Wondering whether the shinkansen (that’s the bullet trainmight 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.

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1. 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.

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

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 Passmore 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 laterit’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 dayand there are hundreds more on the multiple other lines. The average delay, across all lines? Under 60 seconds, even in extreme weather conditions.

Low carbon footprint travelling on the Shinkansen

The Shinkansen (especially the newer generation trains) have a 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) where as a regular JR train runs at 0.019kg / km – twice as much. The precise emissions will depend on the power source behind the electricty, and 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 havev a mix of renewables, nuclear and fossil fuel). Either way though, the Shinkansen is a very efficient mode of transport and is still likely the lowest emission option for travelling longer distances in Japan.

Carbon emmissions travelling between Tokyo and Osaka

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

Approximate carbon emissions in KG per passenger (economy)

2. 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.

Shinkansen bullet train pass Mountain fuji
Shinkansentrain running pass through Mt. Fuji and Shibazakura at spring. | Photo by iStock.com/blanscape

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 [27240]. In contrast, a 7-day Japan Rail Pass is just ¥29,110and 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

Shinkansen interior
Photo by iStock.com/TokioMarineLife

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 upgradingall you get is a little more legroom, and the guarantee of just one passenger sitting beside you, instead of two.

3. 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 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. 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 shinkansenthe Kodama. It stops at every shinkansen stationEvery. Single. One.

4. Luggage on the go: Future fines and charges

Following the recent increase in tourist levels, JR have decided to bring in limits for ‘extra large’ luggage on certain routes. Starting in May 2020, any luggage with a combined width, height and length of between 160cm and 250cm will require its own reservation, made in advance. If it is smaller, it 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).

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shin-osaka station
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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 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.

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 (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.

This post was updated by Lily Crossley-Baxter in August, 2019.

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