Japan's main islands of Honshu, Kyushu and Hokkaido are served by a network of high speed train lines that connect Tokyo with most of the country's major cities. Japan's high speed trains (bullet trains) are called shinkansen (新幹線) and are operated by Japan Railways (JR).
Running at speeds of up to 320 km/h, the shinkansen is known for punctuality (most trains depart on time to the second), comfort (relatively silent cars with spacious, always forward facing seats), safety (no fatal accidents in its history) and efficiency. Thanks to the Japan Rail Pass, the shinkansen can also be a very cost effective means of travel.
The shinkansen network consists of multiple lines, among which the Tokaido Shinkansen (Tokyo - Nagoya - Kyoto - Osaka) is the oldest and most popular. All shinkansen lines (except the Akita and Yamagata Shinkansen) run on tracks that are exclusively built for and used by shinkansen trains. Most lines are served by multiple train categories, ranging from the fastest category that stops only at major stations to the slowest category that stops at every station along the way.
Seats and Classes
Most shinkansen trains in Japan offer seats in two classes, which are typically found in separate cars:
Like the name suggests, ordinary seats are the regular seats found on all shinkansen trains. Although the size and foot space of ordinary seats varies between train sets, ordinary seats on shinkansen are generally comfortable and offer a generous amount of foot space. They usually come in rows of 3+2 seats.
Comparable to business class on airplanes, green cars offer seats that are larger and more comfortable than ordinary seats and offer more foot space. The seats are arranged in rows of 2+2 seats. Green Cars tend to be less crowded than ordinary cars.
Most shinkansen trains offer both non-reserved seats (自由席, jiyūseki) and reserved seats (指定席, shiteiseki) in separate cars. Only the Hayabusa, Hayate and Komachi trains on the Tohoku Shinkansen and Hokkaido Shinkansen and the Kagayaki trains on the Hokuriku Shinkansen are fully reserved and do not carry non-reserved seating. All seats in Green Cars are reserved. Bilingual signs indicate whether a shinkansen car carries reserved or non-reserved seats.
Advance seat reservations are required to use a seat in a reserved car (see below on how to make seat reservations). A fee of a few hundred yen applies for making seat reservations. Japan Rail Pass holders can make seat reservations for free.
Seat reservations allow you to secure a seat and travel with peace of mind. They can be made for all shinkansen trains, but are not mandatory on the trains that also carry non-reserved seating. Only the Hayabusa, Hayate and Komachi trains along the Tohoku Shinkansen and Hokkaido Shinkansen, and the Kagayaki trains along the Hokuriku Shinkansen require seat reservations.
Seat reservations can be made from one month before travel date (from 10:00am) until shortly before departure time. They can be made at ticket offices, at ticket machines or online.
Are seat reservations recommended?
On many trains reserved seats do not get booked out, but on some they do. On particularly busy travel days (e.g. peak travel days during Golden Week, Obon and the New Year holidays), trains can get booked out several days in advance, but on most other days trains rarely get booked out more than a few hours in advance, if at all.
A shinkansen ticket is made up of the following fees:
Base fare The fare to get from A to B. Increases stepwise according to the distance traveled. Issued as a base fare ticket (乗車券, jōshaken).
Shinkansen supplement (aka limited express fee) The supplement fee for using a shinkansen train (as opposed to a local train). The fee increases stepwise according to the distance traveled. The express supplement is issued as a limited express fee ticket (特急券, tokkyūken).
Seat reservation fee 320, 520 or 720 yen depending on whether it is low season, regular season or high season respectively. An additional supplement (100-620 yen depending on distance traveled) applies for using reserved seats on Nozomi, Mizuho, Hayabusa and Komachi trains. The seat reservation fee is usually combined with the express supplement into a single ticket.
Green car fee (if using a green car)
The supplement fee for riding the green car. Increases stepwise according to the distance traveled. It is usually combined with the express supplement into a single ticket.
Shinkansen passengers typically receive two pieces of tickets: a base fare ticket and a supplement ticket. In some situations the two tickets are combined into a single ticket, while more than two tickets may be issued if multiple trains are involved (one base fare ticket and one supplement ticket for each train).
Buying a ticket at the ticket counter
Shinkansen tickets can be purchased at any ticket office found at all major and many minor JR stations nationwide. Credit cards are accepted at most ticket offices. In order to purchase a ticket, the following information is needed:
Number of travelers
Date of travel
Ordinary or green car
Reserved or non-reserved seat
For a seat reservation, the following additional information is required:
Train name (e.g. Hikari) and train number or departure time
Preference of smoking or non-smoking seat, if available
If you do not speak Japanese, it is recommended that you write the data on a piece of paper and present it to the salesperson in order to make the purchasing process smoother. Salespersons are generally familiar with the English vocabulary needed for the purchase of train tickets and seat reservations, but many have limited English conversation skills.
Buying a ticket at a ticket machine
Selected ticket machines can be used to buy shinkansen tickets. Most of them offer English menus. Some machines sell only non-reserved seats, while others can also be used to make seat reservations. Although ticket machines can be very useful if you know how to use them, the process of buying shinkansen tickets is not always straight-forward and some machines do not accept credit cards that are issued outside of Japan. Note that rail pass users cannot use ticket machines to make seat reservations.
Buying a ticket online
Although such websites exist in Japanese, there is currently no single English online reservation system for all the shinkansen in the country. Instead, there are multiple systems that each cover only selected lines. Note that these systems do not issue e-tickets. Instead, actual tickets need to be picked up from ticket machines before boarding the train. Note that tickets can only be picked up in the region covered by each system.
IC cards can be used on selected shinkansen lines and need some set-up or an app in order to be used. There are currently three different systems:
smartEX - for the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen In combination with the smartEX app, IC cards, including Suica, Pasmo and Icoca, can be used on the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen between Tokyo and Fukuoka. After registering the IC card and a credit card with the app, it is possible to purchase shinkansen tickets and use the IC card to pass through the shinkansen ticket gates. Shinkansen fares are discounted by 200 yen when using this service and are charged to the registered credit card rather than subtracted from the IC card's balance. Unfortunately, the English app is currently available only in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States, but there are plans to make the service available worldwide around March 2020 through a website. Note also that Japan Rail Pass holders are not able to use this app for making seat reservations.
Touch de Go - for shinkansen trains around Tokyo Regular IC cards, including Suica, Pasmo and Icoca, can be used on non-reserved seats of shinkansen trains between Tokyo and as far as Nasu-Shiobara on the Tohoku Shinkansen, Jomo Kogen on the Joetsu Shinkansen and Annaka Haruna on the Hokuriku Shinkansen. Before you can use an IC card on these shinkansen trains, the card has to be registered at a ticket machine for this service, which is known as the "Touch de Go" service. Fares will be subtracted from the IC card's balance.
Mobile Suica - for Eastern Japan The Mobile Suica app can be used on mobile phones to ride the shinkansen in eastern and northern Japan; however, the app is only available in Japanese and on phones that support the Osaifu Keitai functionality.
The Japan Rail Pass can be used on all shinkansen trains except Nozomi and Mizuho trains and covers all the fees involved. Seat reservations can be made for free at ticket counters. Pass holders will receive a seat reservation ticket that indicates the reserved seat. They need no tickets besides their rail pass when using non-reserved seats. Similar to the nationwide Japan Rail Pass, there are numerous regional passes that also cover some shinkansen trains.
Other discount tickets
Small discounts are available for set ticket (回数券, kaisūken) and round trip tickets (往復割引, ōfukuwaribiki) that are available for selected sections. Other tickets provide a discount when purchased in advance (早得, hayatoku). Discount ticket shops around major stations also sell shinkansen tickets at small discounts.
More substantial savings are provided by travel packages which have to be purchased in advance at travel agencies. The most interesting among them are the Shinkansen Round Trip tickets (also known as Flex Rail Tickets) which can only be purchased by foreign passport holders and are available between selected stations along the Tokaido Shinkansen (including Tokyo-Kyoto and Tokyo-Osaka). They provide a round trip by shinkansen within up to seven calendar days at a considerable discount. Travel packages for the Tokaido Shinkansen can be purchased at JR Tokai Tours travel agencies.
How to use the shinkansen?
After purchasing your ticket (see above), proceed as follows:
1) Pass through the regular ticket gate
At many stations, shinkansen passengers have to pass through two sets of automatic ticket gates: regular ticket gates and shinkansen ticket gates. At the regular ticket gates, insert only your base fare ticket into the ticket slot, pass the gate and retrieve your ticket at the other end. Japan Rail Pass holders cannot use the automatic gates, but have to show their pass to the staff at the manned gate.
2) Make your way to the shinkansen platforms
Follow the bilingual signs to the shinkansen platforms. Depending on the station, the shinkansen platforms are sometimes placed parallel to and close to the regular train platforms, but often they are located in a separate part or on a different level of the station complex.
3) Pass the shinkansen ticket gates
A second set of gates divides shinkansen platforms from the regular train platforms, although at some stations there are also direct gates to the shinkansen platforms that allow passengers to skip the regular gates. This time, insert not only your base fare ticket but also your supplement ticket together into the ticket slot at the same time and retrieve them on the other side of the gate. Japan Rail Pass holders again use the manned gate, instead.
4) Access your platform
Displays of upcoming departures will indicate from which platform your train will depart, while signs clearly indicate the way to each platform. Virtually all shinkansen platforms are equipped with escalators and elevators.
5) Find your car
Displays on the platform indicate upcoming departures. Other displays and/or signs mark the location of doors, indicating car numbers and whether the car is reserved, non-reserved or green. Some busy stations have two lanes painted on the platform in front of each door location: one for the upcoming departure and one for the departure afterwards. Passengers line up accordingly, especially in case of non-reserved cars to secure seats.
6) Find your seat
Seats are numbered and lettered in the same style as on airplanes. Try not to block the aisle when storing your luggage and taking your seat to allow for quick boarding.
Ordinary seats typically come in rows of 3+2 seats, although on some trains they are arranged in rows of 2+2 seats (and in rare cases in rows of 3+3 seats). Seats can be reclined and have tables, pockets for magazines and open overhead shelves. They provide considerably more foot space than economy seats on airplanes. Newer train sets have electrical outlets installed along the walls or in the armrest.
Green cars always come with rows of 2+2 seats and have seats that are more spacious than ordinary seats. The seats are often equipped with a foot rest, reading light, electrical outlets (for aisle and window seats) and a seat warmer, although the exact facilities depend on the train set.
All seats on shinkansen trains can be turned by 180 degrees, allowing travelers to always face forward. The seats are turned by the staff at the terminal stations, but can also be turned by passengers, for example, to create a group of four or six seats facing each other.
Amenities & Services
Signs and announcements inside the trains are multilingual (Japanese and English on all shinkansen lines; plus Korean and Chinese on selected lines) and inform about upcoming stations.
Some shinkansen trains are served by small food carts with a selection of snacks, drinks and boxed meals (bento) which periodically pass along the aisle. Some trains also have vending machines with drinks and pay phones.
Free Wi-Fi is gradually being introduced to shinkansen trains across Japan, and it is expected that most shinkansen trains will offer free on-board Wi-Fi by 2020. Wireless internet is currently already available on all the newest train sets between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka, however, a subscription or 1-day pass has to be purchased before boarding the train.
All shinkansen are equipped with multiple toilets, which are sometimes separated by gender. The toilets are Western style except on some older train sets. Newer train sets are also equipped with spacious toilets for wheel chair users. Outside the toilets are wash corners with sinks and large mirrors.
Smoking is not allowed on most shinkansen trains. Prominent exception is the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen on which some last smoking cars survive on older train sets. On newer train sets along the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen, smoking is allowed only in small cabins with good ventilation that keep the trains free of smoke. On all other shinkansen lines, smoking is not possible.
According to the rules book, each traveler is allowed to bring up to two pieces of luggage onto a train (not including small bags), with each piece not weighting more than 30 kilograms and not measuring more than 250 centimeters when adding up width, height and depth. However, even when bringing less than this upper limit, we recommend travelers with a lot of luggage to consider using a delivery service to make the trip more comfortable for themselves and the passengers around them.
Shinkansen trains are equipped with relatively spacious overhead shelves (smaller on certain train sets) which can store small and medium sized bags and suitcases. Furthermore, on many shinkansen trains the leg room is surprisingly spacious and may be large enough for your legs and a mid-sized suitcase, although this may not be the most comfortable solution.
Additionally, there is space for two or three large suitcases behind the last row of seats in each car; however, for security and convenience reasons only passengers sitting in the last row of seats are supposed to place their luggage into the space behind their seats.
A new rule for oversized luggage will come into effect in May 2020 along the Tokaido/Sanyo/Kyushu Shinkansen (see map below). Passengers with oversized luggage, i.e. luggage pieces whose height, width and depth add up to more than 160cm, will be required to make a seat reservation in the last row of seats. It will not be possible to bring oversized luggage into non-reserved cars.
Passengers without a reservation for their oversized luggage will be asked to move their luggage to a space specified by the train conductor and pay a 1000 yen surcharge which is not covered by the Japan Rail Pass. It will be possible to make reservations in advance at ticket offices or through the smartEX app. No plans have been announced to introduce a similar system on other shinkansen lines.
Don't block the aisle with luggage.
When having a conversation, keep your voice down.
Recline your seat with consideration for the person behind you. Return the seat to its original position before exiting the train.
Set your mobile phone to silent mode. Don't talk on your phone except in the deck areas between cars.
Line up on the platform before boarding.
Future of the Shinkansen
Several new shinkansen routes are currently being built:
Hokkaido Shinkansen: extension from Hakodate via Niseko and Otaru to Sapporo in 2030.
Hokuriku Shinkansen: extension from Kanazawa to Tsuruga by spring 2023 and via Obama and Kyoto to Osaka in 2046.
Kyushu Shinkansen (Nagasaki Route): a branch line to Nagasaki which partially uses existing regular tracks. Scheduled for completion by spring 2023.
Chuo Shinkansen: Using maglev technology, this new line is scheduled to connect Tokyo with Nagoya in 2027 and with Osaka in 2037.