With the hike in Japan Rail Pass prices, individual Shinkansen tickets, as well as regional rail passes, are looking more and more attractive. We’ve got all the details on how to buy bullet train tickets, including Cheapo-tested tips.

Shinkansen tickets can be booked in English online (via apps and websites), at ticket machines, and at travel service counters in major stations around Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan. However, Japan’s rail system is complicated, and depending on where you’re going, your options may be different. That’s where we come in.

Pro-tip: Before we start, note that Shinkansen tickets can — usually — only be bought one month in advance (and up to the day, subject to availability). However, through sites like Klook or Rakuten Travel Experiences, you have the flexibility to buy tickets much further in advance — good for locking in travel plans. More on that below and in our FAQ.

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How much do Shinkansen tickets cost?

Shinkansen bullet train pass Mountain fuji
Oh, why are you so expensive? | Photo by iStock.com/blanscape

First things first, how much do Shinkansen tickets cost? Unfortunately, the Shinkansen isn’t the cheapest way to travel; however it is one of the fastest ways, and is also the most environmentally friendly.

A standard Shinkansen ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto could cost as much as ¥14,570 or as little as ¥13,320, depending on several factors. We break it all down here in our guide to understanding Shinkansen fares. It explains the ins and outs, what tickets you need, and how to save your yen when buying. Or go straight ahead and use our handy Shinkansen Fare Finder.

Buying Shinkansen tickets at the station

You can buy Shinkansen tickets at the station until just before departure, so long as they’re available. This can be accomplished at a ticket counter or at special ticket machines.

There are pros and cons to both methods. However, it is good to know how to buy tickets from the automated vending machines. Because sometimes the lines at the counter are very long.

Shinkansen ticket machines come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. | Photo by Aimee Gardner

Step-by-step guide to using Shinkansen ticket machines

All train stations with bullet train services will have Shinkansen ticket vending machines. Look out for the bullet train symbol and sign just outside the ticket gates — this could be by the Shinkansen gates or the regular JR train gates.

Note that the appearance and interface of the ticket vending machines may be different, depending on the station. (There are a few different models out there). However, the general set-up will be similar and all machines will have an English-language function.

Step 1: Switch to English and pick from three options

Photo by Aimee Gardner

First, change the settings to your desired language — we’ve chosen English. Next, click on one of three options: “Reserved Seat,” “Non-Reserved Seat,” or “Route Search.”

Which option should you pick? If you know where you’re going and what Shinkansen route travels to your destination, you can choose either “Reserved Seat” or “Non-Reserved Seat.”

You’ll then be given an option to choose combination tickets with your Shinkansen — e.g. if you plan on transferring to a limited-express train — but you’ll likely just want the top selection.

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If you’re not sure, beginning with “Route Search” is a good choice. For example, if you are not sure which line your station is on, you can simply input the name of the station.

2. Select your departure station

Notice there are more options at the top. | Photo by Aimee Gardner

You’ve made it past the first hurdle. Keep going and choose your departure station. You can buy tickets for any departing station — it doesn’t have to be the one you are in at the moment.

To do this, you’ll need to know the Shinkansen line. That’s because first you need to navigate the options on top, which are organized by line.

Major stations on the following lines include:

  • Tōkaidō, San’yō, and Kyūshū Shinkansen: Shin-Osaka, Kyoto, Okayama, Hiroshima, Fukuoka (Hakata Station), and Kagoshima-Chuō.
  • Tōhoku, Yamagata, Akita, and Hokkaidō Shinkansen: Utsunomiya, Fukushima, Sendai, Shin-Aomori, and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto.
  • Jōetsu and Hokuriku Shinkansen: Takasaki, Karuizawa, Nagano, Niigata, Toyama, and Kanazawa.

Note: Some Shinkansen services have ONLY reserved seating: Hayabusa (Tōhoku/Hokkaidō Shinkansen), Komachi (Akita), Tsubasa (Yamagata), and Kagayaki (Hokuriku). This is pretty much all services going to Tohoku and Hokkaido. The only services with non-reserved seating going in this direction are the Yamabiko and Nasuno services on the Tōhoku Shinkansen, which terminate at Morioka and Kōriyama (respectively).

3. Pick your date, time, number of people, and seat type

Photo by Aimee Gardner

Select a date, estimated time, and number of people. If you chose “Non-Reserved Seats” at the beginning, then the process is sped up a little. You won’t need a specific time, just day.

Don’t be frazzled when a lot of services and times pop up. Remember that some of the faster Shinkansen services (like the Nozomi) may cost a little extra. This is also the point when you can forgo your Cheapo ways and choose fancier seats in GreenCar (similar to business class) or GranClass (first class).

Editor’s note: Again, if you really want to make sure you get the best possible price, you’ll need to read up on how Shinkansen ticket fares are calculated. It’s too complicated to get into here.

4. Remember to choose a seat with luggage space if you have a lot of baggage

Photo by Aimee Gardner

If you chose “Reserved Seat,” there will be an option to pick a seat with luggage space included. According to the latest Shinkansen luggage rules, you’ll need this ticket if you are bringing on luggage greater than 160 cm total linear dimensions on any Tōkaidō, San’yō, or Kyūshū Shinkansen service. This will limit the seats you can choose, but the machine will show you what’s available on the seat map.

5. Choose your seats

Photo by Aimee Gardner

If you have opted to reserve a seat, you can then choose from a seat map — or just roll the dice and have the AI overlords choose for you.

Pro-tip: If you are going from Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka, get the seats on the right side (in the direction of travel) for a beautiful drive-by shot of Mount Fuji.

6. Opt for the basic fare ticket

You’ll most likely need a basic fare ticket, so hit select. | Photo by Aimee Gardner

Now, stay with me as we traverse through ticket types. The screen will ask you if you need a “basic fare ticket.” This is in addition to the Super (Limited) Express Ticket that you are required to buy.

That’s right, the basic fare ticket is optional, for reasons that are too complicated to explain in depth. Basic fare tickets are covered in our guide to understanding Shinkansen fares. The tl;dr of which is don’t worry about it and hit select.

Don’t get confused if the machine prints out only one ticket — both the basic fare and super express fare are included. You may get two tickets if your final destination is a non-Shinkansen station like Osaka.

Editor’s note: You may see the Super (Limited) Express Ticket labeled on screen as “limited express ticket” because JR refuses to standardize/think through how it translates Japanese train terminalogy/concepts into English. Meanwhile, us at Cheapo are desperately trying to impose some standardization in order to make it all more understandable.

Sorry, I really need to know more about opting out of the basic fare

Sigh. You may, for example, opt out of a basic fare ticket if you are planning on using your IC tap card (prepaid transport smart card) to partly pay for the journey.

However, even this is not without complication: If you choose to pay partly with an IC card, you’ll have to tap through the Shinkansen barriers after inserting your Super Express Ticket.

7. Confirm and pay!

This machine only takes credit cards, but you can also pay with cash. | Photo by Aimee Gardner

You’ve made it. Finally, after you’ve confirmed everything looks correct, on to the less complicated (and most dreaded) part: payment. There will be machines that accept both cash and credit cards. Whatever your chosen method, feed it to the machine and it will pop out your tickets and receipt.

Where can I buy Shinkansen tickets online?

Cat in front of computer looking at the camera
Be tech savvy like this cat and buy Shinkansen tickets on the web. | Photo by iStock.com/Bogdan Kurylo

We would like to be able to tell you that buying Shinkansen tickets online is easier than navigating the Shinkansen ticket vending machine. However, online methods have their own points of confusion. As mentioned before, Japan’s rail system is complicated!

Before you start, you will need to know at the very least what Shinkansen you are taking. Not just the date and time you would like to depart. Or your departure station. But the name of the Shinkansen line.

This is because different lines are run by different operators who each have their own ticketing websites with their own unique deals. So, depending on your travel plans, the website or apps you use may be different. However, rest assured that all these options accept most international credit cards. Some also allow you to link your IC tap card, which is an extra convenience.

Buying tickets through smartEX

Tōkaidō, San’yō, and Kyūshū Shinkansen lines
Tap IC Card/scan QR Code at the barrier or pick up tickets
Get tickets here

smartEx is the most convenient of all the websites and apps on offer. And you can use it to buy tickets on some of the most popular routes — including the Tokaidō Shinkansen which travels from Tokyo to Kyoto and Osaka (via Shin-Osaka). The San’yō and Kyūshū Shinkansen, meanwhile, continue the journey west of Shin-Osaka, all the way to Fukuoka (Hakata Station) in Kyūshū.

In other words, if your destination is west of Tokyo, you can use smartEx.

You can sign up easily in English on the website or app, and you’ll receive a unique membership ID number. Don’t lose or forget your password as you’ll need this to pick up your tickets.

The smartEx website is easy to use. Just remember your password. | Photo by Alex Ziminski

The user interface is easy to navigate, and you can search for your desired train and seats, including those with oversized baggage spaces. They will need to test your credit card first — before searching for tickets — by taking around ¥1 from your account. They accept Visa, Mastercard, JCB, American Express, Diners Club, and Discover.

A great thing about smartEx is that you can link your IC card. You can do this when signing up or later on. This means you don’t have to worry about paper tickets. However, you will receive a printed ticket from the barriers when you tap (see below photo).

When you use Smart EX, a paper ticket will print at the ticket gates when you touch through. | Photo by Maria Danuco

You also have the option of getting a QR code to tap through the ticket barriers. However, you need to remember that not all ticket gates have a QR code reader, so you may have to go searching.

If you decide to go the old-fashioned route, you can pick up your tickets at a machine up to seven days in advance. Remember to bring your credit card with you just in case.

Buying tickets online from JR

JR East, JR West, and JR Kyūshū all have their own online English-language reservation platforms. There is some overlap; for example, you can buy Hokuriku Shinkansen tickets from both JR East and JR West (for complicated reasons).

However, you cannot buy tickets for the Tōkaidō Shinkansen on any of the JR ticket platforms. For that, you have to use smartEx (or Japanese-language Ekinet).

JR East Train Reservation

Jōetsu, Hokuriku, Tōhoku, Yamagata, Akita, and Hokkaidō Shinkansen lines
Tap IC Card at barrier or pick up tickets
Get tickets here

The JR East Train Reservation website (also known as the English-language Ekinet) only gets second place because it doesn’t cover the popular routes that smartEx does. Even though we 100% recommend visiting under-appreciated Tōhoku and surrounding areas.

JR East operates the Shinkansen lines that head east and north of Tokyo. Mostly JR East Train Reservation wants to sell you regional rail passes, and then let you make the free reservations that come with these rail passes. But you can get and pay for individual Shinkansen tickets, too.

Editor’s note: JR East regional rail passes are a good deal if you plan to hit a number of destinations in Nagano, Niigata, Tōhoku and/or Hokkaido. They also do the Tokyo Wide Pass, which is good for day trips from Tokyo.

Click “Purchase tickets”.

The user interface isn’t all that exciting. You can search freely before purchasing, but you must “become a member” before you can buy. This is a simple sign-up process where you’ll need to register your credit card details, but you can also do this later.

You can search for trains via line or station — we recommend choosing line when buying Shinkansen tickets. You can also get your tickets linked to your IC card (which saves the environment and your money). However, the seat reservation won’t print from the ticket gates like with smartEx. If you want to pick up your tickets, you can use a QR code or pick-up code at almost all ticket machines.

While you can buy non-reserved tickets, remember that a lot of JR East Shinkansen services only have reserved seating (noted above). There will also be a seat map so you can choose specifically where to sit. Remember they have free-to-use luggage racks on these lines, so you’re free to sit anywhere if you have oversized luggage.

JR West Train Reservation

San’yō, Kyūshū, and Hokuriku Shinkansen lines
Pick up tickets
Get tickets here

JR West may be famous for its Hello Kitty Shinkansen, which runs from Shin-Osaka to Hakata Station (in Fukuoka). But they also run a pretty easy-to-use and well-explained ticketing website. The interface is very similar to other websites listed, and they also include maps for a visual remedy.

We love the maps on JR West, but you can only pick up tickets. | Photo by Alex Ziminski

What makes JR West slightly different is that if you pick a non-reserved ticket, you can choose to pay at the station rather than using a credit card. This option works best if you can pay at a JR West station. If you’re outside of the JR West zone, you’ll have to go to a service center instead.

You’ll need your reservation number and identification number (which you make up yourself) to pick up tickets.

To pick up reserved and non-reserved tickets (incl. seats with oversized baggage spaces), you can go to several stations with your credit card, reservation, and identification number. For a full list of stations check the JR West website and also see their how-to guide for picking up tickets.

JR Kyūshū Train Reservation

San’yō, Kyūshū, and West Kyūshū Shinkansen lines
Pick up tickets
Get tickets here

JR Kyūshū offers the best deals if you are planning on booking a Shinkansen to explore the bubbling, beautiful volcanos, and beaches of southern Japan. However, there are some downsides to buying from JR Kyūshū. The major one is that you cannot choose a specific seat. However, there is at least the option to choose seats with luggage space.

There is also no way to link your IC card, so you are stuck picking up tickets from machines and desks at main stations in Kyūshū. (And a few other stations, like Shin-Osaka, depending on your departure station).

You’ll need your reservation number, identification number, and the credit card used for the payment when picking up tickets. Note that the website has limited hours (5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. JST) during which you can reserve.

Purchasing tickets online from third-party vendors

Klook makes things a little bit easier. | Photo by Alex Ziminski

You can avoid the hurdles of Japan’s railway websites and go to the middleman instead. There are many positives of choosing this option and the main one is the ability to book more than one month in advance, which you can do through both Klook and Rakuten Travel Experiences. (And something you can’t do through any of the services above).

Klook

Certain popular routes and stations only
Pick up tickets with QR code (certain routes only) or send to address in Japan (incl. hotel)
Get tickets here

On certain routes — they will let you know during booking — you can pick up tickets at major stations around Japan (minus Kyūshū) with a QR code. The full list is on their website.

There is a service charge (they call it a “fulfillment fee”) of around 10% of the ticket and you cannot choose where you sit, though non-reserved, reserved, and GreenCar seats are available. They also do not have an option for seats that need luggage space.

Rakuten Travel Experiences

Certain popular routes and stations only
Pick up tickets at the office in Yotsuya or send to address in Japan (incl. hotel)
Get tickets here

Rakuten Travel Experiences covers a wide range of areas and destinations, and like Klook, you can book way in advance. However, it does miss out on obscure stations and routes. To make a booking, you need to give them your preferred date and time, with a second choice, and they’ll book a ticket for you. You cannot choose a specific seat and you cannot book non-reserved or GreenCar seats. You can either pick up tickets at their office in Yotsuya or have them sent to an address in Japan for ¥500 (hotels are ok). The service charge is around 10% of the ticket you choose.

While they don’t sell seats with oversized baggage spaces specifically, if you decide later on that you need it, you can change your seats for free at a JR Travel Service Center or ticket office.

Buying tickets on Ekinet (Japanese-language)

All Shinkansen lines
Tap IC card, pick up tickets, or send to an address in Japan
Get tickets here

If you feel that your Japanese is up to scratch, then it may be worth entering the world of Japanese-language Ekinet. With a lot of choices and deals, including hotel and car combinations, this is one of the most used sites to get Shinkansen tickets in Japan.

That’s a lot of Japanese to take in. | Photo by Alex Ziminski

While you can book Shinkansen tickets for all lines, this does not mean you’ll receive the same deals as other train companies’ websites. Though they do have their own discount schemes — more on that in our handy article.

The handy thing about Ekinet is that you can choose to pay at your local convenience store in Japan instead of by credit card. You are also able to link your IC card, pick up tickets at the station or have them delivered to you in Japan.

FAQs

Travel worry free. | Photo by Aimee Gardner

When can I book Shinkansen tickets?

You can usually only reserve Shinkansen tickets one month in advance, although sometimes they extend this if there is a limited-time campaign. For those who like to plan way in advance, consider reserving tickets through Klook. They allow pre-sale tickets to be bought, although you won’t receive the tickets until one month before.

Can I use my IC Card (Suica, Pasmo, etc.) for the Shinkansen?

Yes, but you’ll need to link your Shinkansen ticket to your IC card before going through the Shinkansen barriers. You can do this through the many websites listed above.

How do I reserve tickets with a JR Pass?

If you have a JR Pass, you can get on any Shinkansen train (minus Nozomi and Mizuho services) with non-reserved seating. Shinkansen reserved seats are complimentary, but you’ll still need to book them in advance. You can do this online via the official JR Pass website up to one month before (if you bought it directly through them) or use the QR code on your ticket at a Shinkansen ticket machine or counter in Japan.

Can I buy a reserved seat ticket if I’ve changed my mind?

If you’ve bought a non-reserved ticket but have decided you’d like to upgrade to a reserved seat, then you’ll need to prove that you’ve already bought a Special (Limited) Express Ticket for that journey. This can be done at the ticket counter but not at the ticket machine.

While we do our best to ensure information is correct, pricing and other details are subject to change.

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