Shinkansen Bullet Train

We spent enough time on the Bullet Trains that I started to notice some differences with regular trains, and confirmed them when I returned.  There are so many “gee whiz” facts, that I decided to summarize them here.

There are many different Shinkansen lines operated by the 5 separate companies of the Japan Railways Group.

Shinkansen trains
JR East lineup of the different Shinkansen trains in 2012. They look fast just standing still.

Japan is extremely hilly, so a fast train has to go through mountains, not up and down or around the hills.  It seems like half of each trip is in tunnels. Actually not half, but a lot of time is in tunnels.

The train is so fast that there are few if any grade crossings (flashing lights and dropped barriers).  Most of the track is elevated.

The track is wider gauge – actually the 4 feet 8 1/2 inches that is standard in the United States, rather than the 3 feet 6 inch gauge used elsewhere in Japan.  This creates more stability; the demonstration of the better stability and safety has led to other countries copying the wider gauge.  Why the odd 4′ 8 1/2″ size? Arguments go back to with width of ruts, based on the width of axles of horse drawn wagons, which arguably is the width of two horse’s butts, back to Roman times.

The thing I actually noticed first, was that the insulators on the Shinkansen overhead power lines were far larger than on the regular train lines.  I was right.  The bullet trains use 25,000 volts AC (60 Hz) while the regular trains use 1,500 volts DC.  Each axle is powered rather than having a heavy locomotive pulling the train, thus it can accelerate faster leaving a station.

The station stops that I timed were from 60-90 seconds.  The trains are from 10 to 16 cars, carrying over 1,300 passengers. At peak times there can be as many as 13 trains per hour in each direction.  Despite monsoons and earthquakes, their overall average delay from schedule was 54 seconds, but the best year the delay was only 18 seconds.

The cars are air sealed so the pressure doesn’t change when entering tunnels at high speed.

In 60 years of operation there have been no fatalities caused the the railroad, and only one due to a passenger getting caught in the door. There have been several suicides from people jumping in front of or out of a train.  There is even an earthquake sensor that quickly stops the train when an earthquake is sensed.

Japan 2017

Our Trip 6 of 2017 – August 23-30 – was back to Japan.  We love the country and it has been 4 years since our last visit. We also wanted to see Nagasaki – the target of the second atomic bomb – (we have been to Hiroshima), and Kanazawa, one of the historic craft cities that caught Jenny’s eye. This is Charlie’s 5th trip to Japan, and Jenny’s 4th.

Be sure to follow the links below to Nagasaki, Tokyo, and Kanazawa for the full story and pictures.

Our first destination was Nagasaki at the southern tip of Japan.  We decided to fly, since we would be arriving at Narita Airport in Tokyo, and there are bargain flights from there.  But there is no commercial airport in Nagasaki.  The closest “large” airport is at Fukuoka, a 2 hour train ride away from Nagasaki.  After Tuesday night in Hakata (close to the Fukuoka airport, and near the train station to Nagasaki) we spent Wednesday and Thursday in Nagasaki.

Shinkensen train
Either front of back end of the train we took (they are the same). It is the “pilot compartment” but not the engine, since each axle has it’s own motor.

Friday was largely spent on the Shinkansen “Bullet Train” (up to 200 mph) from Nagasaki back to Tokyo. Saturday and Sunday included a visit to the Edo museum and Tokyo Sky Tree with our friends in the Shinjukuu area of Tokyo.

Then on Monday we took the Shinkansen train a couple hours to spend a day (and night) in Kanazawa on Monday and Tuesday, August 28-29, before returning to Tokyo for a night before returning home to Texas on Wednesday August 30.

The long legs of our trip were in Premium Economy, from Los Angeles to Tokyo on American Airlines, and returning from Tokyo to Dallas-Fort Worth on Japan Airlines. It is an interesting experiment, with space and service between coach and business class, that we will try again.

In summary, it was a great trip to Japan, but we tried too many things, too far apart, including 5 different hotels in 8 nights.

You can also read about our 2013 trip to Tokyo and our 2006 trip to Osaka.

New Zealand

Much of what you want to see is the great scenery between cities and visit many of the smaller towns, so a rental car is the way to go – but be aware that they drive on the left, like England, Japan, Australia, South Africa, and many other countries.  Rental car pick-up and drop-off in Auckland is just outside the international terminal – no bus ride required.  Gas in New Zealand is over US$5 per US Gallon, but diesel is MUCH cheaper and widely available, so if you are offered a diesel rental car, I recommend it.

New Zealand gas prices
Beware… these gas prices are New Zealand dollars per liter. Or in more familiar terms, over US$5 per US Gallon

The North Island and South Island of New Zealand are a significant distance apart.  The ferry is about 3 1/2 hours, and a couple hundred dollars for one car and one driver. Our rental car could not be taken between islands… but Avis would arrange for us to turn in one car at Wellington (North Island) and pick up a similar car in Picton (South Island), continuing on a related rental contract.  We didn’t check out those logistics – this first trip was filled with just the North Island.  Wellington was far enough south that we regrettably never got there.  Having seen a portion of NZ in the North island, we want to go again to see the South Island, probably flying into Christchurch.

As usual we picked up 100 New Zealand Dollars from a bank ATM at the airport.  Unlike Europe, but like the USA, there was a $3 ATM fee (total US$ 75.54 to get NZ$ 100).  We only used NZ$ 70 cash in 11 days.  Visa or Master Cards were readily accepted for most charges, even small purchases.  The balance of our cash was used towards the final hotel bill.

Our suburban Auckland hotel was a block from a stop for a frequent express bus to the center of the city, for about the same cost as parking our car in the city.  Over half of our cash was used on the NZ$ 5.50 bus fares for trips to and from for two of us on two days (total NZ$ 44).

Before we left home, we found several natives who had posted that they had never given anyone a tip in New Zealand.  At many restaurants, you took your bill to the counter or bar to pay, and there was no provision for tipping.  On a couple bills there was a blank to add a tip, and the natives were thrilled with 10%.  At one place I had filled in 10% but the cashier said “that money goes into the til – who was your waiter?  Can you give them a couple dollars cash?” I found her and gave her NZ$5, and thought she was going to kiss me – like she had never been tipped before.  It appears the culture is changing to allow us tourists to leave more money.

Admission fees to museums and parks is far higher than I am used to paying in other countries.  At one museum the admission was NZ$ 55 each (over US $40 each).  We can afford it, and it was worth it, but we are certainly spoiled by the Smithsonian in Washington and the V&A in London and others with free admission. One park ranger, giving a talk, joked about how expensive park and museum admissions were in New Zealand.

No tourist visa is required by Americans for brief visits.  New Zealand is very strict about what food may be brought in.  They have the concept of an instant fine (often NZ$ 400, and if you pay it immediately – even by credit card – there are no court costs, and it does not go on your record.) If they find any food items that you did not declare, you get an instant fine, and may lose the food.  We declared even the smallest thing, like a bag of trail mix with dried fruit and nuts, got to keep the food, and were admitted without hassle.

The emergency phone number for fire, police, and ambulance is 111

We found that there is too much to tell – this is just the logistics part of a great trip.  Click here to start the travelogue, but more will be added over time.

Singapore

Singapore has one of the world’s most beautiful airports. Plan on taking a taxi to/from your hotel for about US$20.In the city you cannot hail a taxi on the street – it might interfere with traffic flow. Get a taxi at a taxi stand or hotel.

It is illegal to chew gum in public in Singapore. Notice how there are not black gum spots on the sidewalks – the city is super clean!

Going to Singapore from the United States you will probably have a choice of changing in Tokyo, with a longer leg on Japan Airlines (JAL), or changing in Hong Kong, with a shorter leg on Cathay Pacific. The total trip is almost exactly the same length (44 miles different out of 10,000 miles), so the choice of stopover can be based on club privileges, schedule, and possibly on cost.

Emergency Numbers

The emergency number to call police is 999, fire or ambulance is 995

Japan

Tokyo Narita airport is a long way out of town – about an hour on the train. Plan on taking the Narita Express (N’EX) train that runs about each 30 minutes into the city. Round trip tickets are about US$40 each way, and are purchased on arrival at a JR (Japan Railway) East Travel Service Center. All seats are reserved, so you have to get a ticket for a specific train.

If you are buying a Japan Rail Pass, it will cover your trip on the N’EX but you still need to reserve a seat.  If you have a Japan Rail Pass, always go through the “attended” entrance and exit – your seat ticket is not adequate for the automated entrances.

If you are on a foreign passport and buy a round trip ticket on the N’EX train, you get a free subway pass with ¥1,500 (about $15) credit. This “suica” card makes travel on the subway system extremely convenient, it can be used for many small purchases (even vending machines), and can be “refilled” as required. We liked them so much that we kept ours for our next trip to Japan. Planning to refill one of them with $10, we accidentally added $50 but had no problem using the excess over the next few days at convenience stores, vending machines, and of course, subway travel.

Haneda Airport was scorned by the locals as the “old” airport, but we have recently seen more international flights there.  It is accessible to Tokyo by subway (not a long train ride), so we visited it, and found a very modern new airport.  We will certainly consider going there on future trips, perhaps even preferable to the “primary” Narita airport.

To our surprise, credit cards are rarely accepted outside of hotels. Many in-town ATMs are domestic only. Go to a post office or a 7-Eleven for an international ATM. Airports even have some international ATMs labeled as 7-Eleven Bank. (Yes 7-Eleven has more status internationally than it does in the United States.)

Japanese hotels often collect payment when you check in, so you cannot use the hotel bill to “spend” your excess yen. You may have to sell your excess yen when you leave at a … ugh … money changer at the airport.

Tipping is rare in Japan – most believe good service is standard and tipping is rude. If you feel you must tip (perhaps a tour guide) place the cash in an envelope. It is rude to give cash directly from your pocket. Staff sometimes chase restaurant patrons to return the change that was left on the table as a tip.

Japanese bathrooms are an experience.  The toilet is likely to have a warmed seat, and when you sit down you may hear water running so it will be warm if you want to use the bidet (butt or crotch sprayer).  Look closely at the little pictures for guidance (there may be a separate butt shower and butt squirter), but only use it when you are seated (to confine the spray), and find the stop button before you start.

bathroom faucet
The left part of this device (out of the picture) is the top of the toilet. The tub is the “hole” on the right, with a single faucet for both sink and tub (it swings from one to the other like a kitchen sink). The gray hose leads to the shower head (hand held or on the wall).  The knob on the left sets the water temperature. The knob on the right sets the shower volume (often selecting between shower and faucet). This particular unit had a separate knob on the front for volume of water to the faucet. The only instruction in English was that the water was drinking water quality.

Don’t be surprised to get moist towels – warm or cold depending on the weather – at odd times such as when you check into a hotel. In some restaurants this becomes your primary napkin to keep your hands clean through the meal.

Emergency Numbers

Emergency phone number for fire and ambulance is 119, for police is 110

Hong Kong

Hong Kong has a relatively new, large, attractive airport, built on recovered land at Lantau, one of the outlying islands. Plan on taking the airport express train (about US$10 each) into the city; from there your train ticket entitles you to a free to shuttle bus to most hotels.

Buy an Octopus card for the subways; when you leave you turn it in for a refund of unused funds on the card and all but US$1.16 of the card cost. If you are a senior citizen, be sure to get a “elder” octopus card which gives you discounts in museums, the subway, buses, and ferries; the savings are huge (in some cases, the ride is free).

We were able to use credit cards for major purchases. Use the octopus card for small purchases. You must use cash for individual MTR trips (in the cases you do not use the preferred octopus card) and for some smaller purchases.

Emergency Number

The emergency phone number for fire, police, and ambulance is 999

Vietnam

Hanoi in northern Vietnam has crazy traffic and unusual traffic patterns – you almost certainly do not want to rent a car. Our hotel provided airport taxi service with reputable drivers for US$17 each way for up to 4 people – a great bargain.

Some of the taxis appear to have a credit card reader, but the one time we tried to pay by credit card the reader did not work. Thankfully we had enough cash.

Credit cards are a mixed option. Many restaurants accepted them, but our hotel added a 3% credit card surcharge. Costs are very low, so we only withdrew VND 1,000,000 from the ATM for our 6 day visit (don’t panic – that million was US$47). Our 6 days in a nice four star boutique hotel was US$ 202.50 with daily breakfast for two.

Numbers in the local currency are so large that it is hard to realize that a fancy dinner for two that costs almost a million is only about $40. Prices are sometimes displayed in thousands – 12.5 is 12,500 or 62 cents. Museum and theater admissions are often cash only, but the 50,000 VND fee is only a couple dollars, and they often take US dollars. Sometimes a 5% service (tip) is added to the restaurant bill, or other times cash tips are preferred, in VND or USD. Dollars are accepted at many stores in tourist areas, but the exchange rate is suspect.

Ho Chi Minh City – formerly Saigon and still often called by that name, is in southern Vietnam, rather than in the North.  It is about 3 times as large a Hanoi.  Rumors are that the air pollution and traffic is far worse.  We originally planned to visit Saigon, but found airfare from home that was 20% cheaper to Hanoi, so visited there.  We loved Hanoi, so no regrets.

Emergency Numbers

The emergency number for police:113, fire:114, ambulance:115