As I grip the lever of my speeding train, which is threatening to veer off the interweaving tracks ahead, I hardly notice that there’s a troupe of angry 12-year-olds looming around me. Fumihiro Araki, deputy director of Tokyo’s Rail Museum, scratches the nape of his neck: “Shall we continue our tour?” he suggests politely, guiding me lightly by the arm away from the bullet train simulator.
I think Araki is secretly amused. The former train engineer, a spry 70-something, understands the appeal of the Shinkansen, something that shows no sign of diminishing either for locals or tourists. This year is the 50th anniversary of the trains and as a visitor to Japan it’s hard not to be jealous: these are trains so quiet they appear on the platform as if by magic, and with enough legroom to silence a six-foot sprawler like me. Most of all they provide an unequalled way to take in the countryside, flying beside paddy fields and hills rustling with Japanese maple and bamboo.
Government approval for the Shinkansen project came in 1958, with construction of a new standard-gauge track network starting the following year. Much of the technical development work was done by three wartime fighter-plane designers. When the first trains started operating in 1964, everyone went on the move – commuters, families, day-trippers, businessmen – at speeds only dreamt of before. The Tokyo-Osaka run, normally more than six hours by express train, was halved to three. With Tokyo also hosting the Olympics, 1964 was an annus mirabilis for Japan, marking the end of the postwar reconstruction and the birth of a generation nicknamed shinjinrui, or “new people”.
The Rail Museum, in Saitama in Tokyo’s northern fringes, is a Mecca for train lovers but this hangar-like building, with 35 engines and railway carriages, also tells a fascinating story of Japan’s changing relationship with the world. Once out of developmental paralysis with the fall of the last shogunate in 1868, Japan was eager to learn from other countries. There are some mighty exhibits from the early years, such as the British-built Locomotive “No 1”, which plied the first railway from Tokyo to Yokohama in 1872. The US built their own engine for a coal mine railway in Hokkaido soon after, and one appears here in all its Wild West glory, with a vast urn-shaped smoke stack.
Female staff with long black hair bow wordlessly as we pass on our tour. Araki explains that he was himself a steam engine driver before switching to Shinkansen in 1966. He had been involved in the bullet train’s design process but, for him, they could never compare with steam trains. “The automatic control system of the first Shinkansen was impressive,” says Araki, as he shows me one of the engines he drove as a young man, a confounding mass of iron valves and brass dials, “but it took all the skill of the driver away. You hardly had to do anything!”
We come to the legendary 0-Series, the first Shinkansen, and sit inside. With its rounded face and doe-eyed headlights it looks like a friendly robot – Shinkansen are now sleeker, their noses having apparently stretched in proportion to their growing speed.
Early Shinkansen weren’t to everyone’s liking. In his travel classic The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), Paul Theroux was unimpressed. After enjoying the slow, garrulous locomotives of south Asia, in Japan he encountered silent passengers, the trains’ unfailing punctuality and, worst of all, windows you couldn’t open.
The future is even faster and quieter – Japan is working on entirely frictionless Maglev trains, which levitate several millimetres above the tracks and can reach 500kph. The technology is already in use on the Shanghai-to-Pudong run in China; Japan is pushing for a 2027 launch. Araki furrows his brow: “We’ll see about the Maglev. They are harder to control when in motion – I’d rather stick with Shinkansen.”
But while the Maglev work continues, the Shinkansen are being constantly updated. This summer, Japan Railways East even trialled a new variant, the Toreiyu, with cherry-wood bar, tatami mat flooring and passenger foot spas. With all that to look forward to, who needs a window you can open?