Tokaido (trans. “Tokai Way”) – it’s an old Edo period road. Named after the Tokai sub-region where it passes through, the coastal part of Honshu (Japan’s main island) lying between Tokyo and the Kansai Region, the Tokaido connected the political capital of Tokyo (where the Shogun ruled), with the back then spiritual capital Kyoto (where the Emperor reigned), and extended to the era’s commercial capital Osaka. Travelers to and from the three major cities covered the length of the Tokaido on foot, stopping at stations along the way. Many of these stations were described in the ukiyo-e paintings by Utagawa Hiroshige, the last great master of that style of painting. His works provide the best visualization of what the Tokaido back then looked like.
Rich in history, the Tokaido continues to serve as Japan’s main artery to this date. Now connecting the country’s four largest cities – Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya – plus Kyoto which is also in the ten largest list, there is a tremendous amount of people and goods moving along this route daily in present day Japan. But instead of traveling on foot, the route is now traversed by extensive highways, and of course, the worlds busiest high-speed railway line – the Tokaido Shinkansen.
On last year’s trip to Japan, we entered through Osaka, and made a brief hop north to Kyoto though JR’s (Japan Rail) regular lines, thereby covering the southern tip of the old Tokaido route. This year, we entered through Nagoya, right in the middle of Honshu, and made our speedy way north to Tokyo through the Tokaido Shinkansen, passing through Yokohama along the way. By the end of this trip we had already covered all the major cities on the Tokaido, and almost all of its length, with the exception of the Kyoto-Nagoya section.
The Tokaido Shinkasen was the world’s first high speed rail line, served by the first “Bullet Train” in 1964. The popular photo of the bullet train passing a bridge with Mount Fuji as a background was taken on the Tokaido, somewhere in the section between Nagoya and Yokohama. Now the line serves more than 140 million passengers per year. Just to show the scale of the volume of people passing through the Tokaido Shinkansen – it’s like moving the entire population of Tokyo back an forth every month. The fastest Nozomi service (a limited-stop service) covers the entire length of the Tokaido from Tokyo to Osaka, a distance of over 500 kilometers, in just a little over 2 hours.
As we waited for our Hikari service (the second fastest service, with more stops than the Nozomi, but less than the bottom-of-the-rung Kodama) in the JR Nagoya station, we observed Nozomi service trains arrive and depart with the regularity of city subway lines.
This trip was our first onboard experience with the Shinkansen. We took the Hikari service, the fastest service allowed by our JR Pass (a pre-paid pass meant for tourists which allows unlimited rides on most JR trains – more on that later). The Hikari covers Nagoya to Tokyo, over 300 kilometers, in a little under 2 hours. The service uses the same train types as the faster Nozomi, but stops at more (but not all) stations along the way. JR Pass holders can also elect to ride the Kodama service, which stops at all JR stations along the route, and completes the Nagoya-Tokyo leg about 45 minutes later than the Hikari. The Kodama is not that useful if your interest is to get to Tokyo as quickly as possible, but if you’d like to stop and visit other smaller cities and towns along the route, then it’s the way to go.
My first impression upon boarding the Shikansen was that it was exactly just like boarding an airplane, without the hassle of queuing for check-in. The seats are very spacious, with huge leg-room comparable to or even better than airline business class seats, and there’s overhead space for luggage too. It was just at the end of winter when we took the trip and the weather was still chilly (people were still wearing layers), but the temperature inside the train was kept pleasant enough to remove our coats. The Shinkansen was utterly comfortable.
There’s food for sale on board the Nozomi and Hikari services (similar to low-cost airlines), but not the Kodama. They tend to be more on drinks and light snacks though, but if one prefers a full meal, there are stalls selling “ekiben” (take-away bento boxes) in the platforms of Shinkansen stations, which one can buy before boarding and eat inside the train (the seats have tray tables too). Ekiben cost anywhere from around 700 JPY for the cheapest, to just under 2000 JPY for the most elaborate. The quality of the one I tried, which cost 800 JPY, is right on par as you would expect for pre-prepared, packed meals. No gourmet food, but enough fill an empty tummy.
The present day Tokaido train route’s northern terminus is at Tokyo Station, perhaps one of the busiest train stations in the world. The amount of rail traffic in Tokyo is just mind-boggling. If you’ve seen Youtube videos about people being pushed to fit into trains in Tokyo, I can attest, it does happen at peak hours. And Tokyo station is where the busiest train lines converge. And because of this, Tokyo Station has also developed into a huge commercial area. There’s an endless string of shops and restaurants, including some of Tokyo’s best, underground. It’s entirely possible to go to Tokyo Station not to catch the next train, but to dine and shop. It’s one station that’s also a destination in itself.
Tokyo itself if traversed by an astounding number to train lines, both subway and above grade ones, feeding an innumerable number of train stations. There’s 5 or more different JR lines running the whole or part of the city, around 6 or more Tokyo Metro subway lines, around 4 Toei Subway lines, and numerous other private lines that radiate from central Tokyo. I’ve been to cities that have really extensive rail coverage, like Hong Kong, Seoul, London and next door neighbour Osaka, but Tokyo is a whole different animal. I didn’t even bother to count how many different lines there are in total, because it’s just insane.
If you are travelling across multiple cities in Japan, then the Japan Rail Pass is a good idea. It allows unlimited travel in all train lines of the Japan Rail (JR) group, including all Shinkansen routes, for the duration of its validity. It is not accepted though in most intra-city subway lines, but as the bulk of inter-city travel within Japan is covered by the JR Group, it will save one a lot when travelling long distances within the country.
It comes in 7, 14 and 21 days variants, but can only be bought in accredited travel agencies outside of Japan, and is only offered to non-residents of Japan. It can not be bought anywhere inside Japanese territory. The Japan Rail Pass website shows a list of accredited travel agencies per country.
* We took this trip on April, 2015.