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Japan in a Day

2014 marks the centennial of Tokyo Central Station. Check out my recommended 10-day journey through Japan!

I wanted to travel across all of Japan in a day.

You can do that here, thanks to the incredibly fast bullet train that connects Japan’s major cities: you can actually cross the whole of Japan in a single day.

When they heard my intention to ride the Shinkansen nonstop, nearly every Japanese person looked at me strangely and asked, “Why?” They couldn’t see the point. Even the JR ticket agent offered to split my trip up in two days–but I refused–my intention was to “see Japan” in a day.

On any day of the year, you’ll hear me preaching about the benefits of slow travel and taking your time to really soak in a place. But the bullet train offered me something else–a chance to take in so much of Japan is so little time–and to experience Japan in a very Japanese way.

Japan’s Shinkansen (“New Main Line”) or “Bullet Train” looks spacey and futuristic but is actually 47 years old this year. What is new is the new line through Kyushu, which opened in March of this year and connects the southernmost city in Kyushu all the way to the north of Honshu–Aomori. Plans to extend the Shinkansen to Hokkaido will mean that one day, you can truly travel the length of Japan in a single day.

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Japan’s current bullet train, extending from Aomori to Kagoshima (Wikimedia Commons)

Because train travel is so quick in Japan, the country feels somewhat smaller than it actually is.  At speeds up to nearly 200 mph, the Shinkansen allowed me to ride the full length of its track in less than 12 hours. That’s 1,250.5 miles (2,000.8 km) in a single day–roughly the same distance as New York City to New Orleans.

And so, on September 8th, I left Aomori station at 8:28 a.m. At 8:14 p.m., my train pulled into Kagoshima station at the southern tip of Kyushu. What happened in between those two times was a speedy dream of Japan. Even now, I think my mind is still processing the visual rush I experienced, from bright green rice paddies and old-fashioned Japanese farmhouses to staggering skyscrapers and cities that never stopped.

Throughout the day, I sent a flutter of text messages and pictures via Twitter, recounting my version of Japan at 200 miles per hour. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the bullet train would be too fast. Faster than the Internet. Many times I began tweeting about one city and by the time I had finished writing and sending that tweet, we had arrived at a completely new city. This was certainly the case in Japan’s major urban heartland, between Tokyo and Osaka, where cities flew by faster than I could keep up. (So there’s my unsolicited slogan for the Shinkansen: “Faster than Twitter.”) The train was also faster than the shutter on my camera, offering a strange and slanted distortion to the pictures and video I shot.

For those of you who missed out on my live-tweeting the bullet train, here are some of the Twitter highlights of my one-day journey across Japan:

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The Tokaido Shinkansen or “Bullet train” (AE, NGS)
  • Attention, attention! Getting ready to ride Japan’s famed bullet train, or Shinkansen: 新幹線 train leaves  8:28 AM EST!  7:58 AM
  • Sleek white bullet train glides into the station, so silently. Passengers swiftly board @numbered gates. 8: 25 AM
  • 8:28 AM, bullet train pulls out of the station right on time, electronic baroque music plays w/ welcome announcement. 8:28 AM
  • Train moves in virtual silence. Ultra-smooth ride (no shaking). Only in tunnels is there a slam of air pressure & roar of wind. 8:50 AM
  • Break away from the the tunnel & flying across viridian rice fields: Speeding @ 100mph, all a blur. 8:57 AM
  • Train fills up w/ more passengers. Now every seat in the car is full. Yet, tons of legroom, seat reclines & seat cushion can push forward. 9:00 AM
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Japanese countryside shot by iPhone on the bullet train at 200 mph (AE, NGS)
  • Intense green rice fields, each one a precise rectangle: Overhead, 5 white cranes fly by.  10:18 AM
  • Pagoda-roofed farmhouses w/ careful vegetable gardens, square yards marked w/ Lego-like stone walls. Country streams 10:28 AM
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Passing through Sendai on the bullet train. (AE, NGS)
  • Already leaving #Sendai: Bullet train doesn’t wait for anyone, strict schedule kept down to seconds. 11:01 AM
  • Arrived! #Tokyo Station: Orderly offloading of train. White-gloved train attendants give directions. 12:42 PM
  • Changing trains. Japan’s “bullet train” is actually owned by 4 separate companies. Leaving 1st train, off to my 2nd!  1:11 PM
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Buying bento boxes in Tokyo Station (AE, NGS)
  • And like that, Tokyo has vanished, whoosh. In & out of the world’s largest city in less than an hour. 1:31 PM.
  • Talking w/ one of the workers on bullet train. Says he visited America & road on Amtrak. How’d he like it? “It was dark. And very shaky.” 1:48 PM
  • I inquire what makes Japan’s bullet train so smooth. Discover the track is laid in pieces 1 to 2 miles long EACH! 1:52 PM
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Japan’s famous Mt. Fuji from the bullet train (AE, NGS)
  • And then, after a whole lifetime of hearing & reading about it, the real Mt. Fuji appears!  2:05 PM
  • Nagoya Station: — which is, incidentally, the tallest train station in the world. 3:03 PM
  • Now #Kyoto. So fast! Old-style brown clay rooftops, narrow streets. Japan’s ancient capital versus Japan’s most modern train. 3:37 PM
  • Sea of concrete that’s Osaka. City’s gone too soon. Looks never-ending but then it ended. 4:02 PM
  • That Japan is incredibly densely populated becomes evident as I travel for hours on end through continuous city-one long city. 4:11 PM
  • Passing through older villages, top heavy roofs, perched on green mountain slopes, aglow w/ beams of late afternoon sunlight. 4:50 PM
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Hiroshima in Hipstamatic (AE, NGS)
  • ひろしま Hiroshima Station: Stopped ever so briefly, just long enough to consider history. 5:26 PM
  • I was wrong before. The cities have all disappeared. Now only lush Asian mountains, like green gumdrops & above, a pink sun. 6:09 PM
  • Arrived in Hakata! End of line 2. 10 hours riding the bullet train & I’ve traveled the full length of Honshu (about 800 miles). 6:19 PM
  • How is the Kyushu bullet train different than the others? Announcements made not only in Japanese & English but also Chinese. 7:18 PM
  • What’s amazing about the bullet train is that in its 47-year history there has never been a major accident. Incredible, really. 7:27 PM
  • 新幹線 に乗って旅行するのは、楽しい嬉しい面白い。私は今日、一日で青森から鹿児島まで来ました。私の夢が叶いました。いつも読んでくれてありがとう。8:02 PM
  • Arrived in Kagoshima. Mission accomplished. Rode from one end of Japan to the other in 12 hrs. Why? Because in Japan, you can. 8:14 PM
  • Think my favorite aspect of today’s journey was watching Japan in fast-forward: such an intense & busy country, yet quiet too. 9:02 PM
  • Stopped in nearly every major Japanese city today: Sendai, Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya & Hiroshima. 9:20 PM
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Squished insects on the nose of the very fast bullet train (AE, NGS)

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