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What is the shinkansen?

Brief explanation

The shinkansen (bullet train) is the name of high-speed train in Japan. It is operated by the JR (Japan Railways) companies. The first shinkansen opened in 1964, when Tokyo held the Olympics. The shinkansen is well-known for its safety and punctuality. Since it is first opened in 1964, almost zero major accidents have occurred. Although they run at more than 200 km an hour, they always arrive and depart the shinkansen stations on time. How beautifully functional the shinkansen is!

Shinkansen lines and types

There are several lines on the shinkansen: the Hokkaido shinkansen (light green), the Tohoku shinkansen (green), the Joetsu shinkansen (dark green), the Tokaido shinkansen (blue), the Hokuriku shinkansen (brown), the Sanyo shinkansen (indigo), and the Kyushu shinkansen (red). There are also different types. For example, the Tokaido shinkansen and the Sanyo shinkansen have three types: the Nozomi, the Hikari, and the Kodama. The picture below shows the Nozomi.

Get your tickets!

Where to get your tickets

JR stations have ticket offices called the Midori no Madoguchi. You can go there to get tickets. There is also a website that you can visit:

Ticket system

The ticket system of the shinkansen is a bit complex. Two tickets are necessary to take the shinkansen service: a basic fare ticket and an express ticket. A basic fare ticket is necessary for all train travel, and an express ticket is additionally needed to take the shinkansen. There are cases where the two tickets are integrated into one ticket.

To get onto the train, you need to pass through the automatic ticket gates for the shinkansen. The two tickets need to be inserted together when passing the gate.  The tickets are stamped and released at the end by the ticket gate automatically, so don’t forget to grab them! Sometimes JR employees walk around and check the tickets during travel.

There are three kinds of shinkansen seats: unreserved seats, reserved seats, and green seats (first-class seats). Unreserved seats are the cheapest, but it’s recommended to get reserved seats. It is possible that you might not be able to find enough vacant seats and will have to sit separately if the shinkansen is crowded. During the high season, there is even a possibility that you might not find any vacant seats and have to keep standing through the shinkansen travel. Reserved seats free you from that sort of concern. If you want to enjoy luxurious travel, then purchase green seats tickets. They cost much higher than ordinary reserved seats, but offer a more comfortable trip.

For more detailed information, please see:

How to select seats and spend time in the shinkansen cars

The arrangement of unreserved cars and reserved cars differs according to the type of the shinkansen. Most shinkansen trains have their unreserved seats cars in the cars No.1 to No.3, but some trains have them in the cars No.1 to No.5, and some trains have more.

If you’d like to use an electronic device but it needs to be charged, try to select window seats. On most shinkansen, the electrical outlets are set only in the window seats. Some shinkansen trains have WiFi, but the communication capacity is still slow and you should not expect too much. Some shinkansen stations also have WiFi for travelers from abroad. JR-Central_FREE, JR-EAST_FREE_Wi-Fi, and JR-WEST_FREE_Wi-Fi are available by registering your email address.

If you want to smoke or make a telephone call, you need to move to the decks between the cars so that you will not bother others. Some decks have rooms for smokers or ashtrays. You are not allowed to smoke in the toilets.

Japan Rail Pass

For those who visit Japan from abroad, the Japan Rail Pass is very convenient and economical. With Japan Rail Pass, you can take all the JR trains, including local trains, the shinkansen, and other special trains. It is offered at a reasonable cost: 29,110 yen for seven days, 46,390 yen for 14 days, and 59,350 yen for 21 days. You can purchase the Japan Rail Pass online, but it can only be done outside of Japan.

Japan Rail Pass HP:

Other shinkansen services 


An ekiben is a lunchbox for train travelers, created and served at train stations. Some major stations make ekiben using regional specialties. For example, Sapporo Station in Hokkaido is famous for its fresh seafood, so their ekiben often includes salmon. You can buy ekiben on the shinkansen during travel as well as in the station. Go to the station a little earlier to enjoy shopping for ekiben! 

Toilets, garbage cans, luggage storage

Toilets, garbage cans, and luggage storage are available in the front and back of the shinkansen cars. The luggage storage is for large baggage such as skis, snowboards, and surfboards. Luggage racks are also set above each seats.

Appendix: the seats rotate!

The seats of the shinkansen are designed to rotate so that you and your group can enjoy traveling together. Keep in mind to not make too much noise, as there are other passengers around. Hope you enjoy your travel through Japan on the shinkansen!

Appendix 2: Doctor Yellow

This yellow shinkansen train is a special train for inspecting the deformations of the rails, overhead wiring and signal current of the shinkansen. It is an unsung hero supporting the safety of the shinkansen in secret, and is nicknamed “Doctor Yellow.”

Doctor Yellow runs only about every ten days, and its timetable is not open to public. It is said that you will be happy if you are lucky enough to see Doctor Yellow. Try your luck by looking for the yellow shinkansen train while you are traveling! 

Also Check:

3 Secrets Behind the Wonders of the Shinkansen (Japanese Bullet Train)

What you Should Know about the JR Pass while traveling in Japan

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