The Jōetsu Shinkansen connects Tokyo with Niigata, on the Sea of Japan coast — it’s one of only a few Shinkansen routes that cross the breadth of Japan (as opposed to the length of it). It’s most famous for being the route that takes you to ski resort Gala Yuzawa, where you can pretty much exit the station and be right on the slopes; other stops along the way are jumping off points for hot springs and outdoor adventures.

Jōetsu is the name for the southern region of Niigata prefecture, which is actually served by the Hokuriku Shinkansen. The Jōetsu Shinkansen travels through Saitama and Gunma prefectures en route to Niigata (the city, which is the capital of the prefecture of the same name). Yes, all of this is a bit confusing…

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Highlights along the Jōetsu Shinkansen

Some popular destinations accessed via the Jōetsu Shinkansen include:

  • Outdoor adventure sports hot spot Minakami (stop: Jōmō-Kōgen Station).
  • GALA Yuzawa for the ultimate Shinkansen-to-gondola, ski-in-ski-out experience.
  • Yuzawa, a famous hot spring town with literary cred (and a sake tasting bar right in the station, Echigo-Yuzawa).
  • Tōkamachi, a short, local train ride away from Echigo Yuzawa, for exploring Echigo-Tsumari Art Field.
  • Niigata, at the end of the line, from where ferries depart for trips to wild, remote Sado Island.
Snow and skiiers at Gala Yuzawa
The Jōetsu Shinkansen goes right to the base of the slopes at Gala Yuzawa | Photo by Chris Kirkland

Questions about riding the Shinkansen? Check out our Shinkansen mega guide full of everything you need to know.

Highlights along the route

Since the Jōetsu Shinkansen crosses Japan’s mountainous spine, there are many tunnels along the route. The longest, the Dai-Shimizu Tunnel, is 22 km-long, on the border of Gunma and Niigata prefectures. Until the completion of the Seikan Tunnel between Aomori and Hokkaidō, in 1988, it was the world’s longest railway tunnel (a title currently held by Gotthard Base Tunnel in the Swiss Alps).

It is the older Shimizu Tunnel (completed in 1931) that appears in Yasunori Kawabata’s famous novel, Snow Country. But the effect of emerging from the Dai-Shimizu Tunnel in winter is similar to that described in the novel’s opening sequence — of entering “snow country” and a landscape blanketed in white.

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snowy village in Niigata Japan
Niigata is part of what is known as “snow country” because of the heavy annual snowfall it receives | Photo by iStock.com/SuphakornL

Services on the Jōetsu Shinkansen

The Jōetsu Shinkansen has two services: Toki, which does the whole journey from Tokyo to Niigata; and Tanigawa, which goes only as far as Echigo-Yuzawa (and Gala Yuzawa during ski season). Only Tanigawa trains go to Gala Yuzawa.

Good to know: The Jōetsu Shinkansen shares tracks with the Hokuriku Shinkansen until Takasaki.

Toki (Tokyo to/from Niigata)

Toki is the most common service, running several times an hour in the morning and the evening and once an hour during the afternoon. It’s a little tricky because it runs like an express train, but an irregular one: some Toki services make more stops than others. For example, the fastest service stops only at Ōmiya en route to Niigata, doing the journey in just 90 minutes. Another might make six stops and reach Niigata in 2 hours.

So, in other words, you do need to make sure you get on a train that stops where you want to go. This won’t be a problem if you are buying a ticket for a specific journey; but if you’re using a rail pass without reserving seats, you should double check before boarding.

Fortunately, most of the more popular stops for travelers, like Jōmō-Kōgen and Echigo-Yuzawa, are common Toki stops.

Unreserved seats? Usually cars 1–3 (at the rear of the train actually, for Niigata-bound trains), with the caveat that JR can switch these up at whim.

Green or GranClass cars? One of each, at the front of the train for Niigata-bound trains.

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Tanigawa (Tokyo to/from Echigo-Yuzawa)

Tanigawa trains make all stops between Tokyo and Echigo-Yuzawa (and Gala Yuzawa during ski season). There are about 12 trains daily. Of course, many Toki trains can take you to the same stops that Tanigawa trains do — just not all of them.

Unreserved seats? Usually cars 1–7 — and sometimes all of them save for the Green and GranClass cars — are unreserved on the Tanigawa service (though the same caveat applies).

Green or GranClass cars? One of each, at the front of the train for trains bound for Echigo-Yuzawa.

Buying tickets and making reservations

The Jōetsu Shinkansen is operated wholly by JR East, similar to the Tōhoku Shinkansen and the Hokkaidō Shinkansen. Seat reservations can be made at the same time as ticket purchase.

JR East Shinkansen tickets can be purchased:

  • In person, at major JR stations with ticket offices called midori no madoguchi (みどりの窓口); any Shinkansen station counts as a major JR station.
  • Via electronic Reserved Seat Ticket machines in major JR stations; these will have English guidance and accept credit card payment.
  • Online via JR East’s multilingual portal site Eki-net. Note that discounted and promo tickets are only available through Eki-net’s Japanese language site.
  • Sometimes at discount shops (called “kinken” shops) in major city hubs.

Discount tickets and packages

Discounted tickets (called “tokudane”) can sometimes be purchased via Eki-net (Japanese version only). View Travel, JR’s in-house travel agency, sells packages that include Shinkansen tickets, accommodation, and — in season — lift tickets for Yuzawa-area ski resorts.

For more information on how to score deals on JR East tickets — including current promotions — and book package tours, check out our guide to getting discounted JR East tickets.

Bringing luggage on the Jōetsu Shinkansen

Fortunately the new Shinkansen luggage restrictions do not apply to the Jōetsu Shinkansen. So advanced reservations are not required for bringing large luggage on the train.

What about ski and snowboarding equipment?

There are no rules about bringing sporting equipment on the Shinkansen. But you are limited by what can reasonably fit. Skis will fit on the overhead racks, but not if everyone else has got stuff up there too (and a snowboard in a padded bag is a bit much). If you’re able to choose your seats, it makes sense to go with the last seats in the carriage — so you can take advantage of the (narrow) space behind the seats for your stuff.

What rail passes are good for the Jōetsu Shinkansen?

In addition to the countrywide Japan Rail Pass, the following rail passes cover some or all travel along the Jōetsu Shinkansen:

PassJōetsu Shinkansen coverageEligibilityValidity periodPriceBooking link
Tokyo Wide PassTokyo to Echigo-Yuzakawa (+ Gala Yuzawa in season)Foreign passport holders3 consecutive days¥10,000Reserve online
Nagano & Niigata Area PassTokyo to Niigata (whole route)Foreign passport holders5 consecutive days¥18,000Reserve online
Tōhoku Area PassTokyo to Echigo-Yuzakawa (+ Gala Yuzawa in season)Foreign passport holders5 consecutive days¥20,000Reserve online
East–South Hokkaidō PassTokyo to Echigo-Yuzakawa (+ Gala Yuzawa in season)Foreign passport holders with a temporary (tourist) visa6 consecutive days¥27,000Reserve online

*Passes for children 6–11 are half-price

Of special note, the JR East Nagano & Niigata Area Pass and the JR East Tōhoku Area Pass also include train and bus travel from Takasaki to Kusatsu Onsen.

All of these passes are offered by JR East; for more details, see our guide to JR East regional rail passes.

Good to know: The Tokyo Wide Pass, the JR East Nagano & Niigata Area Pass, and the JR East Tōhoku Area Pass are among the rail passes that foreign residents can use.

Stations of interest

The Jōetsu Shinkansen serves the following stations: Tokyo, Ueno, Ōmiya, Kumagaya, Honjō-Waseda, Takasaki, Jōmō-Kōgen, Echigo-Yuzawa, Gala Yuzawa (seasonal), Urasa, Nagaoka, Tsubame-Sanjō, and Niigata.

Major stations at a glance

StationServiceTravel time from TokyoUnreserved seat fareReserved seat fare
TakasakiTanigawa, Toki50–60 mins¥4,490¥5,020
Jōmō-KōgenTanigawa, Toki65–75 mins¥5,490¥6,020
Echigo-YuzawaTanigawa, Toki75–90 mins¥6,260¥6,790
Gala YuzawaTanigawa 90 mins¥6,690¥7,220
NiigataTanigawa, Toki90 mins to 2.5 hrs¥10,230¥10,760

Prices were correct as of December 1, and are based on regular season travel. Children aged 6–11 ride for half-price.

Note: Fares are a few hundred yen cheaper departing from Ueno Station. To check other fares, try our handy Shinkansen fare calculator.

Takasaki

Takasaki is the largest city in Gunma prefecture and a major transport hub; you can transfer here for the Hokuriku Shinkansen and about a dozen other regional rail lines. The city is most well known for two things: a huge (40+ meters-tall!) statue of the bodhisatva of compassion in white, called Byakue Kannon (White-Robed Kannon); and daruma, those iconic one-eyed, red papier-mâché dolls (you set a goal or make a wish and if it comes true, you fill the other eye in). Takasaki’s signature ekiben — boxed meals meant to be eaten on the Shinkansen — is packaged in a daruma-shaped container.

Where can I go from here?

Takasaki is a gateway to some of Gunma’s most excellent onsen: Ikaho and Kusatsu. To reach Ikaho Onsen — known for its rusty red waters — take a Jōetsu or Agatsuma line train to Shibukawa. The journey takes 30 minutes on a regular train (¥420) or just under 20 minutes on a pricier limited express train (¥1,470). From Shibukawa Station, buses run frequently to Ikaho (a 20 minute journey that costs ¥580).

Close up Yubatake hot spring running down to hot spring pond by wooden track ,smoking around on hotel background in Kusatsu ,Gunma Japan.
The hot spring source at Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma prefecture | Photo by iStock.com/BbenPhotographer

Kusatsu — one of Japan’s most famous onsen towns — is a little bit further. You need to stay on the Agatsuma line past Shibukawa to Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi: 90 minutes on the regular train (¥1,170) or an hour on the limited express (¥2,650). Then it’s the same deal: pick up one of the frequent buses from the station for the 20 minute (¥710) ride into town.

Kusatsu Onsen can also be reached by bus from Karuizawa, a stop on the Hokuriku Shinkansen.

Jōmō-Kōgen

Jōmō-Kōgen Station is located in Minakami, an area in Gunma prefecture known for onsen as well as adventure sports like canyoning and rafting. Also nearby is Mount Tanigawa (Tanigawadake), one of Japan’s “100 Famous Mountains.” It’s popular with hikers in the green season and leaf peepers in autumn (there’s a ropeway). In winter, a small ski resort, Tanigawadake Tenjindaira, opens on the mountain.

Mt. Tanigawa in Japan
Mt Tanigawa is a popular destination for hiking | Photo by iStock.com/Toshihiro Nakajima

There are no train connections at Jōmō-Kōgen. If you’ve booked a night at one of Minakami’s onsen resorts, there is probably a free resort shuttle that you can take advantage of. Public buses, meanwhile, run approximately once an hour into central Minakami (30 mins; ¥630); some buses continue on to the Tanigawadake Ropeway (50 mins; ¥1,250).

Echigo-Yuzawa

Yuzawa is an onsen resort town just over the border in Niigata prefecture. It is well known as the setting for the novel Snow Country by Nobel prize-winning author Yasunori Kawabata. There are hot springs all around town, in foot baths (free), public bathhouses, and hotels.

Inside Echigo-Yuzawa Station is a complex called Ponshukan, which has a sake tasting bar — Niigata is famous for sake; a bathhouse where you can bathe in sake spiked waters; and a shop for picking up souvenir bottles.

Where can I go from here?

Yuzawa is also well known for skiing and snow sports, and there are several resorts nearby. Gala Yuzawa is the most convenient (more on that below). Naeba is another popular choice. Buses travel there from Echigo-Yuzawa Station in 50 minutes (¥670). Or if you are staying at the Naeba Prince Hotel you can make use of the hotel’s free shuttle bus.

Gala Yuzawa (seasonal)

GALA Yuzawa is the ski resort where you can famously ski-in-ski-out from a Shinkansen station. During the ski season — usually from mid-December to early May — the Jōetsu Shinkansen stops at Gala Yuzawa Station at the base of the resort. From here, you can disembark and head right to the slopes. It’s the easiest possible ski or snowboard day trip from Tokyo.

A gondola at Gala Yuzawa
Pick up the gondola right by the Gala Yuzawa Shinkansen station | Photo by Chris Kirkland

Want more easy ski trip ideas? Check out our guide to hitting the slopes near Tokyo.

Niigata

Niigata City is the capital of Niigata prefecture and also a port city on the Sea of Japan coast. Though it has plenty of city amenities, it doesn’t really have any sights. Hakusan Park, on the Shinano River, is nice for a stroll (but is about a 10-minute bus ride from the train station). Niigata Station also has a Ponshukan with a sake tasting bar.

Where can I go from here?

From Niigata Station you can continue on to the following:

  • Jōetsu Myōkō, a stop on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, and from where you can catch a shuttle bus to Myōkō-area ski resorts, like Lotte Arai Ski Resort. Catch one of five daily JR limited express Shirayuki services that makes the direct trip (2 hrs; ¥4,790). Otherwise, take a regular service on the JR Shin’etsu Main Line for Naoetsu and transfer to the local Echigo Tokimeki Railway for Jōetsu Myōkō (3 hrs + transfer time; ¥2,650).
  • Tsuruoka, the base for exploring Dewa Sanzan, or onwards to Akita, the terminus for the Akita Shinkansen. Seven daily JR limited express Inaho services travel to Tsuruoka (110 mins; ¥4,000) and Akita (3 hrs 45 mins; ¥6,820).

From Niigata Port, ferries travel to Sado Island. You can also catch overnight ferries to Otaru, on Hokkaidō.

Crested ibis looking for food on the snow
The Jōetsu Shinkansen’s Toki service is named for the crested ibis that lives on Sado Island | Photo by iStock.com/Satoru S

Jōetsu Shinkansen FAQs

What trains run on the Jōetsu Shinkansen?

Currently both the 10-car E2 (1997–) series and the next generation 12-car E7 (2014–) series run on the Jōetsu Shinkansen; however, by the end of 2022, the whole fleet will be upgraded to E7 (which has a bright blue nose and gold trim). E7 trains have GranClass in addition to Green Car class and ordinary cars.

E7 series trains have power outlets at every seat.

Is there cart service on the Jōetsu Shinkansen?

Toki trains have cart service with hot coffee.

How fast does the Jōetsu Shinkansen travel?

Currently the Jōetsu Shinkansen travels as fast as 240km/hr. As part of the line’s upgrade, it will reach speeds of up to 275km/hr by spring 2023.

When did the Jōetsu Shinkansen open?

The route was completed in 1982, making it one of the oldest. (And the first to not travel along Japan’s more developed Pacific coast).

Are any extensions planned?

None that have been announced.

What does Toki mean? Tanigawa?

Toki is the Japanese name for the crested ibis, a critically endangered bird native to Niigata. Previously recorded as “extinct in the wild” there is now a small wild population on Sado Island (as well as a conservation center).

Tanigawa comes from Mt Tanigawa.

While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change at any time.

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