Among the many innovations Japan is famous for, its high-speed train network is one of the jewels in the crown.
The shinkansen network is perhaps the most efficient national rail system worldwide, but what makes the shinkansen special? How was it built, where does it go, and is it affordable for travelers visiting Japan?
Our guide covers all your questions on the well-known Japanese bullet train, from its history to how to book a ticket. Let’s go!
What is the Shinkansen Network?
The shinkansen network is a series of high-speed rail tracks covering Japan’s largest three islands – Hokkaido, Honshu, and Kyushu. The term “shinkansen” means “new trunk line,” The system was developed to connect major population centers in Japan more efficiently.
Shinkansen refers to the network rather than the trains themselves, called “Shinkansen trains.” The trains are also often referred to as “Japanese bullet trains” in the West.
The Japanese rail system is known for its incredible punctuality, with almost all trains departing within seconds of the scheduled departure time. The shinkansen network is no exception, and with trains running at up to 320 km/h, it’s arguably the fastest and most efficient national transport system worldwide. Trains are also noted for their large carry capacity and superb comfort features.
Where Does the Shinkansen Run?
The network consists of 7 separate lines. Between them, these lines span from Kagoshima in southern Kyushu to Hakodate on the northern island of Hokkaido. From north to south, the Shinkansen lines are:
- Hokkaido line: this line runs between Aomori in northern Honshu and Hakodate in Hokkaido. It travels undersea through the Seikan Tunnel to reach Hokkaido.
- Tohoku line: this line serves the northern part of Honshu. It runs from Tokyo up to Aomori. It also includes the splinter lines heading to the cities of Yamagata (which forks to the west north of Tokyo) and Akita (which diverts West at Morioka)
- Joetsu line: this line travels north from Tokyo to Niigata.
- Hokuriku line: this line runs parallel to the Joetsu line at first but then forks off to the West to Kanazawa.
- Tokaido line: the most popular line on the network, the Tokaido shinkansen runs west from Tokyo to Osaka. It stops at the major cities of Nagoya and Kyoto before reaching Osaka.
- Sanyo line: continuing west from where the Tokaido line terminates in Osaka, the Sanyo line is also very popular and stops at Hiroshima on its way to Fukuoka in northern Kyushu.
- Kyushu line: the Kyushu Shinkansen line spans from north to south, starting at Fukuoka and continuing down to Kagoshima by the southern coast.
Except for the Yamagata Shinkansen and the Akita Shinkansen splinter lines, every track in this network is reserved exclusively for shinkansen trains. This enables them to reach the consistent high speeds needed for fast travel without potential interruption from other services.
It’s worth noting that shinkansen trains aren’t all alike. Numerous train categories have been built for the network over the years, and it stands to reason that the more modern trains have some improved amenities and can often achieve higher speeds than the older models.
How Was the Shinkansen Network Made?
The oldest part of the shinkansen network is the Tokaido line connecting Tokyo and Osaka. It began service in 1964 and remains the most popular part of the network today, as it brings commuters, tourists, and travelers between Japan’s two largest cities.
The network seemed unlikely to go ahead initially, as the Japanese government sided with the global consensus that air travel would soon replace rail and that high-speed lines would be a wasted investment. Partly thanks to the intensive lobbying (and slightly underhand negotiating tactics) of Shinji Sogō, the then-president of the Japanese National Railways, the government agreed to fund the project.
In addition to negotiating a loan from the World Bank that made it almost impossible for the Japanese government to withdraw its backing, part of Sogō’s strategy was to understate the project’s potential cost massively. Sure enough, it ran considerably over budget compared to initial estimates, and Sogō resigned before the first train ran on the network. However, he is still considered central to the shinkansen’s inception and continued success.
Another notable figure in the project’s development is Hideo Shima, the network’s chief engineer, and leading architect. Along with considerable input from innovative engineers at Japan’s Railway Technical Research Institute and a competent workforce, the first line was developed and constructed in a remarkably short period of 5 years.
Especially given the rugged, mountainous terrain of much of Japan, the Shinkansen network is an astonishing feat of engineering. Since its inception in 1964, it hasn’t seen a single injury or death resulting from collision or derailment. It remains fiercely proud of its record for punctuality and safety.
It also represents a vindication of Shinji Sogō’s prediction that train travel would remain relevant after the mid-20th Century. Other nations decided against committing to large-scale high-speed rail networks in the post-war boom years before the advent of long daily commutes. Most developed countries can’t implement similar infrastructure without causing massive disruption.
Traveling on the Shinkansen Network: Complete Guide
Here you’ll find a guide to buying tickets, available seating options, how to make reservations, and the amenities available on the shinkansen network.
Buying Shinkansen Tickets
It’s easy to buy tickets for Shinkansen trains – they can be purchased online, over the counter, or at a ticket machine. Below, learn how to purchase tickets for bullet trains in Japan and information on pricing and discounts.
Cost of a Ticket
The ticket price is pretty straightforward – it’s primarily based on the distance traveled, along with additional costs for using a high-speed train and other comforts. You might receive two tickets per train: a “basic” ticket and a “supplement” ticket. This second ticket accounts for the fact that you’re traveling on a shinkansen train rather than a regular service and extra features you’ve chosen like seat reservations or seating class upgrades.
Here’s how the cost is generally determined:
- Base fee. This is the sum you pay for travel using the JR (Japanese Rail) network. It’ll represent the exact sum you’d pay for an ordinary train.
- Limited express fee. This will typically be shown on your extra ticket. It’s the additional cost you incur for traveling on a high-speed train rather than a regular service. It scales upwards relative to the distance traveled.
- Seat reservation fee. Reserving a seat might cost you 320-920 yen, depending on when you’re traveling. Some trains on the shinkansen network (specifically the Hayabusa, Nozomi, Mizuho, and Komachi categories) incur an additional fee for reservations of up to 620 yen, especially on busier Shinkansen routes.
- Upgrade fee. You’ll be charged extra if traveling in the luxurious Green Car or Gran Class. This will be included in your supplementary ticket.
You should receive two tickets per journey segment – the base and supplementary tickets. If you use more than 1 section of the shinkansen network, you’ll often receive additional tickets for each segment.
Where to Buy a Ticket
You can buy a ticket for your train at a ticket office, at a ticket machine at the train station, or online. You’ll need to provide all the usual information such as the time, date of travel, number of passengers, and which Shinkansen train stations you’d like to travel between.
- Buying from a ticket office is sometimes advantageous because you’ll have someone to help you if you aren’t sure where or when to travel. However, it’s good to have all the information you need to be written down beforehand if you don’t speak Japanese fluently – this will help the operative understand what journey you’d like to take. While you’re more likely to find English-language assistance at significant stations and larger cities, this is uncommon at smaller stations. You shouldn’t expect to rely on speaking English.
- Buying from a ticket machine can be slightly confusing. Some devices offer an English menu but not all, and some machines don’t allow reservations to be made. You might also run into issues because ticket machines don’t always accept credit cards from other countries. Another disadvantage of using ticket machines is that these are more often used by Japanese natives, so you might risk holding up a line if you get lost while trying to buy a ticket. It’s usually better to find the service counter to ensure you get the right ticket for your journey.
- E-tickets aren’t available for Shinkansen trains. If you’d like to buy your ticket online, you’ll have to find the appropriate website for the part of the network you’re traveling on. Tickets for different sections may need to be purchased through various websites, as there’s no main shinkansen website. These tickets will also need to be collected from a station which can only be a station on the part of the network you’re using. E.g., if you’re traveling north using the Tohoku and Hokkaido lines, you’ll need to pick up your tickets for Hokkaido separately when you change trains at Aomori.
The various websites used for buying tickets online include:
Using IC Cards on Shinkansen Trains
IC Cards are handy when you’re traveling around Japan. They have some limitations when being used on the shinkansen network, however. They’re only accepted on some parts of the network, and the way the charge is applied depends on which website you’re using. For example, booking through the Smart EX portal subtracts the amount from an associated credit card, while booking on the JR East website will deduct the charge from the IC card’s balance.
Furthermore, IC cards can only be used for non-reserved tickets on some parts of the network, and information isn’t always available in English. It’s often more straightforward to book your trains in advance using a regular credit card than trying to use an IC card on the shinkansen network unless you use it regularly.
Do Japan Rail Passes Cover Shinkansen?
If you have a Japan Rail Pass, you can use this to travel without a ticket on all shinkansen trains except for Nozomi and Mizuho services. If you book a reserved seat, you’ll be issued a separate ticket indicating your seat reservation.
Regional passes usually cover the relevant part of the shinkansen network. Still, you’ll need to book additional tickets if you have a regional pass and are traveling further afield on the high-speed system.
The Japan Rail Pass is an incredibly cost-effective way for tourists to travel, allowing unlimited journeys around Japan for 1-3 weeks and costing less than 30,000 yen (around $220) for the cheapest 1-week pass. You can upgrade to a Green Car pass for extra comfort features, and the value gets better if you arrange for a two or 3-week pass.
This will also save you significant hassle when it comes to booking tickets. Acquiring a rail pass is highly recommended if you’re planning to use the shinkansen network when visiting Japan.
There are other ways to acquire cheaper shinkansen tickets – some of these need to be booked in advance, but some discounts are available if you’re purchasing a ticket at the station. Examples include:
- Discounts booked through travel agencies. Your travel agent might be able to book a discount deal for train travel as part of your vacation package.
- Discount ticket vendors at stations. Some retailers around stations sell shinkansen tickets at a discount, although you can’t always rely on lower prices for the journey you’re planning – different deals are available at different times.
- Purchasing in advance sometimes comes cheaper than buying on the day.
- Round trip tickets often work out cheaper and make sense if you’re planning to use a city (e.g., Tokyo) as your main base and visit other regions of Japan for a day or 2.
Shinkansen Seating Options
Shinkansen trains are well-known for offering extremely comfortable seating conditions. Even in the cheapest section – the Ordinary Car – passengers can enjoy plentiful legroom and spacious seating.
This is standard class and the most affordable option. It comes with very few frills but offers plenty of space compared to standard class on most Western trains.
The Green Car is a more luxurious and spacious part of the train. It’s generally available on all shinkansen trains and is much less crowded than the ordinary car. You pay a small additional fee for using the Green Car.
Some Shinkansen trains now offer Gran Class, which comes with perks, additional amenities, and lots of space. It’s more expensive, but the experience is superb if you can afford it.
This car isn’t available on older trains and is only found on the northern part of the network (Hokkaido, Tohoku, Joetsu, and Hokuriku Shinkansen lines).
Making Reservations on Shinkansen Trains
Seats can be reserved on all trains – remember that it’s easier to reserve a seat if you’re booking online or using a ticket booth rather than a machine.
Which Trains Require Seat Reservations?
Some trains in the northern part of the network require reservations. This includes:
- Hokkaido & Tohoku Shinkansen lines: Hayabusa, Hayate, Komachi, Tsubasa trains
- Hokuriku line: Kagayaki trains
On most other parts of the network, seat reservations are optional. You’ll need to reserve a seat if you’re booking a Green Car or Gran Class seat.
Should You Reserve a Seat?
Reserving a seat is generally recommended if you’re unfamiliar with the line you’re traveling on. Frequent travelers tend to know which services are less likely to be busy, but guaranteeing yourself a seat is a good idea for most travelers. If you’re traveling in a group, it can also ensure that you’re sitting together.
Amenities on Shinkansen Trains
The amenities on a train vary depending on how old the model is and which car you’re in. Passengers in Gran Class enjoy more comforts and services than passengers in the Ordinary Car – however, whichever car you’re in, you can expect a comfortable journey.
Announcements & Information
All trains make announcements in Japanese and English. Some lines also provide announcements and written communication in Chinese and Korean. You’ll also find written information in both languages on virtually all services.
Passengers can bring two large luggage items on board. The maximum volume of each piece is 250cm, and the maximum weight is 30kg. Luggage can be stored in the spacious overhead racks or designated areas at the end of each carriage. It’s often recommended that you use a separate delivery service if you’re planning to bring a lot of luggage, as this can slow down getting on and off the trains and block the aisles.
On the Tokaido Shinkansen line, Sanyo, and Kyushu Shinkansen lines, if you bring luggage with a volume greater than 160cm, you’ll need to make special reservations or potentially face a fine.
Does Shinkansen Have Wi-Fi?
Almost all shinkansen trains have free Wi-Fi. If you’re traveling east of the country, where some of the oldest trains still run, there might be no Wi-Fi service.
Many services operate a trolley service providing boxed lunches, drinks, and snacks. There’s not usually an onboard dining car.
Toilets on Shinkansen Trains
There are toilets available on all trains. These are usually modern, Western-style toilets, but traditional Japanese toilets are still used on the oldest models. On some trains, toilets are unisex, while others provide separate male/female accommodation.
Can You Smoke on Shinkansen Trains?
Smoking is only permitted on the Tokaido line and some parts of the Sanyo line, where smoking cars are available. Smoking is prohibited on most of the network – even on the Tokaido and Sanyo lines, it’s best to ask first and only smoke in an appropriate area.
Conduct on Shinkansen Trains
Common courtesy is essential not just for the comfort of passengers around you but for the smooth running of the train service. Keeping conversation volume low, avoiding blocking the aisles, and keeping your phone on silent are considered good practices. You should also take all waste with you when you leave the train.
Is Shinkansen the Fastest Train in the World?
The shinkansen bullet trains can travel at a maximum speed of 200mph or 320 km/h. Maglev trains, which will become part of the network over the next decade, can reach far higher speeds.
How Punctual Are Shinkansen Trains?
The trains experience an average delay of less than 1 minute per year. The average delay for the Amtrak train in the U.S. is 49 minutes.
Is the Shinkansen Expensive?
Tickets are generally very affordable, given the speed and comfort of the service. The cheapest way for tourists to travel is by acquiring a Japan Rail Pass lasting 1-3 weeks.
How Big Are Shinkansen Trains?
Shinkansen trains tend to be 16 cars long. This gives them a carrying capacity of around 1,300 passengers!
Why is Shinkansen Called “Bullet Train”?
“Bullet train” is a term commonly used in the West for the high-speed rail network. Shinkansen translates as “new trunk line.”
Are Shinkansen Trains Maglev?
The shinkansen network intends to start using Maglev trains by 2027 between Tokyo and Nagoya. This Chuo Shinkansen line should reduce the journey time between the cities to around 40 minutes (the Tokaido line covers the trip in 1h 30m) and travel at over 500 km/h.
Is the Shinkansen Network Expanding?
The network continues to grow. Projects include:
- Extending the Hokkaido line north to Sapporo
- Connecting the Hokuriku line south to Kyoto
- Connecting Nagasaki to Kyushu line
- Adding the Chuo Shinkansen Maglev-enabled line between Tokyo and Osaka
Traveling on the Shinkansen: Final Thoughts
The shinkansen isn’t just a train system you use to get from one part of Japan to another – it’s an experience. If you’re visiting Japan, book tickets to travel on its iconic high-speed rail network!