Japan’s Shinkansen Network Gets Bigger

I would first like to express my thanks and gratitude to everyone that has read my blog and has asked me questions regarding travel in Japan. I by no means consider myself an expert on this subject… but I have done a lot of research through guide books and the Internet regarding the culture and its transportation. So I am happy to share my love of Japan and my travel advice to people one-by-one, and to everyone through this blog.

Today’s topic will be about Japan’s efficient Shinkansen network, which is going to get bigger over the next four months with the opening of two important extensions. These extensions will make traveling in Japan faster and easier, bringing major cities closer to each other. The first, opening this Saturday December 4, is an 81.8 km (50.8 mile) segment in northern Japan between the cities of Hachinohe and Aomori. The second, opening on March 12, 2011, is a 130 km (80.7 mile) stretch in Kyushu between the cities of Fukuoka and Yatsushiro.

The first extension opening December 4 will reduce travel times to northern Japan by a small margin… yet, any sort of time savings is a plus, in my opinion, because it’s just more time on your hands to enjoy the wonderful country. The Tohoku Shinkansen line will extend north to the city of Aomori, known for its hot springs, mountains and Aomori Nebuta festival. Near Aomori is a historical site where you can view remnants from the Jomon period (10,000 BC-300 BC).  Aomori is also a top producer of Japanese apples known as Obokoi apples.

Before the shinkansen network existed, Aomori was easily an overnight trip from Tokyo.  Today, thanks to the Shinkansen, it takes 4 hours: 3 on the bullet train to Hachinohe, then one hour on a Tohoku Line limited express train to Aomori. When the extension opens December 4, the trip will be reduced by about 20 minutes or so. The fastest trains from Tokyo to Aomori will take 3 hours, 20 minutes… but note that the station where the bullet trains arrive will be at Shin-Aomori (literally New Aomori) station. From Shin-Aomori, it’s a 6 minute ride or so to (plain) Aomori station. So the overall travel time, including transfer and waiting times at Shin-Aomori, will be about 3 hours and 40 minutes.

When arriving at Shin-Aomori station, you will have to wait for the next regular train to “shuttle” you to Aomori station… a special rule being introduced will permit travelers to use non-reserved seats of Limited Express (i.e. long distance) trains between Shin-Aomori and Aomori stations, so if a Limited Express comes first, you can use that. Speaking of Limited Express, trains bound for Hokkaido will now start at Shin-Aomori station, go to Aomori, then reverse direction for the trip to Hokkaido. Journey times to Hakodate, the major city on the southern part of the island, will be reduced by an average of 15 minutes.

Overall journey times will be reduced further in March 2011 when new, faster “Hayabusa” trains will be introduced on the Tokyo – Shin-Aomori route. These trains will reduce travel times by an additional 15 minutes.

The regular, one-way fare between Tokyo and Aomori will be 16,370 yen in ordinary class and 21,860 yen in green class… so an excellent way for tourists to save is to buy a 7-day Japan Rail Pass, or better yet, a JR East Rail Pass which costs 20,000 yen for 5 consecutive or 4 non-consecutive days and covers all journeys north of Tokyo into the Tohoku region, including the Tohoku Shinkansen. If you continue to Hokkaido, however, the Japan Rail Pass will generally be the better deal.

The second shinkansen line, opening March 12 2011, will be very significant as it will be a missing piece that will cover an entire shinkansen network stretching from Tokyo through Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and Fukuoka to the main city in the southern region of Kyushu, Kagoshima. This will reduce one hour from the current travel times between Fukuoka and Kagoshima to 1 hour and 20 minutes. The Kyushu Shinkansen will link to one of Japan’s major bullet train networks, the San’yo Shinkansen. Hourly trains, called either “Mizuho” or “Sakura”, will run from Osaka west to Fukuoka then south to Kagoshima. From Osaka you’ll be able to reach Kumamoto – home to one of Japan’s most famous castles – in as little as 3 hours, and you can travel from Osaka to Kagoshima in as little as 3 hours 45 minutes. More details about timetables and fares should be made known later this month.

To wrap up this blog entry, a note about the segment opening in northern Japan, which was sort of referenced in my last post: The local railway between Hachinohe and Aomori will be taken over by a private railway, now that Japan Railway will operate the bullet train line between those two cities instead. This means that if you have a Japan Rail Pass and were to take one of those overnight trains up to Hokkaido, you will have to pay more in extra fees since you would now travel over a longer section of railway that is not operated by JR, and therefore is not included in the rail pass. Fees for traveling over this line will now increase from 3,700 yen up to 6,560 yen… Not to mention you will also have to pay for your accomodation on the train as well.

With this in mind, using a Japan Rail Pass, we return to my idea of an overnight trip with a rest stop. In a day and age where the yen is strong, this might work out better, and cost less: Take the bullet train north, stop somewhere to spend the evening, and in the morning continue the journey to your destination. Sendai, Morioka, Hachinohe and Aomori are some good locations where you can rest at reasonably-priced business hotels such as Toyoko Inn.

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