You’ve heard of the jet age, right? It calls to mind glamorous jet-setting people boarding spacious cabins with big cushy seats, and sometimes even sofas, to be whisked off anywhere in the world they wanted to go for the price of the average worker’s annual income.
We’re arguably still living in the jet age, though a few things have changed. But since visiting Japan for the first time, just after the tsunami, I’ve been wondering why no one seems to have noticed that, as the jet age lost some of its lustre, it was succeeded by the bullet age, which has lost none.
Since it happened all the way over in Japan, we can forget – or perhaps we never knew – that the bullet age started only about a decade after the de Havilland Comet and the Tupolev TU-104 inaugurated the jet age in the 1950s.
In fact, just as the first Boeing 707 was taking off in 1958, the Japanese government gave approval for the construction of the first bullet train, known then (as now) as the shinkansen.
A bullet train passes Mount Fuji, Japan
And just as jets were becoming the norm, with the DC-8 and the French Sud Aviation Caravelle making jets de rigeuer across the airline industry, the first bullet train left Tokyo for Osaka on October 1, 1964 accelerating to 210km/h, just in time for the first Tokyo Olympics.
That 210 soon became 220 and this first series of bullet trains, series 0, was so well built, the last one was only required in 2008, outlasting all those first-generation passenger jets (though the 707s and DC-8s and Comets and TU-104s were already long gone, the last Caravelle to take passengers was actually 2005).
And whereas jets have gotten less and less comfy and glam since those early years, bullet trains have gotten more so. (Take a look at the new Gran class.) They’ve gotten faster, too. The current E5 series reaches speeds of 320km/h.
But it’s not just the trains themselves that have made this the unheralded bullet age. It’s the effect. Right from that first ride in 1964, Tokyo and Osaka, Japan’s two post populous cities, became mutually day-trippable.
There was an instant effect on business, as people were able to conduct business in person and still get back home for supper without having to commute out to airports and back.
Hiroshima is a little over 90 minutes from Kyoto via bullet train
But it’s arguable the even greater and more profound effect has come from all the other travellers, the ones who started to be able to see family members more easily and therefore, if they liked, more often.
And people who could finally take those trips to parts of their own country they’d always meant to, but it has been too much hassle.
High-speed trains knit the countries and continents where they’ve been introduced in a way air travel – with those awkwardly situated airports and security and taxiing and weather delays — never have.
Rail can be worked easily into the infrastructure of cities as they’ve existed for centuries, going from city centre to city centre (unless you’re Ottawa or Edmonton, for some reason).
By 1967, within three years of its inauguration, the shinkansen had carried 100 million passengers. By 1976, it was a billion.
We may marvel more at the very idea of flight, after having spent so many thousands of years as a species dreaming of it, but until we figure out a way to fly from city to city and not suburb to suburb, rail is, at least domestically speaking, the more revolutionary transport.
But of course, rail is not only for locals. I still remember the first time I took the TGV, France’s later version of high speed rail. I was on a Eurail Pass, wandered into the Gare de l’Est, and saw there was a fast train to Lyon.
The beautiful French countryside
And being able to get myself to such a relatively distant part of France, so relatively quickly, through horizon-filling fields of sunflowers amid the rest of the central French countryside, was a revelation, and it expanded my notion of how I could travel.
It may seem of that a country as small as Japan was the one to come up with the idea of superfast trains. But what it means for tourists is that the entire country, barring an island or two, is accessible from Tokyo in a few hours.
So, unlike tourists from the pre-bullet age, you can reasonably plan to see most of Japan in a single trip of a week or more. Getting to know it, or understand it, will still take years. But one step at a time.
High-speed rail has spread around the world – or at least to Europe, Turkey, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, and China – bringing with it the option for tourists to see much more, much more quickly, than ever before.
And it looks like Japan is at the forefront of the next big potential evolution of high-speed rail, maglev.
Though the fastest train in operation now is the Shanghai airport shuttle, which reaches speeds of 430km/h, taking passengers the 30km between the airport and the city’s Pudong neighbourhood in 8 minutes, it was in Japan, in 2015, that the world rail speed record was set, at 603km/h for their maglev system, chuo shinkansen, currently being built to connect Tokyo with Nagoya and eventually Osaka.
A bullet train at the station
Once operational, top operating speeds are projected to be about 500km/h. To put that in perspective, if we were to build one in Canada, it would get people from Toronto to Montreal in 64 minutes, and turn Winnipeg into a potential day trip from either city.
So welcome to the bullet age. Take a seat. It’s going to be good.
You can also read our complete Japan travel guide: Making the most of your Japan tour: A traveller’s guide.
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