How to Ride the Shinkansen in Japan

Shinkansen Transportation

When you start to plan your trip to Japan, you must have heard of the super-fast Shinkansen or bullet train system. The Shinkansen network of high-speed trains is the nation’s pride and joy, and a highly convenient way of travelling. It is always exciting to see the giant sleek trains arrive at the station silently and frequently, and (almost) always on time. At time, Shinkansen lines connect Honshu, Kyushu, and Hokkaido, racing through the countryside, connecting Tokyo to all the countries’ major cities. Below is all the information you need to take your first of many Shinkansen travels. Enjoy the ride!

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Introduction of Shinkansen

Shinkansen trains can obtain a speed up to 320km/h and are the second fastest trains in the world. The high-speed trains are known for their punctuality, as are most of the other local train lines. The Shinkansen system is operated by five Japan Railway Group companies (JR), and most of the tracks were built exclusively for Shinkansen trains. The first Shinkansen run was in 1964 between Tokyo and Osaka, just before the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games. Since then, many innovations in construction have been adopted, resulting in a further increase of speed. These super bullet trains are comfortable and efficient, and most of all safe; there has never been a fatal accident in Shinkansen history!

Mount Fuji Shinkansen Sakura

Shinkansen network and lines

The five JR companies operate different sections for the in total seven Shinkansen lines. The oldest and most famous line is the Tokaido Shinkansen (Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka), which is operated by JR Tokai (also called JR Central). The Tohoku Shinkansen connects Tokyo to Aomori, Yamagata and Akita, and the Joetsu Shinkansen connects to Niigata. The newest addition to the Shinkansen network is the Hokkaido Shinkansen, which connects Hakodate in Hokkaido to Tokyo. In the south, the Tokaido Shinkansen moves into Sanyo Shinkansen between Osaka and Fukuoka. From Fukuoka the Kyushu Shinkansen connects to Kagoshima. 

Shinkansen classes

There are two seating classes in most Shinkansen trains; Ordinary and Green Car, with the latter being more luxurious and thus more expensive. The regular class usually has 3-person and 2-person seating and provides relatively comfortable foot space. Green Cars are similar offer larger seats and more foot space. The seats are usually arranged as 2 by 2 in a row. There is the Grand Class in a few Shinkansen lines that is quite fancy and similar to first-class plane travel. 

Shinkansen interior

How to buy Shinkansen tickets

The ticket prices depend on the distance of the journey, class, and booking status. The price of a basic ticket consists of the base fare and a limited express fee (Shinkansen supplement fee) and usually comes with two paper tickets.

You can buy Shinkansen tickets at the ticket booth in the train stations, or through each JR operator’s website. Credit cards are accepted. In order to purchase a ticket, the following information is always needed; the number of travelers, traveling date, departure and destination station, and class. If you wish to make a reservation, you should know exactly which train to get on. It is wise to write everything down on paper in case the clerk has limited English skills.

At the station, you will see special machines, with an English system, for the purchase of Shinkansen tickets. But as mentioned above, even though you can avoid standing in a line at the ticket office, this multifunctional machine can be a bit challenging the first time. Sometimes, you can end up spending the same amount of time as waiting at the ticket office.

For online reservations for Shinkansen tickets, except the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen, visit each JR operators’ website. You’ll still need to pick up the actual tickets from ticket machines or the office before boarding the train. 

How to make your Shinkansen reservation

Most Shinkansen have two types of cars; reserved and non-reserved cars, shitei-seki and jiyu-seki in Japanese respectively, and all seats in the Green Cars are reserved. The reservation costs a bit extra, but is free of charge for JR Pass holders. You can start to make a reservation from one month before the actual travel date (starting at 10am) until shortly before the scheduled departure time. Non-reserved tickets allow you to get on any non-reserved car anytime and take any available seats, while reserved cars are only for reserved seat ticket holders on that particular train.

To book seats, JR rail pass holders should go to the ticket office at the station along with a valid pass, or you can use the website below. It is also possible to get your tickets at the ticketing machine using a QR code on the pass to avoid standing in a line at the ticket office. Using this multifunctional machine can be challenging the first time, so reserve some time for marking the reservation. Non-pass holders and regular passengers can use the methods listed above.

The Shinkansen can be fully booked in busy seasons like Golden Week, Obon, or New year’s holidays, but most of the time, the train tickets can still be bought until an hour or even less before the departure. If you are traveling together with a group, reservations are highly recommended, especially if you want to sit together. 

Shinkansen

JR Rail Pass / JR Pass

The JR Pass is very cost-effective for Shinkansen travelers; it offers unlimited use on any JR trains, except the Nozomi and Mizuho lines, within a certain period of time. The pass basically allows for train travel across the entire nation! The pass can be used only by foreign tourists. There are one, two, and three -week options, and also different class options, with a varying range of prices. You can validate the pass at any JR station or international airport.

JAPAN RAIL PASS online reservation system

Extra information

Luggage

In the past you could take your luggage on the train without any hassle, no matter the since or the number. However, since 2020, a reservation is required for ‘large suitcases’: collective length, width, and depth measurements between 160 and 250 cm. If you are planning to bring a large suitcase, we recommend you make a reservation ahead of time. It doesn’t necessarily cost you extra, though without a prior booking you will be charged ¥1,000 per suitcase that you bring.

For the smaller sized luggage there is still some additional storage space, which is free for anyone to use. Space is limited, so be sure to get on as early as possible and try to store your luggage there. Otherwise, keep your luggage on the overhead shelf or near your feet.

Bicycle

You are allowed to take your bike on the train, provided that your bike is covered completely when taking it on the train. It must look like a large bag. It is best to avoid peak time and peak seasons as it will be hard to move around with a bike in the limited space and a short amount of boarding and departure time. 

Wifi

Even though most Shinkansen trains have free Wifi and the trains are currently being updated, not all trains offer internet access. The bullet trains with free Wifi available can be recognized by the Wifi sticker in the cars.

Accessibility

Easy access has been provided for people in wheelchairs and parents with baby carriages, at no extra cost. Most all stations are well-equipped with elevators and escalators and station staff assistance available if needed. Please make your wheelchair request two days in advance at the train station.

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Shinkansen

If you travel to multiple cities in Japan, you’ll love going by Shinkansen, and most likely find it a superior way of travel compared to the other countries’ rail service. It’s exciting for sure to travel over the ground at this super high speed! To make it more fun, there are colorful and delicious lunch boxes, and a perfect view of Mt. Fuji. The quiet, punctual, and comfortable trains are an iconic symbol of Japan and you should at least take the bullet train once during your trip! 

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Happy traveling!


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