Thinking (dreaming?) about taking Japan’s famous Shinkansen? (That’s the bullet train). You’ve found the right article. This is Shink 101, a comprehensive guide to taking some of the fastest trains in the world. It covers everything from speeds to seat reservations, with a few fun facts thrown in for good measure. Let’s begin with the basics.

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Why take the Shinkansen?

This question needs to be rephrased. Why not? The Shinkansen is one of the quickest, easiest ways of traveling between major cities in Japan. Boarding at Tokyo Station? You can be in Osaka in just over 2.5 hours on the fastest bullet train service. With maximum speeds of 320 km/h (200 mph), the Shink will get you from Point A to Point B, wherever that may be, in no time at all.

The Shinkansen is more comfortable than taking a bus or flying economy class, as well as more convenient (it doesn’t require schlepping to any airports). It also works out cheaper, if you take advantage of a Japan Rail Pass — more about that below.

These trains are also super safe. Launched ahead of the first Tokyo Olympics in 1964, Japanese bullet trains have carried more than 10 billion passengers over the years, with zero fatalities due to derailment or collision. That’s some safety record. The Tōkaidō Shinkansen (which connects Tokyo with Osaka/Kyoto and Nagoya) has something like 323 trains running every day — and there are hundreds more on the other lines. The average delay, across all lines? Under 60 seconds, even in extreme weather conditions.

The Shinkansen network runs the length of Japan’s main island (Honshū), up to Hakodate in southern Hokkaidō, and down to the southern-most point in Kyūshū. You can step onto a train at Hakata Station in Fukuoka Prefecture and step off (well, with one transfer) in Hakodate ten hours and over 2,000km later — it’s mind-blowing.

N700 series Shinkansen bullet train passes by Hamamatsu-cho in the night.
An N700 series Shinkansen approaches Tokyo Station at night | Photo by Wang

Leave a low carbon footprint

The Shinkansen (especially the newer generation trains) have lower carbon emissions compared with most other forms of transport. The Shinkansen is powered by electricty and (according to JR) emits carbon at rate of 0.0093kg per km (per seat), whereas a regular JR train runs at 0.019kg / km — twice as much.

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The JR Pass is a 1 week pass that allows unlimited travel on Japan Rail lines throughout the country. This ticket is extraordinarily good value for long distance and inter-city travel. *Restrictions: Can only be purchased by temporary visitor visa holders not already in Japan. ...

The precise emissions does depend on the power source behind the electricty. Currently most of Japan’s nuclear power stations are offline, so much of the Shinkansen network will still be running off electricty sourced partly from fossil fuels (Japan runs a mix of renewables, nuclear, and fossil fuel). Either way though, the Shinkansen is still likely the lowest emission option for traveling longer distances in Japan.

Carbon emmissions for travel between Tokyo and Osaka

Here’s a summary of the carbon emissions in kilograms from various types of transport traveling one-way Tokyo to Osaka.

Approximate carbon emissions in kilogram per passenger (economy)

Single tickets vs. the Japan Rail Pass

Shinkansen bullet train pass Mountain fuji
The Shinkansen running past Mt. Fuji in spring | Photo by

If you’ve decided to take the Shinkansen, you now need to work out which is the more economical choice: single tickets or a JR Rail Pass. In addition to the classic, countrywide JR Pass, there are many regional rail passes covering travel around certain parts of the country.

The basic rule of thumb is this: If you’re doing a one-way trip or traveling for just a day or two, single tickets are the way to go. If you’re doing anything more than that, a 7-day pass will get you more travel for your yen.

For example: A single ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto costs approximately ¥13,320 without a seat reservation (more about that in a bit). Round-trip, that comes to ¥26,640. Meanwhile, a 7-day Japan Rail Pass costs ¥29,110 — and it gives you unlimited rides on the Shinkansen and all other JR trains for a full week.

Here’s our guide to the Japan Rail Pass and our overview of the different regional rail passes, which cover travel around certain parts of the country. Use our Bullet Train Fare Calculator to help you compare ticket prices.

Important! Only foreign passport holders entering Japan on a “temporary” (tourist) visa are eligible to purchase the Japan Rail Pass. There are a few regional rail passes for foreign residents, but otherwise these are also restricted to inbound travelers.

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Standard class vs. Green Car

Shinkansen interior
Green Car carraiges are a little roomier than “ordinary class” cars | Photo by

All of the prices above are for “standard class” (economy) carraiges on the Shinkansen (you are on a cheapo website, after all). There are also the so-called Green Car carriages, which is akin to business class. The latest trains, which run on select routes, have a first class called GranClass.

Unless you’re traveling with an angry cat (we’ve all been there) or are stinking rich (or just stinking), there’s really not much point in upgrading. In a Green Car, you get is a little more legroom, and the guarantee of just one passenger sitting beside you, instead of two. (The Green Car sits two and two while standard class seats three and two).

From Tokyo to Kyoto, a one-way Green Car ticket costs approximately ¥18,720, so about ¥5,000 more expensive. All Green Car (and GranClass) seats are reserved.

How to buy and use a rail pass

The easiest way to buy a Japan Rail Pass is to purchase it online before arriving in Japan. Then, when you arrive, you can simply take the exchange order to a major train station and get your pass. It’s fairly straightforward and speedy. When you are ready to start your Shinkansen journey, you can activate the pass and reserve seats. Japan Rail Pass holders do not need to pay a seat reservation fee.

How to buy tickets and reserve seats

To reserve space for your bottom, you simply go in to a Midori no Madoguchi (“Green Counter”) office at a JR station (the Midori thing is the name they use for ticket offices), or a designated JR Travel Service Center (View Plaza), and the staff will take care of the rest for you. You can risk skipping the seat reservation bit, and opt for unreserved seats (there are designated carriages for this) if you likeYou’ll probably be fine; it’s generally only during peak travel times (e.g. Golden Week and New Year, also public holidays) that space becomes an issue.

Entrance to the Shinkansen tracks at Kanazawa Station | Photo by Gregory Lane

Japan Rail Pass holders can take all Shinkansen other than the two fastest onesthe Nozomi and MizuhoAs the other models (Kodama excepted) are only marginally slower, it doesn’t really make much of a difference. For example, you can still get from Tokyo to Osaka in just three hours on the Hikari Shinkansen.

*To get a Japan Rail Pass, you usually have to order one before you arrive in Japan, and enter the country on a temporary visitor’s visa. However, until March 31st 2023 they can be purchased from major stations and airports in Japan (albeit for a slightly higher price) you just need to hold a foreign passport and be travelling on a temporary visitor status.

What if I’m buying single tickets?

You can buy these at any Midori no Madoguchi ticket office, as well as at ticket machines (available at certain stations). You will be able to make your seat reservation at the same time. Buying an unreserved ticket is cheaper; just bear in mind the caveat above. If you have lots of time at your disposal, you can save a few thousand yen by booking a ticket on the slowest model of Shinkansenthe Kodama. It stops at every Shinkansen stationEvery. Single. One.

4. Luggage on the go: Charges and fines

During the pre-pandemic tourist boom, JR decided to bring in limits for ‘extra large’ luggage on certain routes. Since May 2020, luggage with a combined width, height and length of more than 160cm and up to 250cm required its own reservation (free), made in advance. This policy does not apply to prams, bikes (although they must be packed in a bike bag), musical instruments, sports equiment or wheelchairs, although you can make a reservation for them if you think you’ll need one. If smaller, items can go in the overhead luggage racks, if it is larger, it cannot be taken onto the train.

Hokuriku Shinkansen
Photo by Carey Finn

Which train lines will be affected?

Limited to the Tokaido Shinkansen (between Tokyo and Osaka, including Kyoto), the Sanyo Shinkansen (between Shin-Osaka and Fukuoka, including Himeiji and Hiroshima) and the Kyushu Shinkansen (between Hakata and Kagoshima).

How to reserve a space

To reserve a spot for your luggage, you won’t actually have to pay anything—but you will have to pay for a reserved seat (a few hundred yen more than an unreserved seat). This will allow you to make a ‘luggage reservation’ and will give you access to the specially designed secure luggage storage sections at the end of certain carriages.

What happens if you don’t reserve

If you fail to reserve a space for your luggage, you will be issued with a ¥1,000 fine and will have to upgrade to a reserved seat if you haven’t already. It’s currently unclear what will happen if there are no unreserved seats left, you may have to wait for the next available train (or abandon your worldly goods, it’s up to you).

shin-osaka station
Photo by Park

5. A hodgepodge of fun Shinkansen facts

  • The English welcome message that you hear when you step on board was recorded by Ozzie singer Donna Burke.
  • Most Shinkansen have a food cart that gets wheeled around a few times on the trip (cheapo tip: buy snacks before you board, to save money).
  • There is wifi available on Shinkansen these days – although it’s open so be careful with passwords etc.
  • All shinks have toilets and overhead luggage racks.
  • The word “Shinkansen” means “new trunk line”. Not quite as exciting as you’d hoped, right?
  • Here’s something a little cooler: cleaners get the entire shink spick and span in no more than seven minutes when it gets to its end-destination. They also flip the seats around so that you can face forward (you can flip them back if you’re traveling in a group and want to face your friends).
  • More routes are being opened up, and better bullet trains being built. A maglev version destined to run between Tokyo and Nagoya is expected to debut in 2027; it broke records by cracking the 600km/h mark during tests in 2015. That could make the journey between the two cities just over an hour. Meanwhile, the Hokkaido Shinkansen line should reach as far as Sapporo by 2030. So, watch this (rather lenghty) rail space.

If you’re interested in reading more about the shink and how it helped sculpt modern Japan, this article provides a good overview.

narita express tickets
You can buy your Narita Express tickets here. | Photo by Carey Finn

If you’re in a rush and didn’t find the answers you need, look no further, we have a bullet-answering system that’ll speed you straight to the answers.

Can you buy Shinkansen tickets in advance?

Yes—Shinkansen tickets can be bought in advance online or at the station. If you’re doing it in person, you can choose face-to-face at one of the ticket desks to make any checks you need before comitting, or you can go straight for the ticket machines that’ll be nearby.

Should you buy Shinkansen tickets in advance?

Unlike many countries, Japan does not have an ‘advance saving’ situation, so the tickets you buy three months in advance cost the same as the ones you buy on the day. This is great for last-minuters and frustrating for those looking to plan ahead and save, but it is what it is. The benefits to buying in advance are getting seats on busy days/times/routes, getting to pick a seat, snapping up hat might be limited reserved baggage spots (see above) and just making your train-catching experience a little simpler.

Can you buy a JR Pass in Japan?

Yes—until March 31st 2023, JR Passes are being sold at certain sales office including Haneda, Narita, Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and other major stations! Previously, passes had to be bought outside of Japan, so this makes things a lot easier if you change your plans or realise you really would make the most of one. You still have to have a foreign passport, and must be travelling under a ‘temporary visitor’ stamp. It’s worth keeping in mind that the prices are a little higher for the pass bought in Japan.

Can you reserve a Shinkansen ticket with a JR Pass online?

Yes—generally, people reserve in person at ticket desks while they’re on their travels, but there are online options. If you purchased your JR Pass online through the official site, you can use the dedicated JR Reservation website to book seats afterwards. You still have to collect your reserved tickets from a machine or desk at the station though, so don’t forget to do this.

Ekinet allows for reservations to be made on the JR East routes, covering Hokkaido, Tohoku and Tokyo. They can be made from one month before you travel to three days before, so it’s not a last-minute option by any means—but useful if you’re planning to travel at a peak time and are are planning from abroad.

Can you take a bike on the bullet train?

Yes, but it has to be packed away in a bike bag. It’s a faff, but it’s non-negotiable.

This post was updated by Lily Crossley-Baxter in May, 2022.

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