New bullet train opens doors to Western Japan

By Daniele Pestilli on March 21, 2015
Japan's new Hokuriku Shinkansen train. Image by Raul Clavijo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Half a century has elapsed since the plan's initial conception. Finally, on March 14th, the Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train extended its service by 228 km (141.7 mi) connecting the Japanese capital, Tokyo, to the ancient city of Kanazawa. The voyage will be a feast for the eyes as the train traverses the Japanese Alps, then jetting parallel to the country's western coastline.

According to an article by the Japan Times, 934 tickets for the first service on the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line departing from Tokyo Station to Kanazawa Station sold out in an astonishing 25 seconds when they went on sale at 6 a.m. on February 14th this year.

This new service, operated jointly by JR East and JR West, runs at a speed of 260 km (160 mi) per hour and connects Tokyo to Kanazawa in 2 hours and 28 minutes, cutting down travel time between the two cities by 79 minutes.

The first 117 km section, from the city of Takasaki to Nagano, opened for service in October 1997 in time for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. In a similar vein, this new Nagano-Kanazawa branch has been completed well in advance with the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics in mind.

Once a rival in beauty to Kyoto and Tokyo, Kanazawa remains one of Japan's most beautiful cities, and is home to one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan (Kenroku-en), as well as to Myōryū-ji – the Ninja Temple. Due to its relatively minor strategic importance, it was unscathed by Allied bombings in World War II retaining much of its historical charm.

Higashi Chaya district in Kanazawa
Higashi Chaya district in Kanazawa

Tourism remains a vital part of the Japanese economy. Last year, Japan saw its highest figure ever of foreign visitors: 13.4 million people – 29.4% up from 2013 – according to Japan Today. Due to the Hokuriku Shinkansen, the impending Olympics, as well as the weakening Yen, the tourism industry and local governments are anticipating a significant increase in tourism to the Hokuriku region. The Japan Times explains that the estimated passenger volume is about 23,000 people per day between Tokyo and Kanazawa. JTB Corp., the largest travel agency in Japan, said the number of people visiting the Hokuriku region has already soared five-fold between April and June, boosted especially by a renewed focus on the region.

In order to better cater to foreign visitors, the Ishikawa Prefectural Police is hiring female officers fluent in English, Russian, Portuguese, and other languages to JR Kanazawa Station to assist tourists. About 580 English street signs and travel information boards have been revised for clarity.

Japan Railways officials said that this extension was funded by the central and regional governments, and had a price tag of ¥1.76 trillion – more than $14 billion. This huge investment comes at a time when Japanese politicians are struggling to fend off a crushing recession. It is estimated that the Hokuriku Shinkansen line will not be profitable for its first three years.