without getting lost! Japan’s other busiest stations include Shibuya, Umeda, Ikebukuro, and Yokohama. The country’s stations are also diverse and beautiful. Two of the most stunning visually are Kanazawa Train Station and Kyoto Station. Kanazawa combines contemporary architecture with tradition in the form of a futuristic glass and metal roof supported by an imposing and impressive red torii gate (the ‘Tsuzumi-mon’ or ‘Wooden Drum’ gate). Since the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen a few years ago, Kanazawa can now be easily reached from Tokyo. Kyoto Station is a vast, modern architectural masterpiece that features a skywalk with stunning views of the city. Don’t miss Kyoto Ramen Street, which is located on the tenth floor of Kyoto Station, to the south of the Daikaidan Grand Stairway.
4.) You Only Open Twice (A Year)
From the busiest to the quietest. Amazingly, Japan also has a train station that only opens twice a year. Tsushimanomiya Station only opens on August 4 and 5 every year for the summer festival at the Tsushima Shrine. This station on the JR Shikoku–Yosan Line might just be the quietest in Japan.
5.) Push and Pull
The rail system is such a popular and heavily used way to travel in Japan, that Japanese train companies employ ‘pushers’ to help squeeze passengers into busy carriages. It’s not as easy as it sounds though. In fact, it takes six months of rigorous training to qualify
6.) The Best Train Food You’ve Ever Eaten
Unlike most other countries where the food on trains is almost always bad, the special meals on sale at Japanese train stations are so good they’ve become a delicacy in themselves.
Pronounced ‘air key ben’, the Japanese word ‘Ekiben’ is a portmanteau of the kanji symbols for ‘train station’ and ‘boxed meal’ i.e., ‘station-bento’. Its name perfectly describes what it is – a lunch box sold at train stations for eating during your rail journey. However, ekiben is far more than that. Ekiben are delicious, fresh, high-quality boxed meals, often using locally sourced ingredients that reflect the local region, which are sold in a huge range of special varieties, from simple, tasty meals to eat on-the-go to elaborate limited editions and regional specialities. They also change with the seasons too and come in a range of containers – from relatively simple and traditional-looking wooden boxes and trays right through to stylish shinkansen-shaped boxes.
While most ekiben are rice-based, almost every Japanese food is available in lunch-box form, from sushi to yakisoba, omelette to wagyu beef. Some even include dessert! Ekiben are sold at train stations across Japan. To find out more read our Guide to Ekiben: The Best Bento Box for Train Journeys.
And on a related note, did you know there is a train where you can also sample sake (Japanese rice wine) while you travel? Read our guide to the Koshino Shu*Kura - the Sake tasting train - for a full explanation.
7.) Longest Train Bridge In The World
Japan’s Seto Ohashi Bridge is the longest train bridge in the world at a length of 9,368 metres (5.8 miles) long. Bridging the gap between Okayama Prefecture on Honshu and Kagawa Prefecture on Shikoku Island, this amazing train bridge is actually a series of interconnected bridges. And that’s not the only record-breaking route. As well as the longest train bridge in the world, Japan also has the longest suspended monorail too. The Chiba Urban Monorail is 15.2 kilometres long and has 18 stations along the route - making it the longest upside down train journey in the world.
8.) Japan Has More Than 30 Different Types Of Trainspotters
Japan loves trains. It loves them so much it doesn’t just have one word for its trainspotters, but more than 36 at the last count. The general word for trainspotters or people who take photos of trains is tori-tetsu. However, this being Japan there are also nori-tetsu (people who love train journeys), eki-tetsu (those who love train stations), oto-tetsu (trainspotters who record the sound of trains), sharyo-tetsu (lovers of train design), yomi-tetsu (those who love reading about trains) and even ekiben-tetsu (fans of the bento lunch boxes sold at train stations). In short, if you love trains, railway journeys and train stations, you’ve come to the right country.
9.) Female Only Carriages
Japan’s subway trains have special female only carriages for extra safety and comfort during busy congested periods. Women all over the world would likely appreciate their own countries adopting this approach.
10.) Apologies For Leaving Early and Certificates For Delays
Japan’s trains are famous for their efficiency and timeliness. On the very rare occasions when trains are not exactly on time, Japan is typically polite and organised about it. Train companies apologise if a train leaves the station even 30 seconds early and official delay certificates are given to passengers if trains are late so they can prove to their employers and teachers that their lateness wasn’t their fault. Punctuality is very important in Japan. Needless to say, if you’re an international visitor travelling in Japan, you’ll be amazed by the efficiency of Japan’s trains, which run like clockwork all year round.
And that’s not all! There are so many amazing facts about Japanese trains that we had to leave out a few brilliantly unique titbits from our top ten list above, but they’re simply too good not to tell you, so here are a few extra facts as a bonus. Did you know some Japanese trains have been programmed to bark like a dog to scare deer off the tracks? Or that Japan has the train station with the shortest name in the world (Tsu Station in Mie Prefecture) and the train station with the longest name (Minami Aso Mizu No Umareru Sato Hakusui Kogen Station in Kumamoto)? Japanese trains also play melodies when leaving a station rather than a loud whistle or horn when they leave the station.
- We have a long list of guides on our blog about individual trains, journeys, and routes for you to read, from sightseeing trains such as the Ametsuchi, steam trains like the SI Hitoyoshi, luxury trains like the Saphir Odoriko, and of course, the famous Shinkansen bullet trains. This is just a small selection of our guides to individual trains. Explore our blog for more.
- Why is the Japan Rail Pass the best and most cost-effective way to travel around Japan on the country’s rail network? Read our guide to Why The JR Pass Is Worth It for a great list of reasons.