From an engineering standpoint, Japan’s famed Shinkansen is already a work of art. Recently, though, the country’s bullet trains have been putting a renewed effort into their appearance, taking inspiration from centuries-old tradition and science-fiction anime.
The latest Shinkansen to be unveiled, though, incorporates design cues more modern than tatami reed floors yet not as futuristic as giant robots. Instead, it’s envisioned as a travelling gallery of contemporary art, allowing for what operator East Japan Railways calls “the world’s fastest art appreciation.”
A special train needs a special name, and the new Shinkansen has been christened Genbi, combining the kanjigen(現), meaning “contemporary,” and bi(美), “beauty.” The Genbi Shinkansen will run along the Joetsu Shinkansen line between Niigata and Echigo Yuzawa Stations in Niigata Prefecture.
▼ Fittingly, the kanji used in the Genbi Shinkansen’s logo are heavily stylized.
Seven of the carriages will be used as art exhibition spaces, with different painters, sculptors, and visual creators represented in each. The contributing artists have been announced as Nao Matsumoto, Yusuke Komuta, Kentaro Kobuke, Naoki Ishikawa, Haruaka Kojin, and Brian Alfred.
If you’d like your sense of taste to be stimulated along with your sight, there’s also a cafe. On the menu you’ll find sweets made with rice flour from Niigata’s prized (and pricy) Uonuma-grown Koshihikari rice and butter from dairies on Sadogashima Island.
And it’s not like only passengers inside the train will have something pretty to look at, either. The non-windowed side of the Genbi Shinkansen’s exterior is covered with colorful photographs of Niigata’s Nagaoka Fireworks Festival, one of the largest in Japan, taken by photographer Mika Ninagawa.
The Genbi Shinkansen goes into service next spring.
A train in motion is a train carrying out its purpose. So why bother stopping at stations?!
That’s the idea behind this concept train from China. Check out the video below which demonstrates how it works:
Passengers step onto a compartment platform above an incoming train, which is then snagged by the train as it moves through the platform. At the next station, anyone wanting to get off moves up into the compartment, which is then snagged by the station. The train itself never stops, it simply trades embarkation capsules as its moves through a station, giving passengers a window of time to board without the train needing to stop.
It may not be due to begin ferrying passengers between Tokyo and Osaka for another 10+ years yet, but Japan’s magnetic levitation (maglev) train is already zipping up and down a special section of test track in Yamanashi Prefecture, and it’s nothing short of spectacular.
Check out our video of this thing in motion – oh, and try not to blink because you really might miss it.
The Japanese maglev broke world records last week when its parent company, Central Japan Railway Company, announced that it had recorded speeds of 590 kilometres per hour (that’s 366 mph) on a stretch of test track in Yamanashi Prefecture, smashing a world record that has stood for over a decade.
But these are all just numbers; what does a train travelling that fast actually look like? Well, you’re about to find out…
Scheduled to start serving the public between Tokyo and Nagoya in 2027, the line is set to be extended all the way to Osaka by 2045, making it possible to travel between the two cities in just 67 minutes – roughly half the time it currently takes by bullet train. It’s going to be a long time coming, but with speeds like that, we’ll probably have clawed back our lost time after about a week of commuting.
China and Russia’s multi-billion dollar high-speed rail network project
International Business Times:
China is to build a 7,000-kilometre high-speed railway connecting its capital Beijing to Moscow which will reduce the journey time between the two cities to two days from five.
The $242bn (£160bn, €210bn) project was confirmed in a Weibo post published by Beijing’s municipal government. The rail link will go through Kazakhstan and make travel between Asia and Europe easier, according to the post.
China and Russia had signed a memorandum of understanding on the ambitious project in October 2014. The construction of the project is expected to take eight to 10 years.
The hugeinvestment would mostly be made by China, as Russia’s economy has been hurt by the recent oil price plunge and Western sanctions, according to critics of the project.
However, the high-speed rail line can provide many other long-term benefits that could make up for the cost of the investment, according to an earlier post on Sina’s military blog.
The new high-speed rail line can be used to increase the transfer of energy resources and food items, which are scarce in China, according to the blog.
It noted that the rail networkcan be used to import some of Russia’s fertile soil to China to improve the quality of its overdeveloped land. Further, the rail line could be used by Chinese farmers to migrate to Russia and set up small agricultural villages.
The relationship between China and Russia has been strengthened as the latter is engaged in a political row with the US and Europe over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
The countries earlier signed a $400bn deal for Russian gas giant Gazprom to build a pipeline and start gas supplies to China. The 30-year contract will enable the company to supply 38 billion cubic metres of gas to China per year.
At 10am on 1 October 1964, with less than a week and a half to go before the start of the Tokyo Olympic Games, the two inaugural Hikari Super Express Shinkansen, or “bullet trains,” arrived at their destinations, Tokyo and Osaka. They were precisely on time. Hundreds of people had waited overnight in each terminal to witness this historic event, which, like the Olympics, heralded not just Japan’s recovery from the destruction of the second world war, but the beginning of what would be Japan’s stratospheric rise as an economic superpower. The journey between Japan’s two biggest cities by train had previously taken close to seven hours. The Shinkansen had made the trip in four.
The world’s first high-speed commercial train line, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Wednesday, was built along the Tokaido, one of the five routes that connected the Japanese hinterland to Edo, the city that in the mid-1800s became Tokyo. Though train lines crisscrossed the country, they were inadequate to postwar Japan’s newborn ambitions. The term “shinkansen” literally means “new trunk line”: symbolically, it lay at the very centre of the huge reconstruction effort. All previous railways were designed to serve regions. The purpose of the Tokaido Shinkansen, true to its name, was to bring people to the capital.
A couple say goodbye as he leaves on the Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo.
After the war Tokyo was in ruins, but its rebuilding progressed without any master plan. As industries gravitated to the city, young people flocked to Tokyo to work; and as they started families they were encouraged to buy homes. The only land they could afford, however, was outside the already densely populated city. Property prices skyrocketed in the 1970s, and even more during the “bubble era” of the 1980s, forcing newer families even further from the city centre. Tokyo swelled to elephantine proportions. The Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area, composed of four prefectures, became the world’s pre-eminent megalopolis – some 35 million people by 2010, or 27% of Japan’s total population. It isn’t unusual for commuters to spend two hours getting to work every day on trains that exceed 150% of capacity.
This “rush hour hell” has been made famous worldwide by images of station employees stuffing stragglers into packed train cars – potent symbols of the superhuman forbearance of the Japanese worker, but also the dogged efficiency of Japan’s railways. All foreign visitors to Japan invariably ride the trains and come away with the same impression: Japan’s public transportation is the cleanest, most courteous in the world, run by uniformed, be-gloved men and women who still epitomise a hallowed Japanese work ethic that most companies struggle to maintain in an economy that has remained sluggish for two decades.
Crown prince Naruhito on board a Shinkansen bullet train in 1968.
But the most vital aspect of this efficiency is that trains run on time, all the time. This is not just a point of pride. It is a necessity, given the huge number of people that have to be moved. Transfers are timed to the split second, and the slightest delay has the butterfly effect of delaying connections. The Shinkansen is no exception, as exemplified by the “angels”: teams of pink-attired women who descend on a train as soon as it arrives at its terminal and in five minutes leave it spotless for the return trip.
The first Shinkansen skirted the Pacific coast through the huge industrial corridor that links the capital with Osaka. This is a nearly unbroken stretch of urbanisation: it has few parallels on the planet. By the early 1950s the conventional train that ran on this route was crammed. Taking a hint from the private Odakyu Electric Railway, which launched a train that could reach speeds of 145km/hr, Japan National Railways (JNR) decided to develop an even faster train, and in April 1959 construction of the Tokaido Shinkansen commenced with an initial budget of ¥200bn (£1.1bn), though the eventual cost would be double that.
The high-speed network now reaches all the way west to the island of Kyushu and north to Akita, at the northern tip of the main island, Honshu. Next March, the Hokuriku Shinkansenwill be extended to Kanazawa near the Japan Sea; there are plans to build a new line connecting Honshu to the northernmost island of Hokkaido. Each line is under the authority of one of four JR (Japan Railways) companies that formed when JNR was privatised in 1987. But the central government has overseen the construction of all new Shinkansen lines, usually covering 35% of the cost (JR companies pay 50% and local governments 15%). That means the construction ministry makes the relevant decisions about where lines go, or which cities get stations.
In an interview in the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper last week, Takashi Hara, a political scholar and expert on Japanese railroads, said the policy of extending the Shinkansen was promulgated by Kakuei Tanaka, Japan’s prime minister from 1972 to 1974. “The purpose was to connect regional areas to Tokyo,” Hara said. “And that led to the current situation of a national Shinkansen network, which completely changed the face of Japan. Travel times were shortened and vibration was alleviated, making it possible for more convenient business and pleasure trips, but I have to say that the project just made all the [connecting] cities part of Tokyo.”
And where the Shinkansen’s long tentacles go, other services shrivel. Local governments in Japan rely heavily on the central government for funds and public works – it’s how the central government keeps them in line. Politicians actively court high-speed railways since they believe they attract money, jobs and tourists. In the early 1990s, a new Shinkansen was built to connect Tokyo to Nagano, host of the 1998 Winter Olympics. The train ran along a similar route as the Shinetsu Honsen, one of the most romanticised railroads in Japan, beloved of train buffs the world over for its amazing scenery – but also considered redundant by operators JR East because, as with almost all rural train lines in Japan, it lost money. There were only two profitable stations on the line – Nagano and the resort community of Karuizawa – and both would be served by the new Shinkansen. A large portion of the Shinetsu Honsen closed down; local residents who relied on it had to use cars or buses.
Meanwhile, the bullet train has sucked the country’s workforce into Tokyo, rendering an increasingly huge part of the country little more than a bedroom community for the capital. One reason for this is a quirk of Japan’s famously paternalistic corporations: namely, employers pay their workers’ commuting costs. Tax authorities don’t consider it income if it’s less than ¥100,000 a month – so Shinkansen commutes of up to two hours don’t sound so bad. New housing subdivisions filled with Tokyo salarymen subsequently sprang up along the Nagano Shinkansen route and established Shinkansen lines, bringing more people from further away into the capital.
The Shinkansen’s focus on Tokyo, and the subsequent emphasis on profitability over service, has also accelerated flight from the countryside. It’s often easier to get from a regional capital to Tokyo than to the nearest neighbouring city. Except for sections of the Tohoku Shinkansen, which serves northeastern Japan, local train lines don’t always accommodate Shinkansen rolling stock, so there are often no direct transfer points between local lines and Shinkansen lines. The Tokaido Shinkansen alone now operates 323 trains a day, taking 140 million fares a year, dwarfing local lines. This has had a crucial effect on the physical shape of the city. As a result of this funnelling, Tokyo is becoming even denser and more vertical – not just upward, but downward. With more Shinkansen passengers coming into the capital, JR East has to dig ever deeper under Tokyo Station to create more platforms.
Deepest of all is the new Tokyo terminal for the latest incarnation of the bullet train – the maglev, or Chuo (“central”) Shinkansen, which is supposed to connect Tokyo to Nagoya by 2027 and is being built 40m underground. The maglev is the next technological stage in the evolution of high-speed rail travel. It is meant to be a morale booster for Japan’s railway industry, which no longer boasts the fastest trains or the biggest ridership in the world, distinctions that now belong to Japan’s huge neighbour to the west.
A passenger in traditional dress on board a Japanese Hikari Shinkansen bullet train in 1965.
It is being built by JR Tokai, the company that runs the original super-profitable Tokaido Shinkansen, though experts assume the central government will eventually have to contribute money due to snowballing costs. The Chuo Shinkansen will cut the time it takes to get to Nagoya to 40 minutes, theoretically putting the central Japanese capital within commuting distance of Tokyo – in much the same way that the proposed HS2 will make Birmingham a bedroom community of London. “The Chuo Shinkansen will make Nagoya feel like a suburb of Tokyo,” said Hara.
If you have any doubt about that, consider that the maglev – short for “magnetic-levitation”, and known in Japanese as “linear motor car” – has to move in as straight and as level a line as possible in order to reach the speeds that will make it the fastest train on Earth. But since Japan’s topography is mostly mountainous, 86% of the journey will be underground. (The technology probably makes more sense on a flat, open terrain, and JR Tokai is trying to sell it abroad.) In other words, the maglev will essentially be a very long subway ride. Certainly few tourists will find it appealing.
Plans are to extend the maglev to Osaka by 2045, by which time potential ridership will have declined by a third, due to Japan’s shrinking population and more efficient air travel due to new regional airports. The Shinkansen is expensive; with the rise of low-cost carriers, any train trip that takes more than two hours from Tokyo is less cost-effective than flying. The development of the Shinkansen can’t be separated from geography. China’s faster, vaster high-speed rail service isn’t all focused on Beijing, because the country itself is huge; in Japan, however, until recently the Shinkansen was the best way to get to Tokyo from almost anywhere. Like the first Shinkansen, the maglev is a national project, even if the central government hasn’t spent any money on it (yet), but national priorities aren’t as clear as they were in the 1950s. Tokyo can’t get any bigger. Other areas of Japan are barely hanging on. Japan’s high-speed rail system may end up being the victim of its own success.
For the past few decades, getting around Japan has been a snap using the extremely efficient rail network that crisscrosses the country. Even better, in just a few years, not only will you be able to go anywhere on the main island of Honshu by train, but you’ll be able to do it in style, thanks to luxurious new trains servicing the Chugoku, Kanto, and Tohoku regions.
Hokuriku, the part of Japan running along the central northern coast of Honshu, isn’t about to be left out though, and its upcoming train may be the most opulent of all, with an interior decorated with traditional lacquer and gold leaf.
Compared to the other new trains listed above, Hokuriku’s initially seems like a much more modest travel option. The Tohoku train is an ultra-fast Shinkansen model, and Kanto’s and Chugoku’s are sleeper trains. In contrast, the new train for the Hokuriku area, which will run between Kanazawa and the Wakura Onsen hot spring resort in Ishikawa Prefecture, is neither, plus only two cars long with seats for just 52 passengers.
The small scale doesn’t mean any less effort is going into the aesthetics, though, as revealed by concept renderings recently released by Japan railways.
The design cues for the project are “beauty,” and “Japanese tradition,” and plenty of both are apparent in this early artwork. Ever since gold was discovered in the surrounding area centuries ago, Kanazawa has been associated with the precious metal, and the city remains Japan’s most famous producer of gold leaf handicrafts. Lacquerware from the town of Wajima, also located in Ishikawa, is similarly prized, and both elements are prominently featured in the interior of the train’s carriages.
The exterior also gives a nod to Hokuriku’s traditional culture, with imagery evocative of the patterns that grace Ishikawa’s Kaga-Yuzen kimono.
Inside, travelers can snack on Japanese-style desserts or sample a selection of Hokuriku sake. There’s even a stage for folk music performances in one car, which is then relayed by monitor to passengers riding in the other.
Hokuriku’s snazzy new train has its first run tentatively scheduled for October of 2015.
You could argue that the Shinkansen is the greatest engineering marvel Japan has ever put together. Amazingly fast, the bullet train is also bulletproof in its reliability and punctuality, with almost no delays and not a single accident since the high speed rail service was opened in 1964.
To find a much cooler piece of Japanese technology, you have to go into the world of science fiction and animerobots. Now, some clever designers have put two and two together and created a transforming mecha character based on Japan’s fastest train.
The annual International Tokyo Toy Show is going on right now, and we stopped by to check out some of the 35,000 items being displayed by the 157 exhibiting companies. While there, we came across the booth for jeki, a promotional subsidiary of Japan Railways East.
The team at jeki struck gold with its previous creation, the Suica Penguin who serves as the primary mascot for JR East. You can find the loveable aquatic bird on prepaid JR cards and posters, not to mention in the display case of cake shops on occasion.
But while the Suica Penguin is undeniably cute, he’s not exactly cool. Stepping up to claim that adjective is the new character created under jeki’s Project E5.
The robot is modeled after the E5 Series Shinkansen, which went into use in 2011 on the Tohoku Shinkansen line that connects Tokyo and Shin Aomori Stations. Aside from its sleek lines, the robot checks off two important boxes. First, it transforms.
And second, it looks awesome posing.
The company hasn’t given away much in details about the character’s backstory, so we don’t know yet whether or not the powerful looking machine occasionally has to change into combat mode and fight off alien invaders, all the while continuing to carry its load of business and pleasure travelers. Moreover, the giant-sized model shown here is still just a preliminary concept, although if you ask us, it looks good enough that jeki’s artists can call it a day.
The jeki representative we spoke with said the long-term plan is to produce and sell figures of the character, so if you’re a model train or mecha toy collector, you might want to start clearing off some shelf space. In the meantime, the concept statue will be on display as part of the Tokyo Toy Show at Big Sight on Odaiba from now until June 16.