A rite of passage to being able to say you’ve ‘travelled Japan’ is riding the famous Shinkansen bullet train. These super-speed trains are part and parcel of experiencing the grandness of the technologically advanced country, and you would be at a massive loss if you don’t hop on one whilst you’re there!
However, using a Shinkansen train isn’t as easy as tapping on and off, like most train systems. In fact, with the online booking system, seat reservation feature, separate platforms, and even train pass discounts for traveling to different cities, there’s a lot to learn and understand about the Shinkansen that isn’t obvious to the naked eye.
‘How To Use Shinkansen in Japan’ has been a popular search on Google for years now, and with this article, we’ll give you the low down on how to travel efficiently and effectively using the Shinkansen.
Consider this a Shinkansen 101 guide! Let’s get cracking.
What is a Shinkansen?
A Shinkansen is a high-speed rail train in Japan. It is commonly referred to as the “bullet train” because its speed is so fast, it’s as though you’re traveling in a bullet. It can actually reach speeds of up to 320 km/hr!
The entire Shinkansen bullet train network stretches across multiple cities in Japan, meaning technically you can travel across the whole country in just a few days via these Shinkansen trains!
What makes traveling on a Shinkansen train so popular and exciting is not only the fact that it travels at such a fast speed, but also offers passengers an unexpectedly comfortable, peaceful ride with little turbulence. The views aren’t too shabby either!
Where can you purchase Shinkansen tickets in Japan?
Shinkansen tickets can be purchased at JR Ticket Offices (located at JR train stations), ticket machines, and even online.
We recommend purchasing your tickets online as it means you can easily secure your seat immediately without the hassle of having to go to an office. You will also receive confirmation almost immediately for peace of mind. However, keep in mind that although you purchased the ticket online, you will still need to collect your reserved tickets from a machine or a service desk at the station.
If you’re already in Japan, you can head straight to a ticket office, let them know your travel route as well as date and time details, and they should be able to fix you up on the spot.
Otherwise, ticket machines are extraordinarily easy to purchase Shinkansen tickets from, with most of them offering an English menu option that easily explains how and what you need to do to purchase the correct Shinkansen ticket.
If you’re looking for a convenient way to book your tickets soon, we highly recommend this option available on Klook. It is an all-Japan JR Pass that allows you to explore all of Japan under one pass!
With this Japan-wide JR Pass, you can hop on any JR train, including Shinkansen trains, all around Japan. There are three options available: 7 days, 14 days, and 21 days. It’s super flexible and suitable for all sorts of travellers.
From the top of the Hokkaido Island at Wakkanai to the tip of Honshu at Kagoshima, your JR pass will be valid on all JR train lines (excluding the Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen line).
Remember, you will still need to head to the ticket office stations or machines to reserve your seat for each Shinkansen ride.
Keen to learn more and purchase your ticket? Check it out here!
Can you book a Shinkansen at the last minute?
Of course! The benefits of booking your Shinkansen tickets early on would be that you secure your seat where you want it on the train.
However, for last-minute travellers or those who decide that the Shinkansen is worth it after all, after landing in the country, you can still make same-day purchases at the ticketing office at the JR train station.
Note that last-minute purchases mean you may pay a bit more, and you will only get to choose seats based on whatever is left. If all the reserve seats are booked, you may also have to go to the non-reserved seats cars and it won’t guarantee that you can sit during the whole ride.
JR Pass: Why It’s Worth It
The JR Pass is a pass that offers unlimited use on any JR train across Japan (except for the Nozomi and Mizuji lines) within a certain period of time from its first use. The JR Pass is an extraordinary travel hack that is 100% worth it for most travellers.
However, it will really depend on your travel itinerary, how many days you’re in Japan, and most important, where you plan on going.
There are various options for JR Passes, all of which differ in terms of regions of use, length of validity of pass, and class/carriage type. If you’re considering some long-distance traveling across Japan to any of the major cities, chances are, the JR Pass is something you should definitely look into!
It is a massive cost-saver and it will ensure you have a clear transportation route to your next destination – no further planning required.
The Regional JR Passes
If you plan to travel around regional Japan for a few days, the regional JR passes are a great option to save time and money.
We’ll list below the best regional JR passes for you to look into.
Hokkaido Rail Pass: The Hokkaido Rail Pass holders can ride all JR Hokkaido trains (except for the Hokkaido Shinkansen). You can select to either get the 5-day pass or the 7-day pass.
JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass: This 6-day pass allows unlimited rides on trains across the East of Japan and southern Hokkaido. This is a massive cost-saver if you want to head from Narita Airport to Hokkaido whilst exploring a few cities along the way. Examples would include Zao, Akita, and Aomori.
JR East Pass (Tohoku and Niigata, Nagano Area): This is one of the most popular regional JR passes for tourists! There are two options for the JR East Pass: one that covers the Tohoku region, and one that covers the Niigata and Nagano Region.
For the first option, this 5 consecutive day pass allows the traveller to hop on unlimited trains and bullet trains throughout the Tohoku region. It’s fantastic for those with an itinerary spanning 5 days who want to explore Tokyo city, and then head further north along the coast to Zao Onsen, Aomori Oirase, and across to Akita Shirakami, before coming back to Tokyo.
Similar to the JR East Pass for Tohoku, the Niigata & Nagano JR East Pass allows you to explore the entirety of Niigata, Shinshu, Matsumoto, and Hakuba. You may also sightsee across the major city of Tokyo as well.
Hokuriku Arch Pass: This pass allows you to travel between Tokyo and Osaka via Nagano, Fukui, Ishikawa, and Toyama.
JR West Rail Pass: If you’re planning to extensively explore Kyoto and Osaka, with plans to travel further west to Toyama and Kanazawa, or even down to Okayama and Hiroshima, this JR West pass is perfect for you. This 7 consecutive-day pass allows you to hop on and off the entire west of Japan, all the way across to Hakata!
Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Area Pass: This pass allows you to travel through the regions of Toyama, Gifu, and Nagano. You are allowed to hop on unlimited JR train rides between cities and villages such as Nagoya, Gero, Takayama, Toyama, Kiso Fukushima, Matsumoto, and Shinanon Omachi.
All Shikoku Rail Pass: The All Shikoku Rail Pass is, of course, valid across all JR trains within the island of Shikoku. There are multiple types of passes available, the first being for 3 consecutive days, and the longest being 7 consecutive days.
JR Kyushu Rail Pass: Kyushu is located in Japan’s south, and this JR pass allows you to explore all of the wonderful regions in either 3, 5, or 7 consecutive days. You may also choose to select a Northern Kyushu pass or a Southern Kyushu pass.
What’s the difference between Reserved Seats and Non-Reserved Seats
A reserved seat means that someone has pre-booked the seat already, and a non-reserved seat means that they’re on a first-come, first-served basis.
With an Ordinary car, you can choose to reserve your seat before you alight (cost is free of charge as it is included in your ticket), or you can simply board the train and sit on any available seat.
With a Green car, you must pre-select your seat beforehand, as all Green car seats need to be allocated.
What’s the difference between Green Cars vs Ordinary Cars
There are two types of carriage options for traveling with the JR Pass: traveling in Green cars and traveling in Ordinary cars.
The easiest way to understand the difference between these two car options is to liken Green cars to business or first class, whereas Ordinary cars are, well, the ordinary carriage options that most of us would have travelled on before.
The Green cars offer more comfortable, spacious, and lux-feeling seats. There is more legroom, and you’ll only have one other passenger beside you. Green cars will often have small and subtle extras that make for an overall more comfortable experience, such as electric reclining and in-seat reading lights.
The Ordinary JR Pass will have two other passengers beside you, the seats are slightly smaller, and there will definitely be no electric reclining.
In saying that, the Ordinary cars are still extraordinarily comfortable for being ‘ordinary’, as can be attested by the millions of travellers who have experienced them before. Plus, the upside to Ordinary cars is that you can breeze past the ticket gates and hop on without having to make any reservations, whereas with the Green cars, you must make a reservation either online or at a ticket office before you hop on.
More tips about traveling to Japan here: Japan Travel Blog.
Is there Wi-Fi in Shinkansen?
These days, almost all Shinkansen trains will offer free Wi-Fi for their passengers. Soon, all Shinkansen trains will have Wi-Fi!
However, we recommend you take precautions with your passwords as the Wi-Fi network is open.
With the Tohoku, Hokkaido, Hokuriku and Joetsu Shinkansen trains, there are power outlets provided in the front of the armrest of each seat so you can plug your phone in, connect to the Wi-Fi and relax for your entire trip.
Are there toilets in Shinkansen?
There are toilets on all Shinkansen trains. They may or may not be gender-separated. They are usually located around the exit section of the carriage.
Where to put your luggage on Shinkansen trains?
There are a few luggage items on the Shinkansen trains. Most of the time, people send their larger luggage to their destination via the luggage delivery services, and take only their smaller carry-on-sized luggage onto the Shinkansen. There are overhead storage racks for this, and you can simply pop your luggage on top before settling into your seat.
If you have oversized luggage, you should try to book the last row of seats in the railcar. There is space between this row to store oversized luggage. You will need to reserve these seats in advance (you cannot simply just hop on the train and sit on them).
If you cannot book a seat on the last row, you can try and book a receive a seat that comes with an oversized baggage compartment. These compartments are located near the bathroom/exit areas.
The maximum length of the upper rack is 80cm x 60cm x 50cm. The maximum length of the lower rack is 80cm x 60cm x 40cm.
Oversized baggage is one that has overall dimensions larger than 160cm (simply add all the dimensions of your luggage together).
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Main Shinkansen Routes
The Shinkansen network is made up of 9 railway lines. They are:
- Tokyo to Osaka (Tokaido Shinkansen)
- Osaka to Fukuoka (Sanyo Shinkansen)
- Fukuoka to Kagoshima (Kyushu Shinkansen)
- Tokyo to Kanazawa (Hokuriku Shinkansen)
- Tokyo to Niigata (Joetsu Shinkansen)
- Tokyo to Aomori (Tohoku Shinkansen)
- Aomori to Hokkaido (Hokkaido Shinkansen)
- Tokyo to Shinjo (Yamagata Shinkansen)
- Tokyo to Akita (Akita Shinkansen)
Cheaper Alternatives to Shinkansen in Japan
If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative to Shinkansen for zipping around Japan, we’ve got you covered.
Hopping on a bus is definitely more time-consuming, but it is a lot cheaper than a Shinkansen. The highway bus network around Japan is incomparable, with buses running all throughout the day and even overnight.An average Shinkansen train ticket is around the 12,000-yen mark, whereas the average highway bus ticket is only 3,000 yen. That’s a massive saving!
Unlike many other budget airlines around the world, Japanese budget airlines are actually rated quite highly in terms of quality and service. If you keep an eye out for sale fares, airlines like Peach and Jetstar will often sell one-way tickets for a little as 3,900 yen!
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As you can gauge from all this information, Shinkansen trains are not just about efficient and effective traveling across Japan, it’s also about the experience of traveling on these high-speed bullet trains! It’s something you can’t quite get anywhere else in the world, and so if it’s your first time, or even your 3rd time, a Shinkansen train ride should be on the books.
We hope this comprehensive guide to riding a Shinkansen has helped you with you planning your Japan itinerary!