Japan Shinkansen Ticket Purchase & Riding Guide – A Must-Read for First-Time Visitors

The Shinkansen is the pride of Japan’s high-speed rail network, enabling travelers to swiftly traverse the entire country and experience its diverse culture and landscapes in a short time. However, for first-time visitors to Japan, especially those planning to travel by Shinkansen, purchasing tickets and boarding can pose a challenge.

What is Shinkansen

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From Wikipedia:Shinkansen

Currently, there are 10 Shinkansen routes officially operating in Japan (8 regular routes and 2 mini Shinkansen routes). The Hokuriku Shinkansen, Hokkaido Shinkansen, and West Kyushu Shinkansen are only partially in operation.

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Name Starting Point End Point Kilometers Number of Stations Opening Date Operating Company
Hokkaido Shinkansen Shin-Aomori Station Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station 148.8 km 4 March 26, 2016: Shin-Aomori Station – Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station Hokkaido Railway Company (JR Hokkaido)
Tohoku Shinkansen Tokyo Station Shin-Aomori Station 713.7 km 23 June 23, 1982: Omiya Station – Morioka Station
March 14, 1985: Ueno Station – Omiya Station
June 20, 1991: Tokyo Station – Ueno Station
December 1, 2002: Morioka Station – Hachinohe Station
December 4, 2010: Hachinohe Station – Shin-Aomori Station
East Japan Railway Company (JR East)
Joetsu Shinkansen Omiya Station Niigata Station 303.6 km 10 November 15, 1982 East Japan Railway Company (JR East)
Hokuriku Shinkansen Takasaki Station Jomo-Kogen Station 176.9 km 8 October 1, 1997: Takasaki Station – Nagano Station
March 14, 2015: Nagano Station – Jomo-Kogen Station
East Japan Railway Company (JR East)
Jomo-Kogen Station Kanazawa Station 168.6 km 6 March 14, 2015: Jomo-Kogen Station – Kanazawa Station West Japan Railway Company (JR West)
Akita Shinkansen (mini) Morioka Station Akita Station 127.3 km 6 March 22, 1997 East Japan Railway Company (JR East)
Yamagata Shinkansen (mini) Fukushima Station Shinjo Station 148.6 km 11 July 1, 1992: Fukushima Station – Yamagata Station
December 4, 1999: Yamagata Station – Shinjo Station
East Japan Railway Company (JR East)
Tokaido Shinkansen Tokyo Station Shin-Osaka Station 552.6 km 17 October 1, 1964 Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central)
Sanyo Shinkansen Shin-Osaka Station Hakata Station 644.0 km 19 March 15, 1972: Shin-Osaka Station – Okayama Station
March 10, 1975: Okayama Station – Hakata Station
West Japan Railway Company (JR West)
Kyushu Shinkansen Hakata Station Kagoshima-Chuo Station 288.9 km 12 March 13, 2004: Shin-Yatsushiro Station – Kagoshima-Chuo Station
March 12, 2011: Hakata Station – Shin-Yatsushiro Station
Kyushu Railway Company (JR Kyushu)
West Kyushu Shinkansen Takeo-Onsen Station Nagasaki Station 69.6 km 5 September 23, 2022: Takeo-Onsen Station – Nagasaki Station Kyushu Railway Company (JR Kyushu)

Note: If you’re traveling from Osaka to Hokkaido, you’ll need to transfer in Tokyo as the Tokaido Shinkansen and Tohoku-Hokkaido Shinkansen are not directly connected.

Japanese Shinkansen Train Cars and Seats

Shinkansen tickets typically consist of a combination of a basic fare ticket and a super express ticket. The basic fare ticket covers the fare from the departure station to the destination, while the super express ticket is the service charge for riding the Shinkansen, which offers faster travel than regular trains over the same distance. When people refer to the three types of seats on the Shinkansen, they are usually referring to the types of super express tickets available: unreserved seat super express ticket, reserved seat super express ticket, and green car super express ticket.

Unreserved Seats

Unreserved seat tickets do not specify a seat or departure time. You can occupy any available unreserved seat on any Shinkansen train on the same day. However, there is a possibility that you may have to stand during the entire journey.

Dedicated cars are designated for unreserved seats, and passengers with unreserved seat tickets are not permitted to enter reserved seat or other cars.

Reserved Seats

Reserved seat tickets specify the specific Shinkansen train, departure time, and seat. With a reserved seat ticket, you are guaranteed to have a seat. However, if you miss the departure time, your reserved seat will automatically become an unreserved seat, and you won’t be guaranteed a seat on the next train.

Starting from the end of 2023, the “Kibo/Nozomi” service on the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines will no longer offer unreserved seats during busy periods. Busy periods include the New Year holidays (around December 28 to January 4), Golden Week (around April 29 to May 6), and the Obon Festival (around August 11 to 17), which are three major holiday seasons in Japan.

Differences Between Unreserved and Reserved Seats

The main difference is that unreserved seat tickets have no restrictions; you can board any Shinkansen on the same day, but there may not be available seats. Reserved seat tickets, on the other hand, specify your seat, train, and departure time, ensuring you have a seat when you board.

Whether you purchase an unreserved seat super express ticket or a reserved seat super express ticket, the price of the corresponding basic fare ticket is the same. Typically, during regular periods, the price of a reserved seat super express ticket is 530 yen more than that of an unreserved seat super express ticket.

Unreserved Seats Reserved Seats
Advantages ・Can ride any train at any time on the same day
・Price remains the same regardless of the travel date
・Guaranteed seat with a specified seat
Disadvantages ・Possibility of having to stand for the entire journey ・Missing the train forfeits the right to the reserved seat
(Can still ride in unreserved seats on subsequent trains)

Green Car (First Class)

In addition to unreserved and reserved seats, the Shinkansen offers another type of seating known as the Green Car, which is identifiable by the four-leaf clover symbol displayed on the corresponding cars. Regular Shinkansen cars, where unreserved and reserved seats are located, typically feature a seating arrangement of 5 seats per row: 2 on one side and 3 on the other. In contrast, Green Cars have 2 seats on each side, providing wider seats with larger armrests and more space between them. All Green Cars are equipped with ergonomic seats for added comfort.

Depending on the specific train, some Shinkansen Green Cars also offer amenities such as wet towels, blankets, and magazines. Additionally, some cars are equipped with footrests, and the seats can recline further compared to those in regular cars.

Green Car seats come at a higher price than regular seats. When purchasing a Green Car ticket, you are required to buy both the basic fare ticket and the Green Car super express ticket. For example, for a trip from Tokyo to Osaka on the Hikari Shinkansen, a Green Car ticket costs approximately 5,000 yen more than a reserved seat ticket.

Gran Class

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(Image source: Wikipedia: グランクラス)

In addition to the aforementioned seating options, the E5 and H5 series trains on the Tohoku and Hokkaido Shinkansen lines, as well as the E7 and W7 series trains on the Hokuriku and Joetsu Shinkansen lines, have introduced a premium seating class known as “Gran Class” (グランクラス). The term “Gran” is derived from the French word “Grand,” combined with the English word “Class,” signifying a higher-class category than the Green Car.

“Gran Class” offers only 18 seats per train, arranged in a 2+1 seating configuration, providing larger individual areas per passenger for greater comfort. The seats are equipped with essential amenities such as slippers and blankets. Dedicated staff provides various services, and passengers can enjoy complimentary Japanese or Western-style light meals, akin to first-class service on the Shinkansen.

To access “Gran Class” seating, passengers must purchase a basic fare ticket, a super express ticket, and an additional “Gran Class” ticket.

How to Purchase Shinkansen Tickets in Japan

Online Reservations and Ticket Purchase on JR Official Websites

You can make online reservations and purchase Shinkansen tickets through dedicated Shinkansen ticket websites on various JR company’s official websites. When you purchase tickets online, you might sometimes find exclusive discounts on Shinkansen tickets.

Here are the websites for JR companies:

Purchase Tickets at JR Stations

Purchase at JR Station Counters

The most straightforward method of purchasing Shinkansen tickets is to buy them at manned counters located within train stations.

At larger JR stations, you can locate the ticket counter, known as “きっぷうりば” (kippu-uriba), or the “みどりの窓口” (Midori no Madoguchi), which is the green window. Simply inform the staff of your destination and travel date, and they will assist you in selecting suitable train options. Even if you’re not fluent in Japanese, you can communicate by pointing to the word “新幹線” (Shinkansen) and indicating your destination. Some stations have multilingual staff who can assist you in various languages.

When purchasing tickets at manned counters, you can make payment using Japanese yen in cash or credit cards. If you’re unfamiliar with online reservations, automated ticket machines, or the specific ticketing process for the Shinkansen, it’s advisable to utilize the manned counters. This approach minimizes potential difficulties you may encounter.

Purchase at JR Station Ticket Vending Machines

At major JR stations, you can find dedicated ticket vending machines for purchasing Shinkansen tickets. These machines are usually located near the counters or alongside ticket machines for regular train services.

Tickets and Shinkansen Special Tickets

A ‘乗車券’ (Joshaken), or boarding ticket, covers the basic fare for your journey, while a ‘新幹線特急券’ (Shinkansen tokkyu ken/Shinkansen special ticket) is an additional charge specifically for riding the Shinkansen. In essence, when traveling on the Shinkansen, you are required to pay both the ‘basic fare’ and the ‘Shinkansen special fee.’

Similar to regular train travel, riding the Shinkansen entails paying a ‘basic fare’ determined by the distance traveled. This concept remains consistent for Shinkansen journeys.

What distinguishes the Shinkansen from regular trains is its notably higher speed and enhanced onboard services. To account for these additional features, passengers must pay an extra fee known as the ‘Shinkansen special fee.’

These two fees are paid separately using two distinct tickets: the ‘乗車券’ covers the basic fare, while the ‘新幹線特急券’ covers the Shinkansen special fee. You can think of it as follows:

  • 乗車券 = Basic Fare
  • 特急券 = Fee for High-Speed and Extra Services on the Shinkansen

Ticket inspections are conducted onboard the Shinkansen. Passengers found without either the ‘乗車券’ or the ‘新幹線特急券’ may be required to purchase one during the journey.

In some cases, both the ‘乗車券’ and the ‘新幹線特急券’ are combined into a single ticket. These tickets are labeled ‘乗車券・新幹線XX席特急券’ at the top, indicating that the fare for both components is covered in one ticket.

New Luggage Rules for the Tokaido, Sanyo, Kyushu, and West Kyushu Shinkansen

東海道・山陽・九州・西九州新幹線の荷物持込ルール

Image source: JR Central

If you’re traveling on the Tokaido, Sanyo, Kyushu, or West Kyushu Shinkansen, you need to be aware of recent changes in luggage regulations.

If a passenger is carrying luggage with a total of three dimensions exceeding 160cm but less than 250cm, they need to make an advance reservation for special seats designed for oversized baggage. These seats are usually at the rear and provide space behind the seats for luggage storage or have dedicated luggage storage areas.

If the total dimensions of the luggage exceed 250cm, it cannot be taken on the train, regardless of whether a reservation was made.

For more details, you can visit the website here.

Can I Ride the Shinkansen with Suica/ICOCA and Other IC Cards?

If you are not using services like “タッチでGo!新幹線” (Touch and Go Shinkansen), “新幹線eチケット” (Shinkansen e-Tickets), or “スマートEXサービス” (SmartEX Service) provided by JR companies, you cannot use your Suica card to ride the Shinkansen. You must purchase paper tickets instead.

This issue has been a topic of discussion within Japan as well. Many Japanese residents have questioned why they cannot use Suica, ICOCA, or other IC cards to ride the Shinkansen. In recent years, JR companies have gradually introduced methods that allow passengers to use IC cards to ride the Shinkansen. However, due to various limitations, for foreign tourists visiting Japan who may not be familiar with Japanese railway transportation and the language, purchasing paper tickets is the simplest and least error-prone method.

Can I use Suica Card to ride the Shinkansen in Japan?

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