Fifty years ago this month a revolution in train travel was taking place.
As visitors flocked to Japan for the Olympic Games (held in October to avoid the summer heat), Japan's first Shinkansen, or bullet train, slid out of Tokyo station and gathered speeds of up to 210km/h en route for Osaka, heralding a new age of high-speed rail.
The Japanese were well ahead of the game. It was 13 years before Italy followed suit, then France with the TGV. But although high-speed trains now glide across hills and plains from Spain to China, Japan's futuristic-looking bullet train retains an aura that other rail networks cannot match.
Just as we used to stop and stare in wonder when Concorde soared overhead, the bullet train creates a frisson of excitement as it glides into a station – invariably bang on time. And with its long, white tapered nose, sleek lines, airline-style windows and current speeds of up to 271 km/h, the Shinkansen fleet (which translates as "new trunk line") has more than a touch of Concorde glamour.
Unlike Concorde, the trains have an almost unblemished safety record. Despite Japan's vulnerability to typhoons and earthquakes, not one of the 10 billion passengers who have used the service since its launch has died as a result of a derailment or collision.
This was a comforting statistic, I thought, as I prepared for a rail tour around central and western Honshu earlier this year, with typhoon warnings flashing across TV screens. Armed with a Japan Rail pass, I'd planned a tour of central and western Honshu, travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto on a combination of bullet train and local rail services.
The capital is a great place to get the measure of Japan. The Edo Tokyo museum is the best possible introduction to the country's extraordinary history, the Meiji Jingu shrine and Sensoji Temple to its spiritual life, while the tea ceremony at Hamarikyu garden, amid the bridges, tidal pools, ducks and cropped pines, is a sliver of old Japan amid the skyscrapers.
I'd loved the city's buzz, the great shops and department stores of Ginza and Harajuku, the wacky fashion, the dogs dressed as Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton in Yoyogi park. But it's a high-octane experience and after a few days I was ready for some Zen tranquillity at the next stop, the hot springs resort of Hakone.
Getting there involved a bullet-train ride to Odawara from Tokyo's Shimbashi station, a far less daunting prospect than the main city station for a novice. On board, the carriage was like an economy airline cabin, with rows of reclining seats two deep on one side, three on the other – but with a lot more legroom. It was the atmosphere that was striking though – so, well, pleasant and relaxing.
The guards, dressed in immaculate, naval-style uniforms, were charming and helpful – even bowing to the carriage before they moved to the next compartment. Fellow passengers chatted quietly, or picnicked from their bento boxes. There were no noisy boozed-up football supporters, no businessmen shouting into phones, no spotty teenagers with music leaking from their headphones. Perhaps the only way the Japanese can peacefully coexist in such a crowded country is by sticking to the rules and showing consideration to others; it certainly makes Japan a very civilised country to explore as a tourist.
The loos were so spotless that I wondered what on earth Japanese tourists made of the facilities on our railways – they must feel as though they're in a grim medieval re-enactment. Announcements were, mercifully, in English as well as Japanese, and the only fly in the ointment was the smoking carriage next door which leaked fumes – though you don't get these on all Shinkansen routes.
As the train slipped out of the station, I looked forward to the usual scenes of concrete giving way to suburb and gardens, then fields and countryside – even the odd pagoda or river view perhaps.
But the concrete just went on… and on, and on. Travelling at high speed meant that life outside the window was a bit of a blur, but it was a relentlessly grey blur, interspersed with pylons and the odd flash of colour from washing lines strung on the balconies of apartment blocks.
Happily, Hakone had a more rural aspect. Above the town is a large park area, reached by a switchback train, where a cable car lifts you over sulphurous vents in a former volcano, a rather Disneyfied pirate ship runs mini cruises across a lake, and waterside cafés have footbaths under each table fed by hot springs. Mount Fuji was hiding behind a thick wad of cloud, but it was fun to be among crowds of Japanese families letting off steam in a most orderly way.
Almost by chance, I happened on the Hakone Open-Air Museum, which turned out to be a highlight of the trip: rolling, mountain-backed gardens revealing wonderful sculptures by Rodin, Moore and Miró – as well as a collection of ceramics, paintings and drawings by Picasso.
Back on the bullet train the next day, I was hoping for sea views en route to Nagoya. Instead I got more factories, pylons and concrete. I was beginning to realise what it meant to live in a country where 70 per cent of the land is mountainous, and industry, agriculture and housing have to jostle for elbow room in the remaining 30 per cent. This southern coastal belt provides a sobering glimpse of a landscape apparently without planning regulations. If you're not a paid-up member of the National Trust before you see it, you'll become an instant convert.
But the joy of the bullet train is that it whisks you through the less scenic areas, and countryside finally arrived about an hour into the journey from Nagoya to Takayama. I'd switched to the slower Hida Wide View train and as the track began to climb towards the mountains, sprawl gave way to villages and gardens, curly-roofed temples and plunging rocky gorges. Thick bamboo lined the track and beyond it was a hummocky backdrop of spiky forested hills wreathed in mist. Below and beside the train, a river splashed over rocks and under bridges, widening into green pools and sandy bays.
The typhoon finally caught up with me in the small mountain town of Takayama. But between the gusts and torrents I was able to wander through streets of 17th and 18th-century wooden houses, buy fruit at the riverside farmers' market and glimpse some of the spectacularly ornate floats used in the great bi-annual Takayama Festival.
Next stop was the attractive city of Kanazawa, site of the Kenroku-en Garden, one of the most beautiful in Japan. My volunteer guide was well into his 80s, but led me like a gazelle among the stands of high cedars, the cherry and plum groves, the soft, starry maples, moss ponds and little streams and bridges. He showed me the holes in pine trees where resin had been extracted in 1945 when the country ran out of fuel, and pointed out a kite circling overhead.
It was an extraordinarily peaceful place – the only sounds the raking of paths and clipping of trees by gardeners in conical hats and the birdsong rising above the high voices of some yellow-capped schoolchildren.
Kyoto, which I reached on the exotically named Thunderbird train, is quite simply one of the loveliest cities in the world. Unlike Tokyo, it's low-rise, so you can see the surrounding mountains, even among the bright lights and glitzy stores of downtown. The Zen temples, the parks, the narrow streets of the Gion geisha quarter, the Golden Temple all provide a glimpse of old Japan that is utterly beguiling.
And so too is the little town of Nara, an easy day trip by local train from Kyoto, with its monumental and strangely moving bronze Buddha, a park full of very badly behaved deer and two of the most perfect landscapes I'll ever see: the Isuien and Yoshikien gardens, set against a background of dark mountain peaks.
So thank you to the bullet train pioneers. They may have been motivated by a need to link Japan's cities, just as the champions of HS2 are now. But they should be given an award for tourism: these great train routes provide the best possible way to explore this extraordinary country.
Getting a Japan rail pass
Japan is a strange mix of efficiency and multilayered bureaucracy. You'll find that a pass is great value and works brilliantly once you have it, but getting it is a palaver. First, you have to pre-purchase an exchange order in the country you are departing from before travel.
Then, once you reach Japan, you swap this for a pass proper at a Japan Rail pass exchange office (you'll get details of office locations with your order and they are listed, along with helpful information on japanrailpass.net).
The exchange involves queues and form-filling – all very stressful when you've just come off a long flight, so leave yourself plenty of time. If you are travelling at a busy period, such as spring (cherry blossom), autumn (leaf colours) or a Japanese holiday, you will need to make seat reservations for your journey. There is information about this, too, on japanrailpass.net. For first timers I would strongly recommend booking your trip through a tour operator who can provide a rep or guide to help you through these processes
There are two levels of pass: ordinary and green (business class). Which you opt for is up to you, but I travelled for 10 days on an ordinary pass and never once felt the need for an upgrade.
Guard your exchange order with your life; if you lose it in transit you will not, under any circumstances, get a pass. Since you can't buy an exchange order within Japan, you'll be scuppered.
My tour of central Honshu and on to Kyoto and Nara is an excellent first-time option. With more time I'd have taken the bullet train on to Hiroshima, and Miyajima island. Farther south, the bullet train line extends to Kyushu island; north of Tokyo it carries you through northern Honshu.
Tips for a successful rail tour
Travel light. Lugging heavy bags on and off trains is wearing, and storage space on bullet trains is limited. If you do have large cases, it's worth packing an overnight bag and sending your main luggage on ahead via the reliable Takuhaibin delivery service, with collection from and delivery to most hotels in Japan. See japan-guide.com for details.
Large city stations can seem daunting, but departure boards usually have information in Latin as well as Japanese script; if not, just show your ticket and reservation to station staff and they will direct you to the right platform. Most staff speak basic English.
However, Tokyo's Shinjuku (main) station is vast and bewildering. The Shinkansen platforms are clearly marked, but if you are transferring to other lines (such as the Narita Express to the airport) leave plenty of time to make connections. Not all platforms have lifts or escalators.
Some Shinkansen still have smoking carriages, so be careful not to reserve seats in these unless you want to puff away – and remember that if you fail to reserve seats at busy times, this is where you may end up sitting.
One of the joys of travelling around Japan is that there is very little crime; so you don't need to guard your luggage obsessively.
Most stations have large lockers for stowing cases – useful if you want to sightsee direct from the station.
- The Telegraph, London