Bullseye for the bullet

Steve McKenna ignores an early misfire as he puts one of the world's best rail systems to the test.

LEGEND has it that Japan is a utopia for rail travellers; a country where trains have attained a reputation of near-mythical proportions for their speed and punctuality.

With this in mind, I'm struggling to believe my eyes at what's unfolding at Hiroshima station today. It appears the system has malfunctioned.

Pacing alongside a stationary, gleaming-white Shinkansen (bullet train) are flustered Japanese businessmen in black suits.

As they type frantically or talk into tiny smartphones, a Japanese voice drifts from the public-address system. It's followed by an American-accented English one. "The train bound for Tokyo is delayed for approximately 40 minutes."

Shocked, I head to the information desk, joining other would-be passengers seeking answers.

"What's happening?" I ask a busy staff member.

"Delay - for maybe one or two hour more," he says. "Sorry."

Having heard nothing but superlatives from friends about the Japanese rail service, I'd arrived expecting a paragon of perfection - a definite step up from anything I'd experienced previously across Europe and Asia.

So upon hearing this, I'm almost as disappointed as I was when I realised, aged 11, that Santa Claus didn't exist.

We eventually glide out of Hiroshima 70 minutes late and when the Tokyo-bound Shinkansen pulls into Himeji - my next destination - I understand why there was a delay.

The official reason, according to one of the screens in the station, is: "HUMAN DAMAGE ACCIDENT".

Though Japanese trains have an excellent safety record, several hundred people throw themselves on to the tracks each year and, in an effort to deter suicide, network operator Japan Rail (JR) often bills the victim's relatives.

These so-called "delay fees" sometimes run into millions of yen, the high price apparently justified because disruption causes travel chaos for so many (22 billion rail journeys are made in Japan annually; about 10 times more than in Germany, a country with a formidable rail network of its own).

European-style railways were first developed in Japan under the Meiji Restoration government. It overthrew the insular Tokugawa military shogunate, which had spent 250 years shutting out foreign influence.

The first line linked Tokyo's Shimbashi to Yokohama in 1872 and since then, the system has gradually expanded across most of the country, to as far north as frigid Wakkanai, which sits at the top of Hokkaido island.

For this, my first trip to Japan, I'm concentrating on the country's southern half. During 14 memorable days of rail travel,

I venture from Nagasaki on the west coast of Kyushu island to Osaka on Honshu, the largest of Japan's four main islands.

I make several stop-offs and detours along the way, including Hakata, Hiroshima, Himeji, Kyoto, Nara and Tokyo, my itinerary busy with Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, World War II history, ancient castles, museums, quirky nightlife and lots of ramen (Japanese-style noodle soup) and sushi.

Without the trains, there's no way I'd fit it all in. And without a Japan Rail Pass, I'd never be able to afford it, as travel here, on a journey-to-journey basis, can be expensive.

For example, a single Tokyo-Osaka fare on the Shinkansen is ¥14,250 ($180) but with a rail pass, you can pretty much go wherever you want, whenever you want, for ¥28,300 (one week) or ¥45,100 (two weeks).

With a pass, getting from A to B is easy. Unlike rail passes in other parts of the world, you don't need to reserve seats - there are designated carriages on all trains with non-reserved seats - nor do you have to pay surcharges.

It's not necessary to fumble through a Japanese phrase book, either. You more or less pick which train you want to travel on (using the bilingual departures boards), flash your rail pass to the staff at the gate and away you go.

Barring the odd hiccup, the Shinkansen service links all the main cities, with astounding efficiency. Launched in 1964 but honed to near perfection towards the end of the 20th century, its trains whip through the country at speeds of 300km/h, shaving several hours off potentially enervating journeys.

For instance, going from Kyoto to Tokyo (513 kilometres) would take eight hours on an overnight bus but with the Hikari Express (the Shinkansen available to JR Pass holders), I'm there in two hours, 43 minutes (it's two hours, 13 minutes on the super, super-fast Nozomi, where JR passes are not eligible).

Kyoto to Osaka - a distance of 35 kilometres - is a 13-minute ride on the Shinkansen. By 2025, the quickest Japanese trains are expected to travel at 500km/h.

Yet Japan isn't - and probably never will be - serviced entirely with high-speed rail. The Shinkansen accounts for only a small portion of the network; most of it comprises standard suburban trains that run about 130km/h or slower.

In my experience, they're prone to delays. On a few occasions, rides that are supposed to take 45 minutes end up taking double that, usually because of signalling problems, although, heading for a day trip from Kyoto to Nara, I'm held up due to an "INVASION OF TRACK". I can't find a JR staff member who can accurately translate this one for me.

Travelling on these local lines is quite picturesque, though. They pass through small towns of one- and two-storey buildings and course through countrysides of rice paddies and beautiful, low-lying green mountains. There's similar scenery on the Shinkansen routes - including views of the snow-capped Mount Fuji - but the trains are so fast it all tends to be a blur and I find I can't look out the window for long without becoming a little dizzy.

It's not a problem, though, as there are plenty of people-watching opportunities inside the train. On most journeys, I sink into my comfortable reclining seat and marvel at the politeness of the staff.

Whenever the smartly dressed people manning refreshment trolleys enter the carriage, they smile and bow. After working their way through the carriage, they bow once more.

Then they enter the next carriage and follow the same ritual. Ditto the ticket inspectors and the women in pink uniforms who hop on and clean the train at terminus stations.

At times, the train journeys here are utterly serene - in part because the Japanese, by and large, travel almost in silence, in contrast to passengers in other parts of Asia.

When I ventured through India on a train, I was badgered with questions - Where are you from? What's your name? How old are you? Are you married? Where's your wedding ring? In China and Vietnam, groups got together and played cards noisily.

In Japan, fellow passengers will nod, smile and perhaps bow to one another but they converse little. Instead, the ancient Japanese concept of chinmoku wa kin (silence is golden) seems to be taken literally on board trains.

They focus instead on their laptops or hand-held game machines or read voraciously - either manga comics or books, or e-books via their phones. Whenever they receive or make a call, they dutifully head for the carriages designated for mobile phone use.

When I board the final train of my trip, the JR Express from Osaka to Kansai International Airport, I ponder whether or not Japan has the best rail service I've travelled on.

In terms of speed, cleanliness and service, the answer is yes, though I'd say France's is just as efficient, while Switzerland beats it for scenery (at least in southern Japan; the north may be a different story).

Overall, while it may not be quite as impressive as the hype suggests, if you're coming to Japan and want to explore this magnificent country, there's really no better way to do it.

Photos: Speeding bullets: Japan's fast trains

Top tips

1. If you're planning to buy a Japan Rail Pass, make sure you do it before you leave Australia. You can't buy them in Japan.

2. Try to avoid travelling on the trains between 7am and 9am and 4pm and 7pm. You're more likely to find a seat out of peak hours.

3. If you have a rail pass, make sure you don't travel on lines you're not entitled to. There can be financial penalties for using the Nozomi Shinkansen and the private, non-JR rail lines.

4. JR services usually stop running about midnight — and taxis in Japan can be horribly expensive — so if you're out fairly late, keep an eye on the time.

5. Stock up on food before your journey. Most stations sell bentos (packed lunch boxes) and there are take-away meals (including sushi) in convenience stores.

6. The stations can be a destination in themselves. Tokyo's Shinjuku — said to be the busiest in the world — is full of underground shops; Kyoto's is a spacious and modern architectural marvel that's full of great dining options.

The writer's Japan Rail Pass was sponsored by JTB Australia.

Trip notes

Getting there

Japan Airlines flies from Sydney to Tokyo or Osaka's Kansai airport. Priced from $1600 return (including tax). 1300 525 287, au.jal.com.

Getting around

For Japan Rail timetables, see www.hyperdia.com/en. For help planning your Japanese adventure, and for details on flight deals and buying a Japan Rail Pass, contact JTB Australia (jtboi.com.au).

Staying there

Nagasaki: Hotel Monterey (www.hotelmonterey.co.jp) has doubles from ¥7793 ($99).

Hiroshima: ANA Crowne Plaza (anacrowneplaza-hiroshima.jp/en) has doubles from ¥9900.

Kyoto: Hyatt Regency Kyoto (kyoto.regency.hyatt.com) has doubles from ¥22,000.

Tokyo: Mercure Hotel Ginza (mercure.com) has doubles from ¥21,300.

Osaka: Cross Hotel Osaka (crosshotel.com) has doubles from ¥12,000.

With the kids

Japan's trains are perfect for family trips. Most journeys tend to be two or three hours maximum, so the children shouldn't get too restless.

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