Thinking about taking Japan’s famous Shinkansen? 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 bullet train speeds to seat reservations, with a few fun facts thrown in for good measure. Let’s begin with the basics.

Just looking for Shinkansen tickets? You can buy them on Klook and Rakuten Travel Experiences.

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.

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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 sometimes 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 10 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 iStock.com/JianGang 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.

The precise emissions do 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 emissions 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 by kilogram per passenger (economy)

Single tickets vs. the Japan Rail Pass

One-way journey vs. JR PassCostReserved seatsBooking Link
Tokyo to KyotoFrom ¥13,320 Additional ¥730 to ¥1,050Book on Klook or Rakuten Travel Experiences
Tokyo to Shin-OsakaFrom ¥13,870 Additional ¥730 to ¥1,050Book on Klook or Rakuten Travel Experiences
Tokyo to HiroshimaFrom ¥18,380 Additional ¥730 to ¥1,580Book on Klook or Rakuten Travel Experiences
JR Pass 7-day Pass¥50,000FreeBook here
JR Pass 14-day Pass¥80,000FreeBook here
JR Pass 21-day Pass¥100,000FreeBook here

If you’ve decided to take the Shinkansen, you now need to work out which is the more economical choice: single tickets (available on Klook or Rakuten Travel Experiences) or a JR rail pass.

In addition to the countrywide JR Pass, there are numerous regional rail passes allowing discounted travel around particular parts of the country, like Tōhoku or Hokkaidō.

Rule of thumb: If you’re doing a one-way trip or traveling for just a day or two, single tickets are the way to go. JR Passes — both national and regional — are better value if you make several long-distance trips.

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For example: A single ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto costs approximately ¥13,320 without a seat reservation (more about that below). Round-trip, that comes to ¥26,640. Meanwhile, a 7-day Japan Rail Pass costs ¥50,000. You’ll need to make a least one more long-distance trip before you start to see savings.

Also keep in mind that seat reservations cost extra if you buy a single ticket, but they are free with the JR Pass.

Pro tip: Use the Tokyo Cheapo Shinkansen fare calculator to 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 number of regional rail passes for foreign residents, but otherwise these are also restricted to inbound travelers.

Standard class (Economy) vs. Green Car on the bullet train

Shinkansen interior
Green Car carriages are a little roomier than “ordinary class” cars. | Photo by iStock.com/TokioMarineLife

All of the prices above are for “standard class” (economy) carriages on the Shinkansen. There are also the so-called Green Car carriages, which is basically business class. The latest trains, which run on select routes, often have a first class called GranClass.

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). The seats are also plushier and the atmosphere tends to be more serene.

From Tokyo to Kyoto, a one-way Green Car ticket costs approximately ¥18,840, so about ¥5,000 more expensive. All Green Car (and GranClass) seats are reservation only.

How to buy and use a Japan Rail Pass

Japan Rail Pass shinkansen coverage.

To get a Japan Rail Pass (and many of the regional rail passes), you’ll need 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 reserve seats on the Shinkansen

To reserve space for your bottom, you simply go in to a Midori no Madoguchi (“Green Counter”) office at a major JR station, or a designated JR Travel Service Center (like the one at Narita). 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. This is no longer recommended, however, as you could end up standing in between the carriages for the entire journey.

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

Japan Rail Pass holders can take all Shinkansen, including 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.

What if I’m buying single tickets?

You can buy one-way or round-trip bullet train tickets 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; again, keep in mind you might end up standing if there are no seats available. 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.

Luggage on the go: Charges and fines

Since 2020, JR has decided to bring in limits for “extra large” luggage on certain routes.

Luggage with a combined width, height, and length of more than 160cm and up to 250cm requires its own reservation (free). This policy does not apply to prams, bikes (although they must be packed in a bike bag), musical instruments, sports equiment, or wheelchairs. But you can make a reservation for them if you think you’ll need one.

If smaller than the set dimensions, items can go in the overhead luggage racks; if larger, it cannot be taken onto the train at all.

Hokuriku Shinkansen
Photo by Carey Finn

Which train lines are affected?

The luggage rules are limited to the Tōkaidō Shinkansen (between Tokyo and Osaka, including Kyoto), the San’yō Shinkansen (between Shin-Osaka and Fukuoka, including Himeiji and Hiroshima) and the Kyūshū Shinkansen (between Hakata and Kagoshima).

How to reserve a space for your bag

You won’t actually have to pay anything to reserve a spot for your luggage. 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. If these are full up, you can try to get a reservation in the Green Car (Business Class).

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 you will have to upgrade to a reserved seat if you haven’t already. It’s currently unclear what will happen if there are no spaces left, you may have to wait for the next available train (or abandon your worldly goods, it’s up to you).

Fun Shinkansen facts

  • The English welcome message that you hear upon boarding the Shinkansen 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). Try the coffee.
  • There is WiFi available on Shinkansen these days — although it’s open, so use a VPN for security.
  • All Shinkansen 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 shorten the journey between the two cities to just over an hour. Meanwhile, the Hokkaidō Shinkansen line should reach as far as Sapporo by 2030.

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

Photo by Aimee Gardner

Frequently asked questions about the Shinkansen

We answer some of the most common questions about taking the bullet train in Japan.

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 buy them at a ticket counter or a ticket machine.

Should you buy Shinkansen tickets in advance?

The benefits to buying in advance are getting seats on busy days/times/routes, getting to pick a seat (as in, where you’d like to sit in the carriage), snapping up what might be limited reserved baggage spots (see above), and just making your train-catching experience a little simpler. Sometimes, you can also score discounts if you book in advance online via Ekinet.

Can you buy a JR Pass in Japan?

Yes — until March 31, 2024, JR Passes are being sold at a number of JR ticket sales offices, including those at Haneda, Narita, Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and other major stations. Previously, JR passes had to be bought outside of Japan, so this makes things a lot easier. You still have to have a foreign passport, and must be travelling under a “temporary visitor” stamp. However, note that the prices are higher in you buy the JR Pass in Japan.

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

Yes — generally, people reserve in person at ticket desks, but there are also 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. But don’t forget, you still have to collect your reserved tickets from a machine or ticket counter before you can board the bullet train.

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

Can you take a bicycle on the bullet train?

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

While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. Post first published in May 2017. Last updated in October 2023.

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