Surely one of Japan’s most iconic images is an impossibly fast bullet train (or “shinkansen”) speeding past snow-capped Mount Fuji – you know the photo. Clichéd as it is, it captures that most Japanese of phenomena, the seamless blending of the ancient and the modern.
Beautiful views aside, the bullet train really is one of those must-do Japanese experiences. It can feel a bit daunting to try and figure out how to use it, but don’t worry – we’ve got a few tips on how to get the most out of Japan's bullet trains.
They’re fast. As in, really fast. The Tōkaidō line between Tokyo and Kyoto takes between about two and a half hours (Nozomi or Hikari bullet trains) and four hours (Kodama bullet trains); by bus this takes about eight hours, and if you go by local trains it’s closer to nine.
Bullet trains also have plenty of “why don’t all trains have this” features, like seats which you can turn around (to make space for your luggage, or sit in a group with your friends), and they look pretty space age.
The bullet train lines snake across most of the country, from Kagoshima at the southern tip of Kyūshū to Hakodate on the northern island of Hokkaidō. Most of the big tourist sites have a station nearby, so you can easily take one to see the ancient temples of Kyoto, Hiroshima’s Peace Park, or of course Tokyo.
The big gaps at the moment are in Shikoku (the fourth-largest island, just by Kyūshū) and almost all of Hokkaidō; if you want to explore the far north of the country, you’re probably better off flying to Sapporo and continuing from there.
Unsurprisingly, riding a bullet train isn’t cheap. You pay a base fare for your journey, depending on distance and time, plus a bullet train supplement.
You’ll pay extra for a seat reservation (reserved seats are called shiteiseki; non-reserved are jiyūseki), and a whole lot extra if you want to go in the Green Car (first class).
Overall, an average Tokyo to Kyoto fare – one-way, regular class – would be about 13,000–14,000¥ (around US$140).
If you plan on using bullet trains quite a lot on your trip, it’s worth considering a JR Pass. You can get one for the whole country (starting at 29,110¥ for adults), or a cheaper pass only covering part of the network; the newest one is the JR East–South Hokkaidō Pass (26,000¥ for an adult). You can’t use the very fastest trains (Nozomi and Mizuho ones) with JR Passes, but the others are still ridiculously quick.
There are a few other money-saving options, too. Perhaps the most useful is the Puratto Kodama Economy Plan, which gives you reduced-price tickets on the Tōkaidō line (Ōsaka–Tokyo). For instance, you can buy a ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto for 10,100¥, when a regular fare would set you back 13,600¥.
If you’ve got a JR Pass, you won’t need to buy tickets at all – you can just walk onto the platform, head for the non-reserved carriage, and you’re off. You might want to get a seat reservation, though, which you can do at JR-affiliated travel agencies, at midori no madoguchi (“green window”) ticket offices, on ticket vending machines or through Japan Rail websites.
If you don’t have a pass, you’ll need to buy a ticket. You can buy these from the same places as the seat reservations, and can reserve a seat at the same time if you’d like. It’s worth looking up routes and prices ahead of time – Hyperdia is a useful site.
Thankfully, it’s all pretty straightforward. Head to the platform and line up by the door which matches your seat reservation. Wait for everyone to get off before you get on; at some stations, cleaning staff will board before you, and you should wait for them to finish up before getting on.
On the train just be generally mindful of the other passengers, and you shouldn’t go too far wrong. Oh, and don’t expect even a thirty second grace period if you’re running late: Japanese trains are ruthlessly punctual.
Don’t miss out on the institution that is the ekiben, or “railway meal” – you can buy them in stations or on the train, and they put other countries’ soggy sandwiches and slightly crushed bags of crisps to shame. Expect perfectly prepared meat and fish, vegetables cut into cute shapes, local ingredients and flavours, and maybe even a mini bottle of wine.
Do ask about which seats have the best views when booking; the most famous is of course the view of Fuji-san when heading from Tokyo to Kyoto or Ōsaka, which you’ll get if you sit on the right-hand side (ask for a yama-gawa or “mountain side” seat).
Hopefully more trains, going further and faster. The Hokuriku line (currently Nagano–Kanazawa) should be extended to Tsuruga by 2022; the world’s longest and deepest undersea tunnel was built from Aomori to Hakodate in 2016, and the line should reach Sapporo by 2030; and the network in Kyūshū will have a Nagasaki service in 2023. This does still leave Shikoku shinkansen-free, though, and the vast majority of Hokkaidō.
Because apparently 275mph isn’t fast enough, new Maglev trains with current top test speeds of 375mph are going to be in use in the not-so-distant future. The name comes from “magnetic levitation”, and yes, they are real life hover trains. They will be wheeled out (pun intended) on a new line between Tokyo and Nagoya by 2027, continuing to Ōsaka by 2045.
A final note for anyone slightly concerned at the thought of travelling so fast: since starting in 1964, the whole bullet train network has had a total of zero fatalities due to crashes or derailments. Yes, you read that right – zero.
Rebecca flew between London and Tokyo with Finnair. If you want to do some research before you go, try checking your nearest JNTO office, and explore more of Japan with The Rough Guide to Japan. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
Top image © Natee Meepian/Shutterstock