The Shinkansen, Japan’s high-speed bullet train, is not just a mode of transportation, but an experience in itself. Some tourists consider it a symbol of Japan’s top-notch technology and want to experience a Shinkansen ride just to see what it’s like. Unfortunately, the Shinkansen doesn’t come cheap, so travelers on tight budgets tend to forego it for more practical options. But there are ways to experience the Shinkansen more affordably—and here, we show you how.
Note: The Japan Rail Pass is the most economical way to take bullet trains up, down and across Japan.
Go for a super short Shinkansen ride
Maybe you’re a train aficionado. Or maybe you just really, really want to ride the Shinkansen, but don’t have enough money to fork over for a ride to someplace significantly beyond Tokyo. If you just want to say, “I got to ride the Shinkansen!” even if it’s just for a few minutes (and yes, cheapos have actually done that), you can board the Shinkansen at Ueno, Shinagawa or Tokyo (Tokyo’s Shinkansen hubs) and get off one or two stations later. Alighting at Saitama Prefecture’s Omiya (which isn’t all that far from Tokyo) is a feasible option, too.
You’re looking at a five-minute Shinkansen ride (about 20 minutes if you’re getting off at Omiya) for upwards of ¥1,000, which is not exactly cheap (especially considering a ride from Tokyo to, say, Shinagawa, costs under ¥200 on regular trains), but is technically the lowest-priced way to experience the Shinkansen.
The major downside of this cheapo endeavor is that you don’t get to experience the Shinkansen fully. The train gets nowhere near its maximum speed, after all. But hey, at least you get to see the inside of the Shinkansen, and you can marvel at the cleanliness and spaciousness. If you’re very lucky, you might even see a station attendant pushing a cart full of snacks and souvenirs, and maybe even catch a few regional specialties.
Pick less expensive destinations
Forget about going from Tokyo to, say, Kyoto or Hiroshima via Shinkansen, and just focus on closer destinations that are less costly to get to. This is related to the previous point about taking the Shinkansen for the experience, except it’s less extreme than just being on the Shinkansen for 5-10 minutes.
Some examples of places you can visit from Tokyo via Shinkansen for under ¥10,000 one-way are Takasaki in Gunma Prefecture, Nagano (a popular winter destination), Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture (a super summer getaway), Odawara in Kanagawa Prefecture (a small town with a beautiful castle), Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture (which is known for its gyoza), and Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture (a hot spring town). Hyperdia is your friend when it comes to looking up how to get from one destination to another, and for how much!
The Japan Rail Pass and discount vouchers
If you’re a short-term visitor and you’re keen on long-distance travel via the Shinkansen, you should seriously consider a Japan Rail Pass. It allows for unlimited travel on all JR trains (except for the Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen, the two fastest) for a fixed price for a certain length of time, the cheapest being ¥29,110 for a week. While you can’t use it on the absolute fastest Shinkansen, you can use it to board the Hikari, which only takes slightly longer than Nozomi and Mizuho. It’s also good for all local and limited express trains on the JR network.
Another option if you’re here on a tourist visa, or accompanying someone from overseas, is a special discount ticket for a round-trip to Kyoto, or one to Osaka. These include the super-fast Nozomi, so are probably the best-value option after the JR Pass.
The Puratto Kodama Economy Plan is another idea, allowing travel via the Kodama Shinkansen—the slowest model—from Tokyo to Kyoto for ¥10,300–¥11,600 one way. The experience is not nearly as exciting as riding one of the newer bullet trains, but if it appeals to you, just note that the plan needs to be purchased from a company called JR Tokai Tours at least a day in advance.
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JR has its own travel agency, Byuu, which offers—aside from the usual package tours that last for a few days—some day trips and overnight packages. These include a Shinkansen ride, and, for overnight trips, a stay at a ryokan or hotel. Tours can go for as low as ¥11,000, inclusive of the Shinkansen ride, accommodation and meals. Sounds too good to be true, right? But it isn’t! One of our cheapo writers wrote about his experience availing of a Byuu package. That could be you, too.
If you’re keen on bullet trains, you might want to give our Ultimate Shinkansen Guide a read, and play around with our Bullet Train Fare Calculator too. You could also consider ditching the Shink and trying this nifty 140-yen train hack instead.
This post was last updated in March, 2018.
In our pilot episode, we're joined by Alvin Cheung of ABC Coffee, Hapnick, and Tokyo Keyboards