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A Beginner’s Guide to Navigating Japan’s High Speed Rail System

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Japan’s extensive rail system is a preferred method of transit for residents and visitors alike.

This post describes what a Shinkansen train is, the types of passes available for sale and answers to common questions related to train travel in Japan. This is a guide for beginners looking to get a sense of how they might incorporate train travel into their plans.

What are Shinkansen trains?

Shinkansen trains are the bullet trains of Japan. At their fastest, trains can travel up to 198 miles per hour / 320 kilometers per hour. This accelerated rate of travel enables business, locals and tourists to move throughout Japan in a more expeditiously than by local train, bus or flight.

Where do the Shinkansen trains run?

There are nine different lines linking Japan’s most popular destinations:

  • 7 Shinkansen lines
  • 2 Mini-Shinkansen lines

Routes include:

  1. Tokaido Shinkansen: Tokyo to Kyoto and Osaka, passes through Nagoya and surrounds.
  2. Sanyo Shinkansen: Osaka to Fukuoka.
  3. Kyushu Shinkansen: Entire Kyushu island from north to south.
  4. Hokuriku Shinkansen: Tokyo to Kanazawa, also Nagano.
  5. Joetsu Shinkansen: Tokyo to Niigata.
  6. Tohoku Shinkansen: Tokyo to Aomori. From Aomori, branches into two mini-shinkansen: the Akita Shinkansen and the Yamagata Shinkansen.
  7. Hokkaido Shinkansen: Aomori to Hokkaido. Enables you to cross the sea that separates the main island from Hokkaido. Akita Shinkansen: Tokyo to Akita and surrounds.
  8. Yamagata Shinkansen: Tokyo to Shinjō.

Note that the above Shinkansen routes descriptions only outline the starting and ending points. There may be stops along the way.

If your destination does not fall into one of the routes above, Japan’s local and regional train and bus system offers additional routes. We do not overview those routes in this post.

Is the Shinkansen only one type of train or does it offer more?

Every Shinkansen lines offers three types of trains: fast trains, semi-fast trains, and local trains.

  • Fast trains only stop at main stations
  • Semi-fast trains stop at main stations plus additional regional stops
  • Local trains stop at every station

For example, on the route from Tokyo to Osaka:

  • Fast trains make six stops at main stations
  • Semi-fast trains make between seven to twelve stops
  • Local trains stop at all 17 stations

Who sells Shinkansen train tickets?

Japan Railways Group (JR Group) sells tickets for Shinkansen trains.

What kinds of tickets are available for purchase?

You can buy tickets to individual Shinkansen trains or a JR Pass.

Ticket prices for individually sold tickets include the base fare of the ticket and limited express fee (the cost of traveling via Shinkansen). Additional fees include seat reservations and upgrades to first class (green car).

Eligibility requirements for the JR Pass include:

  • Foreign tourists traveling on a non-Japanese passport with a “temporary visitor” stamp that is valid between 15-90 days.
  • Japanese citizens who live outside of Japan at least 10 years.

The JR Pass at-a-Glance

  • Selection between 7-day, 14-day and 21-days of consecutive travel
  • Multi-use, discounted rail ticket
  • Ability to take multiple trains each day
  • Unlimited access to all Japan Rail National trains, as well as JR bus services, ferry services, and airport transfer with a single rail pass
  • Discounts on ferries, hotels, city cards and more

How many areas does the JR Pass pass cover?

There are nine rail lines available with the Shinkansen rail pass. The pass covers all lines, except for the Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen, which run on the Tokaido, Sanyo, and Kyushu Shinkansen lines. For those interested in the Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen line, only the semi-fast and local trains are available.

What’s the difference between standard and green class (first class) seats?

Similar to air travel, reserving a first or standard class seat on trains comes down to your budget, style and preference.

First class seats are generally more plush, have better arm rests, better tray table options for eating and are filled with business commuters. The JR Green Pass gives you access to all first-class Shinkansen and certain fast-line trains.

Regardless of whether you choose first or second class, your experience will mostly come down to which country, which train carrier and the culture of the people occupying the train car.

Where do I purchase my JR Pass?

Use the website to purchase your pass.

How far in advance can I purchase a JR Pass?

You can only purchase your pass three months in advance of your trip to Japan.

How do I receive my pass once I purchase it?

JR will ship you a hard copy of a voucher of your Exchange Order to your home prior to departure or accommodation in Japan.

How do I activate my pass?

Once you arrive to Japan, you need to take your voucher to a JR Exchange office at airport terminals, train, or metro stations to make the exchange with your JR Exchange Order.

You will need to bring:

  • Your passport (with a temporary visitor stamp/sticker in it)
  • Hard copy of the Exchange Order. Only the original document is accepted.

Indicate to the staff when you want the first day of your pass to begin. The first day of the activated pass does not have to be the same day that you visit the office.

You have thirty days to activate the rail pass once you arrive to Japan.

Are there any restrictions on the amount of luggage I can bring?

Yes. Travelers are allowed to bring two pieces of luggage onboard at no additional cost.

The maximum weight between the two pieces is 60 kg / 132 pounds and dimensions of no more than 250 cm / 98 inches in heigh, length and width.

If your bags don’t meet these limits, you have two options:

  1. Delivery service
  2. May 2020 onward: If you carry on with luggage larger than allowed, you are required to make a seat reservation in the last row of seats on the train, behind the locked luggage area.

Do I need to reserve seats on the train?

No, you do not have to.

Japan Rail encourages travelers on any ticket to book seats during peak season or for commuter routes.

Commuter routes:

  • Tokyo
  • Kyoto
  • Osaka

Peak season:

  • April 27 to May 6
  • August 11-20
  • December 28 to January 6

If you do want to reserve a seat, you must do so before entering the train.

JR Pass holders are entitled to book a seat on all Japan Railways trains free of charge. You can book a seat up to a month in advance.

How do I reserve a seat?

If you do want to reserve a seat, you must do so before entering the train.

  1. Take your JR Pass to any JR Ticket Office (at any train station).
  2. At the office, indicate your destination and preferred departure time.
  3. Receive your reserved seat ticket, stating departure time, arrival time, train name, car, and seat.

In a different post we will share how we organized our itinerary in tandem with our JR Pass.


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