The high speed bullet trains, better known as the Shinkansen (新幹線) locally, is a convenient form of transport for travellers planning to visit different regions in Japan in a single trip. With an operation history of over 50 years, the shinkansen is well known for its punctuality right to the second, spacious seats and silent cars for utmost comfort and of course efficiency. The multiple lines on the shinkansen network may appear daunting to many travellers, particularly if you are visiting Japan for the first time. Do not worry, in this article, I will provide you with helpful tips to get on and enjoy your first bullet train ride! However, if you’re looking for a more information about the pass itself, you can read our comprehensive guide to the JR pass, it includes things price comparisons, where to buy it, how to use it and other useful tips.
There are two main ways to purchase a shinkansen ticket, either through online reservation or purchase directly at the station’s ticket office (Midori no Madoguchi) and ticket vending machine. The point is that you still need the ticketing at the ticket office even you “reserve” online. While it is also possible to book your tickets through authorised travel agents, we will talk more about the two main purchase methods here. To purchase tickets at the station:
Before buying tickets over the counter or vending machine at the station, please have the date, ride section and seat request information ready for a smooth purchase. You may either buy a reserved seat or unreserved seat ticket depending on your preference. Do note that while reserved seats cost more, you will not need to queue up in line to get a seat before the train arrives.
To purchase tickets online:
The online purchase has made reservation for tickets more convenient as you can reserve from anywhere you are at any time of the day. In addition, special discounts may be granted for online reservations occasionally so you can save further. Most of the time, you will need to go to the Midori no Madoguchi or the ticket machines at the station to receive your actual tickets after your online reservation is confirmed. If you are unable to collect your tickets in advance, do remember to arrive at the station earlier on the day of your trip.
2. Shinkansen prices: To get a JR Pass or not
You would probably have heard of the JR Pass if you have been doing your homework about travelling in Japan. So what are the benefits of purchasing a JR Pass?
✓ The JR Pass is very cost effective for long distance train travel in Japan available only to foreigners. Why? Because it offers unlimited use of JR trains for one, two or three weeks, and is also valid on shinkansen travel on almost all routes on the nationwide JR network.
✓ Besides travelling on the shinkansen, you can also travel unlimited times on the Tokyo Monorail to and fro the Haneda Airport, take the JR Ferry to Miyajima, ride on three non-JR trains to access remote JR lines, as well as board all local buses on the JR network. That pretty much covers most of your transport needs in the country!
✓ You can make seat reservations on any JR train for free.
✓ Enjoy discounts on regular hotel rates with JR affiliated hotels, like the Metropolitan and Mets hotel chains, which are commonly located near railway stations. That could potentially reduce your accommodation costs as well if you book a stay at JR affiliated hotels.
On the other hand, there are always two sides to a coin. Inevitably there are some restrictions to the JR Pass, summarised for your quick reference below.
X There are two types of shinkansen belonging to the fastest category of bullet trains, that are not covered by the JR Pass. These are the Nozomi trains along the Tokaido / Sanyo Shinkansen and the Mizuho trains along the Sanyo/ Kyushu Shinkansen. You will need to pay a full fare to get on board a Mizuho or Nozomi train.
X While some non-JR trains in more inaccessible regions are covered by the JR Pass, there are nine types of JR trains which partially make use of tracks owned by different railway companies. Examples of some of these trains include the Izukyu Express, Kyoto Tango Railway and IR Ishikawa Railway. JR Pass holders will have to pay a separate fare for these non-JR sections.
X For JR Pass holders who wish to book an overnight train or a seat in the special compartment of the shinkansen, an additional supplement fee is required.
X The JR Pass is not valid on any highway buses, which are an affordable alternative to trains for regional travel in Japan.
Although it is a cost effective pass to use for trips of at least one week or more in Japan, the starting cost of 29,110 JPY (255.95 USD) for an ordinary 7-day pass may not be that worthwhile if it is just a short trip to Japan.
In such situations, it may be more worthwhile to consider purchasing your shinkansen ticket with travel agents that combine hotel accommodation with travel on the shinkansen at a discounted bundle price. You will be able to explore two regions with a short escapade comfortably, yet get to experience the renowned shinkansen at a lower cost.
3. I’m all ready to go and enjoy my first shinkansen ride! What can I look forward to?
Now that you have decided how to go about getting your tickets, you are all ready to embark on your virgin trip on the shinkansen. Given that Japan is home to numerous mountainous national parks, expect to travel through awesome scenery that you can view right from the comfort of your spacious seat on the train.
As Japan is a large country, it takes around 3 hours to reach Osaka from Tokyo on the shinkansen, even with the bullet train running at speeds of up to 320 kilometres per hour. So instead of rushing to the nearest restaurant only after you arrive at your destination to cure your hunger pangs, why not follow what the locals do? Purchase a popular bento boxed meal, known as Ekiben to the locals, at train stations before you board the shinkansen. You will be amazed by the wide variety of Ekiben available nationwide, so do remember to set aside sufficient time to pick and buy your lunch box! Of course, you need a nice beverage to accompany your hearty meal as well. Sip some Japanese green tea, or matcha, as its lingering sweet aftertaste goes well with the tasty Ekiben. Enjoy the high-speed motion scenery changes out of your window while you savour your delectable meal. In fact, if you are a JR Pass holder and not rushing for time, you may wish to alight at train stations selling the best Ekibens along the journey. Some noteworthy Ekibens to watch out for include the Nikko Masu Sushi at Tobu Nikko Station, Kōshū Wine Lunch at Kobuchizawa Station and Ika Meshi at Hokkaido Station.
4. Which side of the shinkansen should I be seated?
Mount Fuji is such a famous icon in Japan that a trip to the Land of The Rising Sun without seeing this gorgeous landmark seems to be incomplete. For the best view of Mount Fuji right in the comfort of your shinkansen seat, I recommend you to grab a seat on the right side of the train, i.e. either aisle seat D or window seat E, if you are heading west from Tokyo. If you are on an eastbound train from Osaka or Kyoto, you should grab a seat on the left side, i.e. from window seat A to aisle seat C.
On the other hand, if you prefer to enjoy cool views of the tranquil sea, sit on the left side of the train (from window seat A to aisle seat C) if you are on a westbound train from Tokyo. For eastbound trains from Osaka or Kyoto, seats on the right will allow you to relish in views of the calm sea waves.
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Take the shinkansen for a memorable travel experience
High-speed trains may be quite common these days in many other countries, but Japan’s shinkansen is still a leader in its own right. Taking the shinkansen not only helps save you time for your travels in Japan, it is also a unique experience that will definitely leave you with superb travel memories. Try it for your next trip to Japan!
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