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Landspeed

Deconstructing The Shinkansen

When the locomotive slides with a sigh into endless suburbs, between office blocks and shopping malls, it glides by like an idea in motion. In the 1950s, when the rest of the world pinned its hope and its cash to the skies, Japan invested in trains.

The bullet train roars for joy as it races through green fields, past rustling polytunnels and the neat tiled rooftops of miniature hamlets. The sunlight bounces through its windows, shredded by speed and passing pylons, broadcasting zoetrope playback over laptop keyboards, the pages of magazines, books, and quarterly reports, and across the laps of dozing passengers. High speed tracks score the backbone of these islands, tracing a 2,000 km arc drawn in pastel stripes, retractable tables, and reading lights. When the locomotive slides with a sigh into endless suburbs, between office blocks and shopping malls, it glides by like an idea in motion. In the 1950s, when the rest of the world pinned its hope and its cash to the skies, Japan invested in trains.

Naming Names
A wide straight highway is a ‘bullet road’, and a ‘bullet tour’ is a whirlwind visit, but ‘bullet train’ is not the everyday Japanese word you might imagine it to be. The prosaically monikered 新幹線 Shinkansen, or ‘New Trunk Line’, relies on the names of its individual services for romance. Written in cursive Hiragana, ひかり Hikari denotes a ‘skips most stations Toukai-line Shinkansen’. The character 光 with the same pronunciation, means ‘light’. Similarly, while のぞみ Nozomi is an ‘extra-high-speed Toukai-line Shinkansen’, 望み is ‘hope’. こだま Kodama stops at every station, but 木霊 – an ‘echo in a wooded valley’ – moves faster. はやて Hayate plies the Tōhoku-line, but 疾風 – a ‘fresh breeze’ – blows in from the Pacific. つばめ Tsubame traverses Kyūshū, while 燕 ‘swallow’ slices through summer skies. Cherry blossoms, falcons, mountain streams, and morning suns complete the Shinkansen’s singularly poetic fleet.

Know Your Trains
The iconic round nosed 0 Series, with a maximum speed of 220 km/h, was Japan’s only high speed service for more than two decades from 1964. The 100 Series, introduced in 1985, had a more pointed nose, and was introduced after the classic round-nosed 200 Series; services running east of Tokyo were numbered with even numbers, and those west with odd numbers. The angular 300 Series came next, followed by the 400 Series in 1992. Silver and sharklike, it was the first Mini-Shinkansen with just 399 seats and running on narrow gauge tracks. The 500 Series replaced the O Series with its millipede sleekness, while the 600 Series was renamed the E1 Series, and released with the E4 Series, the world’s largest capacity passenger train with 1,634 seats, to battle overcrowding. The 700 Series was the first to feature the duck billed nose, designed to reduce sonic boom in tunnels, while the N700 Series tilts on curves to maintain speeds closer to its maximum 300 km/h. The 800 Series Mini-Shinkansen marked a return to white livery and rounded noses, while the E5 Series sports a green upper body, a white lower body and a pink stripe between. The red and white E6 Series and the blue, copper, and white E7 Series are the latest train to be introduced on active service. The super streamlined experimental maglev L0 Series has set a land speed record for the Fastest Manned Train in the World (April 2015) reaching 603 km/h. Regular services are scheduled to start between 2027 and 2045, running at 505 km/h and linking Tokyo to Ōsaka in just 67 minutes.

The Network
The Tōhoku Shinkansen connects Tokyo to Aomori in snowy northern Honshū. The Akita Shinkansen branches west at Morioka, while the Yamagata Shinkansen crosses from Fukushima on the Pacific side, to Yamagata and Shinjō in the west. The Jōetsu Shinkansen runs northeast from the suburb of Ōmiya to the modest town of Takasaki, before turning north to the port city of Niigata on the Japan Sea coast facing Sado Island. The Hokuriku Shinkansen runs east from Takasaki through the valleys of Nagano to Kanazawa in the shadow of the Japanese Alps. The oldest line, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, connects Tokyo with Nagoya, Kyōto, and Ōsaka, while the San’yō Shinkansen winds west from Ōsaka to Hiroshima along the coast of the Inland Sea, before crossing the Kanmon Straits to Kyūshū. The Kyūshū Shinkansen carries passengers south from Hakata to Kagoshima – the southernmost point on the network. The first leg of the Hokkaidō Shinkansen running north from Aomori to Hakodate will open in March 2016, bringing the total length of track to over 3,000 km.

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