Japan Bullet Train: The Shinkansen


Japan’s major cities are connected by a network of high speed trains known as Shinkansen. The network operated by Japan Railways (JR) has been progressively developed on the main islands of Honshu, Kyushu and Hokkaido since the 1960s. It provides a stark example of cutting edge Japanese technology, connecting the bustling capital city of Tokyo with cities extending as far as Aomori in the north and Kagoshima in the south.

Shinkansen trains currently transport a staggering 150 million passengers per year. Riding on one is an essential part of the tourist experience when visiting Japan. These trains can travel up to 320 kilometres per hour. To put that speed into perspective, if we had Shinkansen trains in Australia they’d be able to travel between Sydney and Melbourne in under three hours!

Incredibly, for most of their journey, Shinkansen trains don’t make contact with the track. Instead, they hover 10 centimetres above the track as they are propelled through the air by electrically-charged magnets on either side of the line.

Besides their incredible speed, they have a great reputation for:

  • consistently departing and arriving on time;
  • comfort (there’s plenty of room with their reversible seating arrangements);
  • quiet and efficient operation;
  • cleanliness;
  • safety (they have one of the best safety records in the world!)

Foreign tourists can also take advantage of great savings,  comfortable and convenient travel with the Japan Rail Pass.

The Network

The Shinkansen network has multiple rail lines:

  • Tokaido (the most popular line that links Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka: the stretch between Tokyo and Kyoto provides spectacular views of the iconic Mt Fuji)
  • Sanyo (linking Osaka, Hiroshima and Fukuoka)
  • Kyushu (linking Fukuoka and Kagoshima)
  • Tohoku (linking Tokyo, Sendai, Morioka and Aomori)
  • Joetsu (linking Tokyo and Niigata)
  • Hokuriku (linking Tokyo and Kanazawa)
  • Hokkaido (linking Aomori and Hakodate)

In addition, several additional lines are planned over the coming decades. One magnetic line between Tokyo and Nagoya that is scheduled for completion by 2027 will enable Shinkansen trains to travel at speeds up to 500 kilometres per hour.

A variety of Shinkansen train types operate on each existing line, ranging from express services that bypass various stations to those that stop at each station.

Shinkansen Travel Time Between Popular Destinations

  • Tokyo to Kyoto: 2 hours, 49 minutes
  • Tokyo to Shin-Osaka: 2 hours, 33 minutes
  • Tokyo to Akita: 3 hours, 50 minutes
  • Shin-Osaka to Hiroshima: 1 hour, 40 minutes
  • Hiroshima to Hakata: 1 hour, 8 minutes
  • Hakata to Kagoshima: 1 hour, 17 minutes

Seat Categories

Most Shinkansen trains offer two seat classes in separate cars, with some also offering a third class. These classes are:

1) Ordinary

These are regular seats and usually arranged in rows of 3×2. The size and foot space varies between Shinkansen trains, but they are generally comfortable. They provide considerably more foot space than economy seats on planes. Ordinary seats can also be reclined and they have foldout tables and pockets for magazines like on a plane, as well as open overhead shelves that can store small and medium-sized bags or suitcases.

There’s also usually enough space for two or three large suitcases behind the last row of seats in each Shinkansen Car. Each passenger is allowed to bring up to two pieces of luggage weighing less than 30 kilograms and not measuring more than 2 and a half metres combined in terms of height, width and depth.

2) Green Car

Green Car is similar to business class on planes and is arranged in rows of 2×2. Seats are more spacious and comfortable than those in Ordinary class, and they have all of the other features of Ordinary Class. Depending on the type of Shinkansen service, they may also have a foot rest, reading light, radio, electrical outlet and a seat warmer. Green Cars are also less crowded than Ordinary Cars.

3) Gran

This is comparable to first class on planes. It’s available on the Tohoku, Hokuriku and Hokkaido Shinkansen trains. Gran class seats are the most spacious available, and passengers in them are entitled to additional amenities and services to those provided with both Green or Ordinary Cars.

Reserved and Non-Reserved Seating + How to make Seat Reservations

Most Shinkansen trains offer both reserved (shiteiseki) and non-reserved (jiyūseki) seating. However, a few services on the Tohoku, Hokkaido and Hokuriku Shinkansen lines only offer reserved seating.  Bilingual signs on the Shinkansen trains and at station platforms indicate whether reserved and/or non-reserved seatings options are available.

All Green Car and Gran seats must be reserved in advance, along with any special needs seating (e.g. passengers with wheelchairs). You can use your Japan Rail Pass to reserve seats for no additional charge. If you don’t have a Pass, you’ll be charged a booking fee of a few hundred yen, depending on which line you’re travelling on and how far you’re going.

You can reserve a Shinkansen seat up to a month in advance via a JR ticket office. Doing this gives you the peace of mind that you’ll be able to travel in comfort when you want to. At peak travel times to popular destinations, seats can often be booked out several days in advance. To reserve seats, you need to provide:

  • your departure and destination stations;
  • the date of your travel;
  • the time of your Shinkansen service;
  • the seat class you require e.g. Ordinary, Green Car or Gran (For non JR Pass holders – If you have a pass you class is already decided).

You can also reserve a seat moments before your departure at a station ticket counter (midori no madoguchi), provided seats are still available. If you don’t speak Japanese, it’s recommended that you write your seat reservation details down on a piece of paper and hand it to the ticket officer to avoid confusion. Vending machines are also an option for Shinkansen seat reservations, but be aware that you can’t use your Japan Rail Pass at vending machines.

You can use our planning & online timetable section of our website to help you get prepared and plan your trip.

Fares and Ticketing

a Shinkansen fare can be made up of several fees:

1) A base fare (jōshaken): This amount depends on how far you’re travelling. The greater the distance, the higher your base fare. You pay this amount whether you’re travelling on a Shinkansen train or an ordinary local train.

2) Shinkansen limited express supplement (tokkyūken):  This is an additional charge for using a Shinkansen instead of a local train. Again, the greater the distance, the greater the fare.

3) Seat reservation fee: The seat reservation fee depends on whether it’s low season, regular season, or high season. It ranges from 320, 520 and 720 yen depending on the time of year. An additional supplement fee of 100-620 yen is applied for reserved seats on Nozomi, Mizuho, Hayabusa and Komachi trains. It’s usually combined with the express supplement into single ticket.

3) Green car fee: This is an additional fee you’ll pay for Green Car or Gran seating.

Depending on the Shinkansen service, passengers who don’t have the convenience a Japan Rail Pass may receive two tickets (the base fare and the supplement), or these may be combined into a single ticket. If you’re riding on multiple Shinkansen trains to get to your destination, a separate ticket may be required for each train (again, this is only if you don’t already have a Japan Rail Pass).

Boarding Shinkansen Trains

Regular Shinkansen ticket holders must queue and pass through automatic gates. Signs and announcements on Japanese platforms are bilingual (Japanese and English). Japan Rail Pass holders don’t use automatic ticket gates. Instead, they simply show their Pass to staff at manned gates. You then will mak your way to the Shinkansen platforms to board one of these trains. They are often in a separate part of the station or on a different level, but they may also be parallel to the regular train lines.

Virtually all Japanese stations have escalators or elevators if required. There is easy Shinkansen platform and train access for passengers in wheelchairs and mothers with strollers.

Displays on each Shinkansen platform will indicate upcoming Shinkansen arrivals and routes. Other signs painted on the platform indicate car door locations, numbers and seat classes (i.e. Ordinary, Green Car or Gran). It’s customary in Japan to line up in an orderly queue to board trains, especially for non-reserved seats. Reserved Shinkansen seats are numbered and lettered similarly to airline seats.

Riding on Shinkansen Trains

Just like on public transport in Australia, there are manners you should observe when riding Shinkansen trains in Japan:

  • keep your voice down when you’re having a conversation;
  • turn your phone to silent mode;
  • have consideration for the person behind you when reclining your seat;
  • don’t block aisles with your luggage.

Small food carts with a variety of snacks, drinks and boxed meals (bento) pass along the aisles at regular intervals on most Shinkansen trains. Some also have drink vending machines. Wi-Fi is available on the newest Shinkansen trains between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka and will progressively become available on others. However, you need to buy a subscription or a 1-day pass before you board the train to be able to access this Wi-Fi.

Multiple toilet and wash room facilities are available on all Shinkansen trains, with some being gender-specific. Most toilets are Western style and many modern Shinkansen trains also have disabled toilet facilities.

Smoking is not allowed on most Shinkansen trains, although a few older models allow smoking in small designated areas.