How to Ride the Bullet Train in Japan
Riding the bullet train (also known as Shinkansen) is easily the most convenient way to travel between cities in Japan.
It’s fast, it’s comfortable, and you don’t have to deal with the stress of the airport or a long drive. It’s made even easier for tourists who can use the JR Railpass to save money while travelling around Japan. With over 800 trains travelling a day, at over 200km an hour, you won’t struggle to get where you need to go. Find out everything you need to know about using the bullet train, how to book your tickets, and using the JR rail pass.
Where does the bullet train go?
The Shinkansen network covers most of the country with nine lines in total. One of the most popular routes for tourists is the line that travels south from Tokyo to Kagoshima which will take you through most of the major tourist destinations. This southern route is divided into three major lines:
The Tokaido line – The most popular and oldest line, its route travels Tokyo – Nagoya – Kyoto – Osaka.
The San’yo line – Traveling from Osaka to Fukuoka. Its route takes you through major destinations like Shin-Osaka – Himeji – Fukuyama – Hiroshima – Hakata.
The Kyushu line – This line will take you between the cities of Fukuoka and Kagoshima in Kyushu.
The other six lines will either take you north or inland from Tokyo including: the Akita, Hokkaido, Hokuriku, Joetsu, Tokoku, and Yamagata Shinkansen lines.
Booking your tickets – what train do you need?
Make sure to download the Hyperdia app on your phone which will give you access to all of the train timetables around the country (including the subway). This will provide up to date times to help you keep on schedule.
The easiest way to book your tickets is by buying them at the desk or at the ticket machines in the stations. The screens have an English option and there’s always someone nearby to help you out. However, if you’re able to, we would advise booking at least three days in advance (or earlier if it’s a public holiday) as trains can sell out. You can book your tickets online and pick them up at the designated spot using websites like:
smart Ex – for the Tokaido and Sanyo bullet train covering Tokyo, Mt. Fuji (Shizuoka), Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and more.
JR East Reservation System – this covers the Tohoku, Akita, Yamagata, Hokkaido, Joetsu and Hokuriku Shinkansen.
JR West Reservation System – Similarly to smart Ex covers the Tokaido, Sanyo, Kyushu, Hokuriku and Joetsu Shinkansen.
Alternatively, you can book and have your tickets posted to your hotel using sites like Voyagin.
You’ll need to know:
Getting through the Ticket Gate
Luckily, there’s no wrong gate to enter. If you’re transferring from the subway, you’ll have two gates to go through: the first one ends your subway journey, and the next gate begins your Shinkansen journey.
If you’re simply arriving at the station on foot or by road, then it’s just the one set of gates to the Shinkansen tracks. This will give you access to all of the trains going north and south.
Note that you’ll need two tickets to ride the Shinkansen, a standard fare ticket required for all train travel and an express ticket. These are occasionally condensed into one ticket. You’ll need to put both tickets through the ticket machine at the gate at the same time. Your tickets will be stamped and fed back out to you so don’t forget to take them.
On the platform, each Shinkansen line will have express, semi express and local trains passing through. They all have a different name (like Kodama and Nozomi) so make sure you catch the train that will get you to where you need to go corresponding with your ticket. There are displays noting each train before they arrive and people on the platform who can help.
Using the JR Rail Pass on the Bullet Train
If you’re travelling on a tourist visa in Japan, you can save money with the Japan Railpass. This grants you access to all of the bullet trains except the Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen, which run on the Tokaido, Sanyo, and Kyushu Shinkansen lines. These are the fastest express trains and require a fee.
A good alternative is the Hikari train which stops at 1 to 4 train stations more than the Nozomi, or the Kodama which will stop at all stations. You’ll also be able to prebook seats when using the JR Rail Pass which makes things more convenient, especially if you have luggage.
Tip: You’ll also be able to use your JR Rail Pass on the Tokyo Monorail and JR Lines such as the Yamanote circular line.