Riding the Shinkansen - What you need to know
The shinkansen, or bullet train as it is commonly known in English, is the artery of the Japanese rail system, traversing the country from Hokkaido in the north through to Kyushu in the south-west.
With passengers making one million trips per day on average, this accumulates to over 3,000 kilometers of railway. The trains run at speeds of up to 320 km/h, and can cover the 550 km between Tokyo and Osaka in just under 2.5 hours.
Typical shinkansen interior
When you first step inside the shinkansen, you are greeted with an interior that feels like you have stepped onto a plane that is about to make an international flight.
The main difference being that the seating has enough leg room for even the tallest of passengers. When the train is flying through the countryside at 320 km/h, the smooth ride and accompanying quiet hum makes it feel as if you are flying just above the ground.
Why go by shinkansen?
Although planes are of course faster once you are in the air, there are many reasons why the shinkansen should be your first choice when travelling around Japan.
The first is convenience. The shinkansen stations are typically centrally located, which means as soon as you exit the station you can head directly to your destination quickly and easily without having to rely on another form of transport.
Domestic flights are also very popular —nine million passengers fly the Sapporo to Haneda (Tokyo) route annually — and can often beat the shinkansen on ticket price. Although, it can be time consuming and relatively expensive to get to the airport in the first place, especially when it’s a metropolis like Tokyo or Osaka.
One great thing about shinkansen trains are that they are incredibly punctual. Even though with the Tokaido shinkansen has over 130,000 journeys a year, the average delay of this shinkansen is only 24 seconds!
The second reason is that it is an exhilarating way to take in the Japanese landscape.
Due to safety regulations, the tracks are usually elevated high above the ground allowing you to get an unhindered view of the surrounds; be it as the train is skipping through Yurakucho after leaving Tokyo station, or the incredible views of Mt. Fuji and the surrounding countryside as it darts along the Shizuoka coastline towards Nagoya.
Train departure board
What is a shinkansen and why are there so many?
One slightly confusing element of the shinkansen is in the translation.
In Japanese, shinkansen actually means “new main line” and was originally used to describe the wide gauge tracks used on these new high-speed lines. This name is now also used as a generic term for the trains themselves, especially in English, but can lead to confusion as there are a lot of lines which fit under the shinkansen moniker.
It appears as if the shinkansen is often referred to as just one train going all the way from Kyushu to Hokkaido, but there are actually a few different models, a lot of lines in operation, and the system is run by six separate companies. The companies are JR-Hokkaido, JR-East, JR-Central, JR-West, JR-Shikoku, and JR-Kyushu.
Since the first Tokaido shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka began in 1964, there has been a constant evolution underway, with manufacturers developing new models which can go significantly faster, are lighter, more aerodynamic, and more comfortable.
Due to the way the companies which operate the shinkansen are structured, these models are divided into two distinct naming structures.
Shinkansen that travel along the east of Japan, from Tokyo up to northern Japan along the Tohoku-Joetsu line are the E Series. The most recent model being the E7 which came into operation in 2014.
On the other side, we have the shinkansen that travel west from Tokyo along the Tokaido-Sanyo line are the x00 series. The N700 being the latest model, coming into operation in 2007. The N700A, released in 2013, was a slightly updated version of the N700. And in 2020, will come the newly designed, completely revamped N700S (Supreme).
Train departure board
These models are then divided into more recognizable names like ‘Nozomi’, ’Sakura’, and ’Hikari’ (which translate into ‘hope’, ’cherry blossoms, and ’light’ respectively); and these are the names of the trains that you will see on the departures and arrivals boards — as well as your tickets — as you use the shinkansen to travel around.
The names are based on the lines on which they run as well as how many stations the basic service stops at (among other things), so if you are booking the tickets yourself, it can seem a bit confusing.
This is especially the case because shinkansen trains aren’t categorized at all using common terms like local or express trains, so it can be hard to predict which train will stop at a which station.
Shinkansen - outside display screen
The shinkansen names you actually need to know:
Tokaido Line (Tokyo to Shin-Osaka) :
Sanyo Line (Shin-Osaka to Hakata) :
Mizuho (Bountiful Harvest)
Sakura (Cherry Blossoms)
Kyushu Line (Hakata to Kagoshima-Chuo) :
Mizuho (Bountiful Harvest)
Sakura (Cherry Blossoms)
Hokkaido and Tohoku lines (Tokyo to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto) :
Hayabusa (Peregrine Falcon)
Hayate (Strong Wind)
Yamabiko (Mountain Spirit)
Nasuno (in reference to the Nasu Highlands)
Komachi (A synonym for feminine beauty in Japan, in reference to the poet, Ono no Komachi)
Hokuriku Line (Tokyo to Kanazawa) :
Hakutaka (White Hawk)
Asama (in reference to Mt. Asama)
Tsurugi (in reference to Mt. Tsurugi)
Joetsu Line (Tokyo to Niigata) :
Toki (Crested Ibis)
Tanigawa (in reference to Mt. Tanigawa)
For trains travelling west on the Tokaido-Sanyo-Kyushu line:
The Tokaido line runs between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka
For trains which leave Tokyo and travel west to Osaka and beyond, there are six names which can be basically divided into three separate groups.
The fastest trains which stop the least are the Nozomi and Mizuho. The express trains, which are still very fast but stop more often, are named Hikari and Sakura. And the shinkansen that will basically stop at every station are called Kodama and Tsubame.
The Nozomi is the fastest of the Tokaido shinkansen, travelling non-stop from Shin-Yokohama to Nagoya. It arrives at its final destination Hakata (in Fukuoka) in around five hours. This shinkansen has the most frequent departures from Tokyo, is the most popular, and has the least number of non-reserved seats. That’s why it’s important to make a reservation before you board so you don’t risk the chance of having to stand for the duration of your journey.
Since the Nozomi is primarily a commuter train shuttling employees and salespeople between their offices in Tokyo and Osaka, it cannot be used with a JR Rail Pass. If you are travelling with a JR Rail Pass you should catch the Hikari, which is almost as fast but slightly less frequent.
The Hikari is the second-fastest but it’s the most confusing shinkansen on the Tokaido Line, due to the fact that the stations it stops at differ depending on the departure time. Most Hikari trains stop at Shizuoka and Hamamatsu, but Atami, Odawara, Mishima and Toyohashi are often skipped.
Most trains terminate at Shin-Osaka or Okayama, so if you are planning on going further to Hiroshima or Fukuoka, you will have to change trains. When doing so, make sure to find out which train will get you to your destination the quickest, since getting on the next available train may not be the best choice.
The Japan Travel by NAVITIME app will be able to give you all this information and more, simplifying the ticket booking process (especially if you are using a JR Rail Pass).
The Kodama shinkansen stops at all stations between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka. It is the only train to stop at Shin-Fuji, Kakegawa and Mikawa Anjo. Get this train and get off at Shin-Fuji station if you want to take the iconic photo of Mt. Fuji with the shinkansen in the foreground, depicted in the logo of the Japan Travel by NAVITIME app.
The Sanyo line runs between Shin-Osaka and Hakata (Fukuoka), and the Kyushu line runs between Hakata (Fukuoka) and Kagoshima-Chuo
Keep in mind that the Nozomi and Hikari Tokaido line trains may also terminate at Hakata, just like the Mizuho, Sakura and Kodama trains that run from Shin-Osaka to Hakata.
The Mizuho is the fastest train between Shin-Osaka and Hakata. It connects to the Kyushu shinkansen terminating in Kagoshima-Chuo. It will take approximately two and a half hours to go from Shin-Osaka to Hakata, and another hour and twenty minutes to reach Kagoshima-Chuo.
The Sakura is the second-fastest and runs from Shin-Osaka to Kagoshima-Chuo. Use it when boarding from stations that are skipped by the Mizuho train. The Sakura is semi-express, which means the stations it stops at varies by departure time; be careful when booking your ticket.
The Kodama is the same as the train on the Tokaido line. It stops at all stations between Shin-Osaka and Hakata. It terminates at Hakata and doesn’t connect to the Kyushu shinkansen.
The Tsubame will stop at all stations in-between Hakata and Kagoshima-Chuo stations.
For trains travelling north on the Tohoku-Joetsu line:
The Hokkaido and Tohoku line runs from Tokyo to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station in Hokkaido
There are four main trains operating on the Hokkaido and Tohoku lines with Hayabusa being the fastest if your goal is Morioka, Aomori or Hokkaido.
Services using the Hayabusa train are only guaranteed to stop at six stations on its journey north from Tokyo Station to Hokkaido, with most skipping common stops like Ueno, arriving at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station after around four and a half hours.
The Hayabusa train only has reserved seating, which also means that if it is full you won’t be able to purchase a ticket.
The next fastest train is the Hayate, since it also runs non-stop between Omiya and Sendai. And to add on, the Hayabusa is the only train that runs from Morioka through to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station.
The Yamabiko is the main train for the Tohoku shinkansen that travels as far as Morioka in Iwate Prefecture. This is the one to get if you want to change at Fukushima to head to Shinjo on the Yamagata Shinkansen.
The Nasuno is the slowest of the Tohoku shinkansen, stopping at all stations from Tokyo to Koriyama. This train is the one to get if you are going to Nasu-Shiobara, which will get you there in around one hour and 10 minutes.
The Komachi is the name of the train that runs on the Akita Shinkansen between Morioka and Akita; the stations it stops at between Tokyo and Morioka are the same as the Hayabusa.
And finally, the Tsubasa runs on the Yamagata Shinkansen from Fukushima to Shinjo. The Tsubasa has non-reserved seating, so if you have the JR Rail Pass you can just get on without having to make a reservation.
The Hokuriku line operates between Tokyo and Kanazawa.
The Hokuriku line was constructed to open just before the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1997, and in 2015 the extension to Kanazawa was finally completed, making Kanazawa an accessible tourist destination for those travelling from Tokyo.
There are four trains operating on the Hokuriku line, but if you are planning on travelling direct to Kanazawa, the Kagayaki is your best bet.
Kagayaki is the fastest as it only stops at the main six stations (Tokyo, Ueno, Omiya, Nagano, Toyama, and Kanazawa). It will take around two and a half hours to get to Kanazawa, but there aren’t any non-reserved cars so you will need to make a seat reservation even if you are travelling using the JR Rail Pass.
Hakutaka has the next fastest arrival time, taking just over three hours. It stops at almost twice as many stations, but also has cars with non-reserved seating.
The local shinkansen, which terminates in Nagano is the Asama; it usually stops at all stations but depending on the time of day and schedule congestion, it may skip a few.
Heading back from Kanazawa, another shinkansen you may see is the Tsurugi. It operates as a shuttle service between Kanazawa and Toyama station, so if you board the Tsurugi planning on heading to Tokyo, you will have to change again at Toyama.
The Joetsu line operates between Tokyo and Niigata
The Joetsu Shinkansen is famous for having the only running double-decker shinkansen, the E4 series MAX which has elevated windows for those sitting in the upper level.
Having said that though, this shinkansen will be phased out in March 2021 and replaced with the regular E2 and E7 series trains (The E2 will also be phased out in 2023). The Joetsu Shinkansen is convenient when going to the snow in winter, as it stops at Gala Yuzawa station, only a few steps away from the ski lift.
Toki is the name of the train which goes all the way to Niigata and skips some stations, making it faster. The Tanigawa on the other hand, only goes to Echigo-Yuzawa (or Gala-Yuzawa in the winter) but stops at all the stations along the way.
Railroad car interior - car number & information display
Types of shinkansen seats
Seats on the shinkansen are broken up into roughly three types, with a few special ones that are available depending on the line or train.
The most commonly available ticket type is the reserved seat. Most seats on shinkansen trains across the country are in reserved cars. If that’s the case, you will need to book a seat even if you are using the JR Rail Pass.
The second most common type is the unreserved seat. Typically, three to six cars of the shinkansen are unreserved, meaning it isn’t necessary for you to book a seat; if you have the JR Rail Pass you can just jump on. It can be hard to predict if and when these cars are full, as they can sometimes be very crowded or completely empty, so It's safer to get a reserved seat when possible.
If you are only going a short distance, need to be there as soon as possible, and don’t mind the possibility of having to stand the whole way, it’s good to know that you can just get an unreserved ticket even if all of the reserved seats are booked.
The third type of seat is in the ‘Green Car’. The green car is similar to a first-class train car, or a business class flight, in that the seats are more spacious, and the car is generally quieter. The tickets are surprisingly not that much more expensive than a regular reserved seat.
It’s also possible to get a special Green Car JR Rail Pass which will give you access to all of the green car seats nationwide. Green car seats are recommended if you are travelling with older or larger people who would appreciate the space and quieter atmosphere.
The ‘Gran Class’ which operates on the E7 and W7 series shinkansen heading north from Tokyo on the Tohoku, Hokkaido, Hokuriku and some Joetsu lines, is equivalent to the first-class cabin on an international flight. There are meal and alcohol services, and the tickets are significantly more expensive than a regular reserved seat ticket.
JR ticket office
How to make a seat reservation (while in Japan)
Making reservations in person
Seat reservations can be made in person at JR Ticket Offices (commonly known in Japanese as Midori-no-madoguchi, or the green window). These are located in most major JR train stations nationwide and are easily recognizable as all the signage is green.
You can either line up to speak to the staff or purchase tickets at the vending machines.
Ticket vending machine
Ticket vending machine screen
If you have a valid JR Rail Pass and want to sit in one of the unreserved cars, there is no need to go to the ticket office; you can board the train directly.
If you would like to sit in a reserved seat, you will need to make a seat booking at the Ticket Office which is free of charge.
And if you have a regular JR Rail Pass, and want to ride in the green car or Gran Class, you'll need to pay additional charges.
Midori-No-Madoguchi (green window) - ticket office
Due to the sheer number of shinkansen trains in operation around the country, it’s perfectly reasonable to make a reservation and travel on the same day.
There may be situations where you’ll have to wait for the next train — especially when travelling from Tokyo to Osaka along the Tokaido line — but it shouldn’t be a problem unless you are in a rush or are planning on travelling at peak times in the morning or after work.
Ticket vending machine
Making reservations online
Due to the way JR-East, JR-Central, and JR-West companies are structured, which site or app you should use to make your booking will depend on your departure and arrival stations.
JR-West - from Kagoshima to Shin-Osaka
JR-Central - from Hakata (Fukuoka) to Tokyo
JR-East - from Tokyo to Hokkaido
JR-Central - SmartEX Tokaido Shinkansen Reservation App
SmartEX Tokaido Shinkansen Reservation App
If you are travelling around central Japan — from Fukuoka to Tokyo — the SmartEX Tokaido Shinkansen Reservation App is the easiest:
Covering trips between Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima and Fukuoka, the SmartEX app covers a lot of popular destinations, and is easy to install and use.
After registering, tickets can be booked up to a month in advance, and you can easily alter the date and time of time of your departure if you change your mind. If you are using the JR Rail Pass, you have the option to only search for services on the Hikari, Sakura, and Kodama trains.
SmartEX ticket purchase screens
After selecting your train and departure time, choose your seat type from the list or seat map, then proceed to purchase your ticket.
JR-West - JR-West Online Train Reservation
If you are travelling around western Japan — from Kagoshima to Shin-Osaka — you should use the JR West Online Train Reservation site:
Tickets booked from this site can be paid for at the time of booking using a credit card, or at the station before you board the train. To pick up your ticket (or pay for it at a vending machine), look for ones with the ‘e5489’ logo. E5489 is an online reservation network run by JR-West.
JR-East - JR-EAST Train Reservation
If you are travelling around eastern Japan — from Tokyo to Hokkaido — you can use the JR East Train Reservation site:
The JR-East site is the oldest of the online booking services and is the strictest regarding the information required and how it is submitted, making it esoteric and the hardest to use. Also, tickets booked with this service cannot be picked up on the day of travel, and an online credit card payment must be used to complete the booking.
To use the service, you first select the line, choose departure and arrival stations, and then select boarding date and time. You will then need to add the date and the name of the station where you want to pick up the ticket(s). You can then add the number of passengers and seating preferences. You then will need to register, add billing information, and pay to complete the reservation process.
Ticket vending machine screen
JR Rail Passes - There is more than one type!
There are actually a lot of different types of rail passes available in Japan.
The most well-known is the nationwide JR Rail Pass, which allows pass holders to ride for free on JR trains from Kyushu to Hokkaido. Normally recommended for travelers who will at least be travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto or Hiroshima.
If you are travelling all over Japan or using trains that are not on JR lines, it can be difficult to know exactly how much you would save by getting the nationwide pass.
The Japan Travel by NAVITIME app allows you to easily find the prices of the routes (with an icon to show if they are covered by the rail pass). It also allows you to search for routes which specifically take advantage of the JR Rail Pass, so you can work out if the nationwide pass is the best value for your trip.
Aside from the nationwide JR Rail Pass, there are also a lot of bespoke rail passes for different areas that can be found on their official JR railway sites. These aren’t widely advertised outside of the official sites, but have been developed with different types of travelers and specific routes in mind. They can be incredibly good value when compared to the nationwide pass, depending on what you are planning on doing and how you plan to travel while you’re in Japan.
For example, the JR East Pass for the Tohoku Area, is a “flexible five-day pass (any five days within 14 days of issuance, including the day of issuance)” and is priced at 19,000 yen (as of July 2019) when purchased overseas (less than half the price of the nationwide JR Pass).
If you are planning on renting a car and exploring areas that are not readily accessible by train, having five ‘travel days’ over a 14-day period makes a lot of sense. It would be possible to get the shinkansen from Tokyo to Aomori, and traverse your way back down through Akita, Iwate, Miyagi, and Yamagata, ending up back in Tokyo.
If you are not travelling across the whole country it’s worth checking the JR railway sites related to the areas you are planning on travelling to.
You can also ask the staff at the Midori no Madoguchi and see what passes and routes they recommend, since there are many routes that might include free bus and boat travel.