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Riding Japan's fastest shinkansen: A 500km/h ride on the Yamanashi Maglev test track

Riding Japan's fastest shinkansen: A 500km/h ride on the Yamanashi Maglev test track

Since its launch in 1964, the shinkansen (新幹線) has become a symbol of Japan, representing Japan's technological ingenuity and the iconic imagery as it goes past Mount Fuji. The shinkansen network has grown over the years spanning Kagoshima in Kyushu to Hakodate in Hokkaido, but it is about to get its most revolutionary update yet. 

 

The new Chuo Shinkansen (中央新幹線 Chūō Shinkansen), owned by Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central), will run on a new cutting-edge magnetic levitation (maglev) system at 505km/h, almost double the current top speed of 320km/h of the current fastest shinkansen. Japan has been testing maglev technology since the 1980s, and it has taken decades to bring the idea of a floating train to operational reality.

 

This means that a ride from Tokyo (東京) to Nagoya (名古屋市 Nagoya-shi) would take only 40 minutes (down from the current 97 minutes) and from Tokyo to Osaka (大阪市 Ōsaka-shi) would take only 67 minutes (down from the current 141 minutes), with a ride from Tokyo to Osaka now taking marginally more than the time it takes to complete one loop around the Yamanote Line (山手線 Yamanote-sen). JR Central has been organising test rides 3 times a year, where members of the public can ride the latest L0 Series of the shinkansen on a 42.8km test track that would become part of the final route. 

 

I was lucky enough to be one of those riders, and I’ll be giving you a sneak peek into the whole experience!

 

But first, where does it actually go?

The red line is the current route of the Chuo Shinkansen, with the dotted portion being the test track, and the blue portion being the existing Tōkaidō Shinkansen (東海道新幹線). (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

The first phase of the Chuo Shinkansen will start from Shinagawa Station (品川駅 Shinagawa-eki) in Tokyo, running all the way to Nagoya Station (名古屋駅 Nagoya-eki), with the second phase extending it till Shin-Osaka Station (新大阪駅 Shin’ōsaka-eki). Of course, the line will have stops at cities along the way including: Sagamigahara (相模原市 Sagamihara-shi), Kofu (甲府市 Kōfu-shi), Iida (飯田市 Iida-shi), Nakatsugawa (中津川市 Nakatsugawa-shi), Kameyama (亀山市 Kameyama-shi), and Nara (奈良市 Nara-shi). 

 

With these stops, many amazing travel destinations are now more easily accessible via the shinkansen network: Mount Fuji and Shosenkyo (昇仙峡) near Kofu, the post towns of the Nakasendō (中山道) near Nakatsugawa, the Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū) near Kameyama, and of course, Japan’s ancient capital of Nara—all now less than an hour and a half ride away from Tokyo. 

 

That’s cool, but how does it actually work? Does the train actually float? 

(Image credit: JR Central)

 

I’m not going to bore you with the specifics of the science behind this—there’s a whole museum about this (which I’ll go through later), but in a nutshell: yes, the train floats. One of the reasons why maglev trains can travel so fast is because they no longer have the friction from the wheels running on tracks, and this is achieved through the use of electromagnets. Interacting with the electromagnets on the train, the electromagnets on the track propel the train upwards to “float” in the air, while the electromagnets on the side of the track propel the train forwards or backwards. Using alternating North and South polarity magnets, they can use this attraction to pull the train forward and propel it. 

 

Currently, the maglev trains on the test track operate using wheels when running below 130km/h speed and then swap to the maglev system once they achieve a higher speed than that. You can visualise this as a plane taking off or landing, with their wheels retracting once they are off the runway and in the air.

 

Wow, now I want to ride it too! How do you get tickets? 

We were about to board the third test that day. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

There’s no fixed schedule on which these public tests are conducted. Thus far, there have been seven tests: three tests conducted in 2018, three tests conducted in 2019, and one test conducted in 2022. 

 

Each test spans multiple days, and the maglev shinkansen runs around 6 times each day. Each run is open to a maximum of 20 participants occupying one carriage of the train, taking a total of an hour with about 30 minutes on the train itself, and costs a participation fee of ¥4,400.

 

Applications are by an online lottery system, released by JR Central on their maglev shinkansen special page. In my case, applications opened from late-March to mid-April, with results in end-April. The application was done entirely online, and payment could be done via credit card or at a convenience store. If you are successful, you will eventually receive a postcard in the mail that will serve as your entry ticket for the ride. Do note that due to the logistics of the application system, it might be rather difficult for a non-resident to apply so you might want to find a Japanese resident who can take you along.

 

So what’s the experience actually like? 

(Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

First of all, you have to make your way down to the Yamanashi Prefectural Maglev Exhibition Centre (山梨県立リニア見学センター Yamanashi-ken Ritsu Rinia Kengaku Sentā). JR Central recommends that you can take a local 15-minute bus ride from Otsuki Station (大月駅 Ōtsuki-eki) on the JR Chuo Line (中央線 Chūō-sen), which is a 1 hour 40-minute ride from Shinjuku Station (新宿駅 Shinjuku-eki) by local train or a 59 minute by limited express. Alternatively, if you are coming from Kawaguchiko Station (河口湖駅 Kawaguchiko-eki) like I did, you can get off at Kasei Station (禾生駅 Kasei-eki) on the Fujikyuko Line (富士急行線 Fuji-Kyūkō-sen) and walk for around 20 minutes. I actually recommend the walk from Kasei Station, because there’s some really nice views along the way. 

 

The boarding area did feel more like I was about to board a plane than a shinkansen. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

Once you’ve arrived you will make your way over to the gathering point, where you’ll undergo a temperature and security check. Do note that eating and drinking on the test train is banned, and there’s no toilet on it either. Then, you’ll complete a self-check-in at the terminal, where you’ll have your boarding passes printed. It makes for a pretty cool souvenir, with your name, seat number, etc., printed on it, and a QR code on the bottom right that you scan to get through the gantry into the waiting room.

 

(Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

In the waiting room, you’ll be guided to your seat and then you’ll wait for the briefing to start. Every passenger gets a free goodie bag with a file, booklets, and a pen. There are also some exhibits around the waiting room including two official Guinness World Records certificates for attaining the fastest train speed in the world: 581km/h back in 2003 and 603km/h in 2015. While the maglev shinkansen can hit these speeds, the operating speed will be restricted to 500km/h for safety purposes. During the briefing, two videos were played, explaining the purpose of the project and how its completion would result in a transformation that links Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya into one massive metropolitan zone.

 

(Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

You will then be guided out the back of the waiting room into the boarding area for the maglev shinkansen. Rather than a typical train platform, the boarding area felt more like the aero bridges that you board planes with, but again this is a test centre rather than an actual station. 

 

(Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

Once you step aboard, you’ll be greeted by the new interior design of the L0 Series Improved Version that is the latest revision of the maglev shinkansen being tested. There are numerous design differences from that of the typical shinkansen. For starters, there is a lot less plastic being used on the walls and ceiling. The ceiling is actually a white coloured-metal mesh with LED lights running through it. Since most of the route runs through the Japanese Alps (日本アルプス Nihon Arupusu), a great deal of it will be underground, thus the train was designed to be as bright as possible. This makes the carriage feel slightly futuristic, but the white lighting feels a bit more clinical than the welcoming warm lighting of the current shinkansen.

 

(Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

The seating configuration is 2x2, and is still expected to be reversible, although the test train’s seats were fixed in position. In terms of leg room, it did feel more cramped than the typical shinkansen seats, however it might also be due to the 4 seat configuration. The windows were double-paned glass, like in aeroplanes, but the size felt drastically smaller than the typical shinkansen, sort of like looking through a telescope. 

 

(Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

The chairs themselves have great ergonomics, and often felt more like gaming chairs with their mesh sponge texture. Reclining was simple, with a new small latch at the top of the handle, that you can easily lift and tilt backwards. The seat really shines in the reclined position, where it feels like you can just sink into its softness. The foldable table also uses carbon fibre instead of the usual plastic, and the dividers are made of hollow metal poles and mesh rather than the usual plastic. It’s likely that these design choices were made in order to reduce the weight of the carriage. Since the maglev technology requires the carriage to be levitated in the air, it needs to be as light as possible in order to reduce the amount of power needed to levitate it. As such, the L0 Series Improved Version carriage only weighs 25 tons, almost half that of the 35 tons for the latest N700s shinkansen carriages. 

 

There were two staff with us on the train, one in-charge of engineering and the other in-charge of maintenance. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

During the trial, the train runs the test track 4 times. For the first, it travels at 350km/h from the test centre till the end of the track, before running the length of the track twice at 500km/h, and lastly from the end of the track back to the test centre at 500km/h.

 

Everyone’s seated and ready to go. Someone behind me joked about how there were no seat belts. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

The first run was to give passengers a benchmark feel of what travelling at 350km/h felt like, which was slightly faster than the current fastest shinkansen speed. The staff told us to also pay attention to the noise and the shaking of the train around the 130km/h mark when the train would switch from tracks to maglev. As the train switched you could hear the rumbling get softer, and the train become slightly more stable, but it wouldn’t be something that you would ordinarily notice unless you paid attention to it. 

 

At 350km/h, you could feel the train cruising along, as you watched the lights go past, it did feel pretty similar to a regular shinkansen ride. The switch back from maglev to tracks was rather noticeable though, sort of reminiscent of when your plane touches down on the runway, with a sudden jerk. Then it stopped at the end of the track, before we were told to swap sides as the train was switching direction. Perhaps due to the use of electromagnets, the train direction could switch really quickly within the span of a minute or two. 

 

I would’ve loved to send an Insta Story at 500km/h but sadly the new tunnels don’t have coverage yet. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

The second run was the long-awaited experience of hitting 500km/h, and you could feel the anticipation in the air as everyone stared at the little screen at the corner of the carriage where you could see a camera from the perspective of the front of the train as well as a speedometer. On a shinkansen, sometimes it might be hard to really tell that you’re going at 250km/h or 300km/h, but on the maglev shinkansen you could really feel it. At 500km/h, you could definitely feel the rumbling of the carriage, not to the extent it was uncomfortable, but definitely noticeable. Additionally, you could really feel the effect of G-Force on your body as you travelled—also not uncomfortable, but definitely noticeable. Still, it was a truly amazing experience as you look out the window and watch the train zoom through tunnels and valleys. The experience is a bit more rugged compared to the usual comfort of a shinkansen, but there’s still many more years of operation for them to finetune the experience. The train we were riding was the L0 Series Improved Version that was put into service in 2020 and was the fourth iteration of the maglev shinkansen

 

A 500km/h selfie, except that the double-walled windows aren’t great for photos, nor is a tunnel. I was actually attempting to take a photo of the tunnel view outside. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

When the train did its third run, it finally hit me that it only took me about 5 minutes to cross almost the entire length of Singapore with the test track around 42.8km. And on the last run, the staff were really nice to help every passenger take a commemorative photo as the train ran at 500km/h for a short stretch. 

 

They actually shifted the train backwards from its initial parked position, just so that we could get a better shot of it. Truly Japanese omotenashi (おもてなし). (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

Then as it comes back to a stop at the test centre, you'll be ushered off to a viewpoint where you can take a photo of the exterior of the maglev shinkansen. Unlike a normal shinkansen that has a more bullet-like aesthetic at the front, the maglev shinkansen has a more duckbill-like aesthetic that is meant to help with reducing air resistance. This also makes the exterior of the maglev shinkansen look significantly different from its counterparts.

 

After another quick photo opportunity, and filling out a survey form, that's the end of the experience!

 

What if I can't get tickets to ride on the test? 

What is a train museum without some decommissioned trains? (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

If you can't get tickets to ride on the test, don't fret because there's actually a museum at the centre that is open to the public. The Doki Doki Linear Hall (どきどきリニア館 Dokidoki Rinia-kan) is a three-storey museum housing the decommissioned 1st-generation linear maglev model, as well as many maglev-related exhibits, and also an observation deck of the test track. You can check the days on which the maglev shinkansen will be doing trial runs on their website.

 

Riding on the maglev shinkansen is one thing, but experiencing it zoom past at 500km/h is another. There are screens along the observation deck where you can see the current position of the train, the speed it's travelling at, and also an open-air area where you can see it pass before your eyes. As the building is located right outside the tunnel, the pressurised air from the tunnel results in an almost sonic-boom like blast of air as the maglev shinkansen passes, and disappears in a matter of seconds. It's only after seeing it from the outside can you really process how fast sitting in a 500km/h train is.

 

If this was a real rollercoaster track, I would not take it. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

The second floor of the exhibition hall also houses a set of interactive exhibitions where you can understand how maglev technology works. Perhaps most impressive is the hourly experiments that demonstrate how superconductivity works before your eyes. Before you is a roller-coaster-like track, with twirls and loops, that have been lined with magnets. The staff will explain the intricacies of the science behind it, but for simplicity's sake when the metal used in the demonstration is cooled to an extremely low temperature of -392°C, it starts to demonstrate super strong magnetic properties. When placed above the track, it appears to levitate above the track, and with a simple push by the staff, it zooms around the track, with no barriers and never falling off. It can continue to do this until the temperature eventually rises above a certain level and loses its magnetic properties. This explanation may sound really dull, but watching an object levitate in real-life and then just zoom around a course is really breathtaking.

 

There are two different types of shows that run, and it’s fun to find the cute little details to move around in the diorama. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

On the third floor there's also a classic train diorama featuring Yamanashi Prefecture (山梨県 Yamanashi-ken) with the maglev shinkansen running through it that has shows 3 times each hour. There's also a theatre that runs videos 4 times an hour, but what's interesting is that the back-most row of seats are actually the original seats from the first generation maglev shinkansen model. Also don’t forget to stop by the gift shop where you can get maglev shinkansen shaped bottles of water, cookies with maglev shinkansen designs on them, and of course, Plarail trains of the L0 Series Improved Version.

 

Be blown away, literally, at the Yamanashi Prefectural Maglev Exhibition Centre

(Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

You might think that such an exhibition would be only for densha otaku, but you would be very wrong. There's a lot of thought that goes into the exhibit design to make it fun for all, breaking down complicated scientific concepts into easily understandable experiments. There's also lots to learn about something as inane as how a train can have a major impact on Japanese society. Lastly, there's nothing quite like watching a train zip past you at 500km/h, and I guarantee that you'll definitely think it's super cool by the time that you leave. 

 

Don't just take it from me, take it from the reluctant student and his teacher whose conversation I overheard at the museums: "The 'waste-of-time' train is coming, why are you going to look at it? It's a 'waste-of-time' right? So why do you still want to see it again?", teased the teacher whose student has obviously changed his mind about how cool a train could be. It's not clear whether the Yamanashi Prefectural Maglev Exhibition Centre will continue to operate after the Chuo Shinkansen opens, since there is no longer a need for a test track, so make sure to check it out before then!

 

Yamanashi Prefectural Maglev Exhibition Centre (山梨県立リニア見学センター)
Address: 2381 Ogatayama, Tsuru, Yamanashi 402-0006
Nearest station: Otsuki Station (大月駅) or Kasei Station (禾生駅)
Access: 15-minute bus ride from Otsuki Station or 20-minute walk from Kasei Station
Opening hours: 9am–5pm (Closed on Mondays)
Tel: +81 55-445-8121

 

Header image credit: Jeremy Jee

 

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