Taking the Shinkansen from one point to another in Japan seems like the quintessentially Japanese experience, as far as transportation is concerned. For a visitor, the ride is quite an attraction. With top operating speeds reaching an ear-popping 320 kilometres per hour, the high-speed train considerably shortens travel time, but not so much as to compete against the speed of air travel. Convenience is its main selling point, though. Some would opt to ride a bullet train they could hop onto hassle-free, instead of waiting it out at the airport.
Considering the pros of Shinkansen travel, it does not come as a surprise that airline companies are suffering, as railway networks expand further. Even then, new airline brands join the fray, raising the bar for service quality and challenging the front liners to prove their worth, as they set out. As ANA and JAL try to keep up – churning out service improvement, one after the other – passengers taking domestic flights are treated to innovative lounge designs, more extensive food and beverage selections both in-lounge and on board, and improved seat functionality. Marketing guys pull antics out of their sleeves to influence demand, however slightly. The most noteworthy of which may be meddling with aircraft design: ANA’s Star Wars jets and JAL’s Pokemon jets had become so popular, seats get booked weeks in advance. The competition excites on-lookers; it is not surprising that the airline industry enjoys the adulation of the fiercest of supporters.
With both modes of transportation boasting of their respective fandoms, a first-time visitor might find choosing which to opt for a bit difficult. When in doubt, friends’ suggestions are always reliable. We’ll show you our scorecards for Tokaido Shinkansen’s Green Car (in Nozomi) from Shin-Osaka to Tokyo Station and for ANA B772 Premium Class from Tokyo Haneda to Osaka Itami to give you an idea.
When It Comes to Luggage Restrictions
ANA 8 / Nozomi 10
Local air travel is bound by certain regulations. There is a 10 Kg weight restriction. Aerosols and liquids for cosmetic or medical purposes may be brought on board, though, provided that total weight does not exceed 2 Kg, or total volume does not exceed 2 L.
On the other hand, lugging around everything you need in however big a luggage is, arguably, the biggest perk of train travel.
Time Spent Before Boarding
ANA 7 / Nozomi 9
For the flight, I availed of ANA’s SKiP Service. Going through the Security Checkpoint was a breeze. Although I had to go past the Security Checkpoint just 15 minutes before departure, I made sure I had an hour for a breather before boarding call.
To catch a Shinkansen, all you have to do is be on the platform a couple of minutes before the departure time indicated on your ticket. Entering the train station is hassle-free: a security check and checking-in are not required All you have to do is insert your ticket into the slot on the automated gate, and you’re in. Finding your platform is as easy as looking up. If you haven’t acquainted yourself with the station’s floor map before heading there, you might want to be in Shin-Osaka Station at least 30 minutes ahead of time. If you want to buy a bentō and drinks for the trip, be there 45 minutes ahead of time. Popular bentō stalls (and Starbucks) have long lines.
ANA 9 / Nozomi 3
Since I didn’t have to be at the boarding gate until 10 minutes before departure, I chose to wait it out at the ANA Lounge at Haneda Airport’s Terminal 2. You could choose to relax on a sofa or a chaise lounge, or finish up a presentation on the working stations. The lounge does not serve food in the early morning. Though, the drinks selection is rather extensive, considering the terminal is for domestic flights. Sodas, juices, coffee, and a couple of alcoholic drinks are available on self-service stations.
On the other hand, Shinkansen stations don’t have lounges for Green Car ticket holders. Only services offered on the GranClass may be at par with those offered by airlines to premium travellers. As of the moment, only the East Japan Railway Company has reconfigured fleets to include GranClass cars.
ANA 10 / Nozomi 7
A Tokyo to Osaka flight takes 1 hour and 5 minutes. A Nozomi train, the fastest in Tokaido Shinkansen’s fleet, takes around 2.5 hours to go from the Shin-Osaka Station to the Tokyo Station.
ANA 9 / Nozomi 7
Green Car seats cannot beat ANA’s Premium Class seats when it comes to legroom, built-in functionality, and overall comfort.
Food and Beverage
ANA 8 / Nozomi 2
Snacks and drinks are being sold on Tokaido Shinkansen trains via a snack cart. The selection is not very good, though. Buying munchies and drinks from the restaurants and shops in the train station would be a better idea, than settling for snack cart fare.
ANA’s Premium GOZEN, on the other hand, is worth every penny you spent on the airfare. Breakfast comes with miso soup and a seafood bentō. Lunch and dinner, on the other hand, would comprise of a two-tiered bentō, complete with salad, appetizers, and entrée. If you are the type who takes champagne with a meal, the lovely flight attendants could furnish you with a small bottle. It wouldn’t be a Krug, though. Else, hot green tea, hot coffee, sodas, and beer are available on board.
ANA 6 / Nozomi 0
Aside from the tour brochures and shopping catalogs inserted into train seat pockets, there isn’t much to distract you from the sprawling countryside, during the 2.5 hour train ride to Tokyo.
ANA 7 / Nozomi 9
In Nozomi trains, toilets are separate from the vanity areas, although both have sinks.
Time Spent on Arrival Matters
ANA 8 / Nozomi 10
If you checked in your luggage, you may still need to wait for the plane to unload, before you could rush off to the city.
Distance of Terminal from City
ANA 6 / Nozomi 9
Unlike a Shinkansen station, which could just be a 20-minute train ride from the city center, airports tend to be in the outskirts of a city. The time you save on flying might be eaten up by the time you spend getting to the airport from the city.
ANA 7.8 / Nozomi 6.6
Scores are awfully close when comparing the experience of local air travel and high-speed train travel.
If you’re the type of traveller who values comfort above anything else, opt to take the plane, when travelling westward, especially when heading towards a major city popular with tourists and businessmen. Shinkansen train stations servicing often-plied routes – take the Tokyo to Osaka route for example – can get awfully packed.
You may want to see Tokyo’s majestic modernity or Osaka’s monstrous megalopolis from above, but you also like how the afternoon unfolds on a virgin countryside, as your train chases the sunset. What then? If you’re itching to try both the plane and the bullet train, and have the time, why not take the plane one way, and then come back via bullet train (or vice versa)? We could compare our scorecards, then!