Big in Japan: Bullet train set to beat domestic rail speed record

With the possible exception of the perfectly conical Mt. Fuji and the humble cherry blossom, there is perhaps no greater symbol of Japan than the shinkansen (新幹線) or bullet train. Racing across the archipelago at veritable race car speeds, the bullet train is the technological manifestation of performance, precision and elegance.

The statistics behind the bullet train are certainly impressive.

First debuting in 1964, the bullet train now runs along more than 1,500 miles of high-speed track. The rail system connects most major cities on the islands of Honshu and Kyushu, with planned extensions to Hokkaido starting in 2015.

Although world-speed records for conventional rail belong to the French TGV and the Chinese CRH, the Shinkansen is anything but a slow workhorse. The Nozomi superexpress, which runs between Tokyo and Hakata, reaches speeds of up to 180 mph. But there is a new bullet train in town that is about to change everything.

On that note, allow me to introduce you to the Hayabusa (はやぶさ) or Peregrine Falcon.This past weekend, Japan’s first new high-speed train in 14 years departed Tokyo station en route to the northern reaches of Honshu. Sporting a slick paint job of green, pink and silver, the Hayabusa will carry passengers up to Shin-Aomori at speeds of 180 mph.

By 2012 however, this upper limit will be raised to 198 mph, breaking the current domestic speed record for conventional rail travel. This is not to be confused with the newer maglev technology, which can reach an astonishing 361 mph.

Beyond standard and slightly more spacious ‘Green Car’ seats, the Hayabusa is also equipped with a brand new ‘Gran Class’ car. As a throwback to the grand old days of rail travel, Gran Class passengers can enjoy reclining leather seats, free alcoholic drinks and limited-edition bento box lunches.

One-way normal fare to Aomori costs ¥16,870 ($205), while Green Car and Gran Class seats cost ¥21,360 ($260) and ¥26,360 ($320), respectively. If you’re planning on splurging for Gran Class, book well in advance as they’re a hot commodity right now amongst Japanese rail enthusiasts.

Aomori itself is a rather non-descript industrial city with a few decent art museums and a famous morning market. But the surrounding countryside is home to world-class ski slopes, secluded onsen (hot springs) resorts and some of Japan’s best sake.

What are you waiting for? Spring is just around the corner, so layer up and head north into Japan’s famous snow country before it’s too late.

** All images are courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons Project **