Wondering whether the shinkansen (that’s the bullet train) might be the best way to get from one part of Japan to another? 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 factoids thrown in for good measure. Let’s begin with the basics.
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 class of bullet train. With maximum speeds of 320 km/h, the shink will get you from Point A to 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 rural airports). It also works out cheaper, if you take advantage of a Japan Rail Pass—more about that below. Shinkansen routes run all across the main island of Honshu and up to Hakodate in Hokkaido (as of March 2016), as well as down to Kyushu. You can step onto a train at Hakata Station all the way south in Fukuoka Prefecture and step off in Hakodate ten hours later—it’s mind-blowing.
These trains are also super safe. Launched ahead of the first Tokyo Olympics in 1964, Japanese bullet trains have ferried more than 10 billion passengers over the years, with zero fatalities due to derailment or collision. That’s some safety record. The Tokaido Shinkansen (which connects Tokyo to Osaka/Kyoto and Nagoya) has something like 323 trains running every day—and there are hundreds more on the multiple other lines. The average delay, across all lines? Under 60 seconds, even in extreme weather conditions.
Single tickets or Japan Rail Pass?
Assuming you’re on board with shinking your way around Japan, you need to look at whether single tickets or a JR Rail Pass (either countrywide or regional) will work out most economical. 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 zen for your yen.
To illustrate what we mean, a single ticket from Tokyo to Osaka costs close to ¥13,620 without a seat reservation (more about that in a bit), and a round-trip ticket is roughly . In contrast, a 7-day Japan Rail Pass is just ¥29,110—and it gives you unlimited rides on shinkansen and all other JR trains for a full week. Here’s an overview of the range of rail passes available, and a Bullet Train Fare Calculator to help you compare ticket prices.
Ordinary class vs. Green Cars
All of the above prices assume you’re taking “ordinary class” (economy) on the shinkansen (you are on a cheapo website, after all). There is a business-class facility available though, in the form of the “Green Cars”. Tickets for these cost a little more, obviously. 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—all you get is a little more legroom, and the guarantee of just one passenger sitting beside you, instead of two.
How to buy tickets and reserve seats
If you’re outside Japan*, the easiest way to get shinkansen tickets is to buy a Japan Rail Pass online. Then, when you arrive, you can simply take the exchange order that you’ll have received 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.
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 like. You’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.
Japan Rail Pass holders can take all shinkansen other than the two fastest ones—the Nozomi and Mizuho. As 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. Right now, for a trial period until the end of March, 2018, short-term visitors can actually buy a pass in Japan—but only at a limited number of stations, and for a steeper price than if you order one before you arrive.
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 shinkansen—the Kodama. It stops at every shinkansen station. Every. Single. One.
A hodgepodge of fun shinkansen facts (and advice for travelers with large luggage)
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 some Tokyo-Osaka trains, but you need to register in advance to use it (we’ve never quite worked it out). All shinks have toilets and overhead luggage racks. Some also have extra space for big bags near the doors.
Cheapo tip: If you’re traveling with large suitcases, try to get to the platform early and be first in the queue to board the train. Embark through the doors at the back of the carriage; you should find sufficient space to stow your bags behind the last row of seats. Put the tray tables down over the bags to help chock them in place, and keep an eye out during the journey to make sure they haven’t rolled away. We can’t guarantee this will work on all shinkansen, as there are so many different types and routes—but it’s a strategy I used successfully when traveling economy class from Sendai down to Hiroshima and back.
Unrelatedly, 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 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.
This post was updated in December 2017.