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How to ride the Shinkansen - Japan's Bullet Train

Updated on July 1, 2011

What is the Shinkansen?

Shinkansen is what the Japanese call their bullet trains. Japan was the first country to developed bullet trains and they have now become a symbol of post war Japan. The Shinkansen runs up and down the length of the country and has stations at all major cities and is a great way to get around if you are traveling the country. 

For more info, check out my hub on the shinkansen. Or continue reading to find out how to go about riding the shinkansen.

Shinkansen ticket from Kyoto to Tokyo
Shinkansen ticket from Kyoto to Tokyo

Buying Tickets

First of course you need to buy tickets. The Shinkansen is run by Japan Railways or JR as it's abbreviated, so you can buy a ticket for the Shinkansen at any JR station in Japan, regardless of whether or not it has Shinkansen service. Head to the ticket window and say where you want to go to. Most of the time the ticket people can handle basic transactions in English so don't worry about this.

What train ticket should you buy? There are two ticket types. Reserved seat tickets and non reserved seats. In my opinion, reserved tickets aren't needed espcially if you are traveling alone or in a very small group. Big groups should get the reserved seat tickets just to ensure that everything goes smoothly. Reserved tickets cost a little bit more and lock you into riding on a specific train, with your seat assigned to a specific car. The non reserved seat ticket allows you the freedom of taking any train you want regardless of when it comes. This gives you more flexibility and allows you to worry less about time, and relieves the stress of navigating stations and the Shinkansen system itself. The only major draw back is that you are limited to finding seats in only 3 of the 16 shinkansen train cars. And occasionally seating in these cars can run out, forcing you to stand until someone gives up a seat.

Once you pay, they will give you 2 pieces of paper. These 2 pieces are your train ticket. Both pieces will be needed for a one way trip.

Typical Shinkansen Sign
Typical Shinkansen Sign

Going through the Gates and Finding Your Train

Take both tickets and head to the gates. They should be clearly marked as Shinkansen gates. See the picture on the right.

Simply go up to the gates and insert both tickets at the same time. Just hold them together and put them into the gate and walk through. They should go through the gate's ticket machine and end up on the other side of the gate waiting for you. Just grab them and keep on going.

If theres a problem, talk to the JR employee's who staff the gates. They are helpful and should be able to solve any problems you might have.

Once through the gate make sure to check the train status board. It should have the name of your destination and tell you which train platform your train will be arriving at.

When in doubt, flash your tickets at any of they JR staff and they will point you in the right direction. 

Types of Shinkansen Trains

There are 3 different kinds of Japanese Bullet trains. The main differences between these are the speed, frequency of stops and age of the trains.

Don't worry, your ticket is good for any of the trains. There is no additional cost to ride the fastest shinkansen vs the slowest.

  • The fastest trains are called Nozomi. Nozomi are usually displayed with orange text on train schedule boards. These trains are the express Shinkansen and will only stop at major stations such as Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe or Nagoya. They are also the sleekest looking and have the most clean and modern interiors.
  • The second fastest trains are called Hikari. Hikari are slightly slower and will stop at a couple of stations in between the major stations. While slower the hikari have much larger and more comfortable seats compared to the nozomi. These are displayed in red text.
  • The Kodama is the slowest Shinkansen train. They stop at all of the stations along their route. These trains are useful if you are going to a small city. Otherwise avoid these trains as it will take much longer for you to get to your destination. If you want a more scenic ride than do chose these trains. Especially if you want to get a nice look at Mt. Fuji.

Boarding the Shinkansen

Once you figure out which platform and which train you are going to take simply wait for it to show up. Shinkansen are extremely punctual and will only be late 1 minute at the maximum. They are generally scheduled to leave major stations every 15-20 minutes.

The platform will have the number of the cars marked clearly over head. If you bought a reserved seat ticket you will need to find your specific car. If you are confused by what your ticket says, just ask one the JR station attendants for help and they will point you in the right direction.

If you bought a non reserved seat, you will need to find the "free seating" cars. These are almost always the first three cars of the train. Cars 1-3

Board and find your seat and you're off.

Onboard the Shinkansen

Once on board you can sit back and relax. The announcements on the Shinkansen are given in Japanese and English so don't worry about getting off at the wrong stop.

While riding, train attendants will bring drinks, and lunches which can be purchased. As well as snacks and alcohol.

There is a place to smoke between cars as well as vending machines and restrooms.

The only other thing you should do is take a peak out the window. You might Just be able to see a beautiful landscape of a snow capped mount Fuji out your window as you fly by.

Extra Tips for riding the Shinkansen

  1. While there are food and beverages available on board the bullet trains, it's best to buy your refreshments before you board. The food and drink sold on board the trains is expensive. Go to a local konbini (convenience store) to pick up what you need.
  2. If you are looking for the complete shinkansen experience you should pick up a boxed launch, known as an obento in Japanese. These are the traditional meals that people take on board since trains were first built in Japan. These can be purchased in the station after you've already gone through the gates.
  3. Drinking in public in Japan is perfectly acceptable and the Shinkansen is no exception. If you feel like drinking go a head and pick up your favorite drink and bring it on board.
  4. The big stations in Japan can be incredibly confusing so make sure you plan ahead and get a map of the station and know exactly where you're going.
  5. The station in Osaka where the bullet trains stop at is known as Shin Osaka, not to be confused Osaka station. If you need to get to Osaka station, you will have to take a 5 minute local train to get there.
  6. Don't worry if you make a mistake or are confused. Reading this article will give you a big head start in understanding the train system. Some Japanese will be even more clueless than you.
  7. Non reserved seats are fine for small groups of people. Any group larger than 4 people should make sure to buy reserved seat tickets.
  8. You don't need to make reservations to far in advance. If you go to the station and buy your reserved tickets for the Shinkansen at least a couple of days before you intend to travel you will have no problems.

If you are interested in other aspects of Japan please check out the links below. Or leave a comment with your own tips on how to ride the shinkansen.

Thanks for reading, and happy travels.


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    • Jhangora profile image

      Dinesh Mohan Raturi 7 years ago from Dehradun

      Thanx a lot for the detailed instructions on riding the Shinkansen. Really useful Hub.