Shinkansen Guide: Passes, Discounts and More

If you asked me to choose between a two-hour plane ride and a five-hour Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train) ride for the same price to the same destination, I would always choose the Shinkansen. As a matter of fact, I recently asked myself this very question, and I chose the six-hour Shinkansen ride for a return trip from Nagasaki over a two-hour flight back to Tokyo.

I wish I could say my choice was due to my heightened sense of eco-consciousness, but I have to admit that it has more to do with my love for Shinkansen. I find the Shinkansen, an extensive network of high-speed railways in Japan with trains reaching speeds as high as 300 km/hour and carrying one million passengers a day, to be one of the most peaceful modes of transportation. It is quiet, reliable, and undeniably fast. It is also shockingly frequent, it runs every six minutes between Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo.

Tokyo subway
Tokyo Train Station, January 2015.

However, while Shinkansen has many benefits over air travel, I only very recently realized that—thanks to friends from home who were planning their two-week trip to Japan—the process required for booking a Shinkansen ticket can be a little confusing for travelers, especially when you do not use the rail pass. Since, due to the recent dramatic price increase of the beloved Japan Rail Pass, getting the one-week or two-week long passes no longer makes as much monetary sense as it once did, many choose to purchase their Shinkansen tickets individually rather than relying on the Japan Rail Pass. And that is where—with various JR Companies operating in different regions, multiple official and third party websites and the well known un-user-friendliness of Japanese websites—the things start to get a little confusing.

As an avid lover of Shinkansen and a resident of Japan, below are some of my suggestions that may hopefully make the planning and booking part of your Shinkansen ride a little less painful.

Table of Contents

    What is Shinkansen?

    As mentioned above, the Shinkansen (meaning new line in Japanese – 新幹線) is a network of railways operating in Japan where trains reach speeds as high as 300 km/hour. According to the official data, one million passengers ride the Shinkansen daily.

    Regional Shinkansen networks and operating companies

    Shinkansen is operated by Japan Railways Group, which is divided into six different companies based on the service area.

    Source: Wikipedia

    For northern Japan, there is the JR Hokkaido, serving obviously Hokkaido Island, and JR East, serving TohokuKanto, Hokuriku (where Kanazawa is located) and Koshin-etsu regions. For central Japan, JR Central covers the Chubu area. Then there is JR West, which serves one of the busiest Shinkansen routes covering travel from Tokyo to Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima, among others. Southern Japan is covered by JR Kyushu, which has an extensive network making traveling in one of Japan`s most beloved islands easier and faster. While there is also JR Shikoku, the company does not operate any Shinkansen lines and carries the passengers with ordinary trains within Shikoku Island.

    Different types of Japan rail passes covering the high-speed rail network

    If you buy the JR Nationwide Rail Pass (starting at 50,000 Japanese Yen for the one week pass), your pass will cover ride in the Shinkansen trains operated by all these companies. But, if your trip is focused on a single region, the regional passes offered by each one of these companies may be a more economical choice. I wrote more about the regional rail passes in my Traveling Japan on a Budget post.

    Trains that are not covered by the Japan Rail Pass

    There are various types of trains that operate on the Shinkansen network, which differ from each other based on the maximum speed and certain other features (for example, some features first class cabins, some do not).

    While the rail passes can be used for rides in the entire geographical network covered by the pass, Nozomi and Mizuho trains, which are faster than the other types of trains, are not covered by the rail passes. In order to ride on these trains, the holders of Japan Rail Pass need to purchase a supplement ticket. For the Nozomi, the time difference, while technologically significant, will probably not make much of a difference for a leisure traveler. The trip between Tokyo and Kyoto takes 2 hours 22 minutes with a Nozomi train whereas the ordinary Shinkansen train will cover the same distance in 2 hours 37 minutes.

    Tips for booking Shinkansen tickets

    Now, the more confusing part. If you are not using the Japan Rail Pass or one of the regional rail passes, how one can purchase single ride tickets for Shinkansen before arriving in Japan?

    Buying your train ticket online

    While in today`s world, buying your Shinkansen ticket online seems like the most obvious option, for those booking from abroad, online booking was not possible until 2019.

    But now fortunately, JR-East (also covering JR Hokkaido sales), JR-West, JR Central and JR Kyushu all allow online bookings and ticket purchases.

    For JR East and JR Hokkaido Routes, the booking can be made on the Eki-net website. I have to warn you that it is not a user-friendly website, and moving beyond the authentication phase can take multiple tries. Luckily, JR West, JR Central and JR Kyushu tickets can be purchased using the much more user-friendly Smart-Ex website.

    How to collect your Shinkansen tickets

    Purchasing your Shinkansen ticket is only part of the journey. After that, you need to collect the physical ticket either by using the vending machine with a QR code or by visiting the ticket office. I highly recommend that you do not leave this part to the last minute, especially if your train departs from busy stations like Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto. There can be lines both inside the ticket office and in front of the ticket issuing machine.

    On the alternative, if you are already in possession of a Suica or Pasmo card (pre-paid transportation cards used in Japan that can be purchased from ticket machines for 500 Japanese Yen as a deposit that you can re-collect if your return the card at the end of your trip), you can register your card info with the official booking site and have your ticket assigned to your card. After that, all you need to do is to scan your card when passing through electronic gates (the gate will then automatically issue your ticket showing your seat). This is the option I always use as it saves a lot of time.

    Shinkansen ticket discounts

    One of the best things about booking your Shinkansen ticket online is the opportunity to benefit from substantial discounts if you book early enough. The discounts sometimes reach 40% of the ticket price. I recently purchased my Shinkansen ticket between Tokyo and Fukuoka only a week in advance and I could ride in the green car instead of the ordinary car for less than I would normally pay for the ordinary car.

    While there are never any discounts on popular lines such as Tokyo to Kyoto, discounted rates are often available on Kyushu, Hokuriku, Hokkaido, or Tohoku lines.

    Difference between gran, green and ordinary cars

    There are different categories of cars on Shinkansen trains: gran (not available on each train), green, and ordinary. While the name may be a little misleading, green cars are simply a slightly more luxurious version of the ordinary cars that one can ride in on the Shinkansen. It costs extra, there are only two seats on each side instead of the three seats sitting in ordinary cars, and the lighting is softer. So, the distinction between green and ordinary cars has nothing to do with one being more ecologically friendly. You will usually need to pay an extra 5,000 Japanese Yen or more for a ride in a green car. 

    There is also the gran class, which is the first-class version of Shinkansen trains. Not every train has this class, which comes with leather seats, a more spacious seating area, and constant attention from the car crew. A ride in a gran class requires an additional payment of 20,000 Japanese Yen or more.

    These are some of my tips to make the booking process for your Shinkansen ride a little easier. And I hope you find the ride on Shinkansen as enjoyable as I do.