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Shinkansen: Japanese Bullet Trains

When visiting Japan, the fastest way of getting around is to travel by bullet trains, known in Japan as shinkansen. These high-speed trains allow visitors to quickly and easily discover Japan, by cutting down the travel time between destinations. In Japan shinkansen are also extremely punctual and well looked after, ensuring you’ll arrive at your destination ready to explore your new surroundings.

Using Your JR Pass on Shinkansen

Aboard a Japanese bullet train, travellers can reach speeds of up to 320 km/h or 199 mph, which makes short work of trips between the country’s most popular destinations. Travelling with a Japan Rail Pass you have access to this extensive network of high-speed trains, without the fuss of managing a whole bunch of shinkansen tickets.

The Japan Rail Pass provides unlimited travel on the shinkansen, except for the Nozomi and Mizuho fast trains which run on the Tokaido and Sanyo lines. It also allows those travelling with this Japan bullet train pass to make free seat reservations to make sure you have a spot when trains are busy.

Using Japan’s Shinkansen Train Lines

There are nine shinkansen lines in Japan, that together cover the islands of Hokkaido, Honshu and Kyushu. This means you can travel north from Tokyo all the way up to Hakodate on Hokkaido, or west past Osaka and Hiroshima to Kagoshima.

Each shinkansen line has train services of three types:

  • Fast trains that only stop at main stations
  • Semi-fast trains that make more stops
  • And local trains that stop at all stations

Tōkaidō Shinkansen

The Tōkaidō Shinkansen is the busiest and most popular shinkansen line among tourists in Japan. That’s because it links up three of Japan’s biggest destinations, Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, while also stopping at major urban areas like Yokohama and Nagoya. It’s sometimes described as the Tokaido Sanyo Shinkansen as it shares train services with the Sanyo Shinkansen line.

Please note that the Nozomi Shinkansen is not included in the JR Pass but the Hikari service is an excellent alternative.

Train Services:

3 services available on this line

Nozomi

(のぞみ, “Wish or “Hope”)

The Nozomi is the fastest service with the least amount of stops on route and operated with the newest train cars. It is popular for business travel and used as a commuter Shinkansen. The Nozomi travels between Tokyo and Hakata on the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen. The Nozomi is not included with the JR Pass but you can take the Hikari instead.

Hikari

(ひかり, “Ray of light”)

The Hikari is the little sibling of the Nozomi - same route, same trains - the only difference is it has a couple more stops along the route. If you are using the JR Pass, this is the train you’ll likely be travelling on. Be sure to book a seat D or E on the Hikari to see Mt Fuji zoom by on a clear day.

Kodama

(こだま, “Echo”)

The Kodama stops at every station along the route and is considered a “shuttle service”. Use this train to access the smaller cities and countryside of Japan, or to enjoy life one stop at a time.

Sanyo Shinkansen

The Sanyo Shinkansen is another popular bullet train line, travelling from Shin-Osaka station to Hakata station in Fukuoka. Along the way, the Sanyo line stops also at Kobe, Himeji, Okayama and Hiroshima. Five train services run on this line: Nozomi (fast), Hikari (semi-fast), Kodama (local), Mizuho (fast), and Sakura (semi-fast).

Please note that both the Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen are not included in the JR Pass but the Hikari and Sakura services are excellent alternatives

Travellers looking for a special shinkansen experience along this route should look into the Hello Kitty Bullet Train. This train is decorated inside and out in a Hello Kitty theme, making it a fun way to travel this popular line if you’re a fan.

Train Services:

5 services available on this line

Nozomi

(のぞみ, “Wish or “Hope”)

The Nozomi is the fastest service with the least amount of stops on route and operated with the newest train cars. It is popular for business travel and used as a commuter Shinkansen. The Nozomi travels between Tokyo and Hakata on the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen. The Nozomi is not included with the JR Pass but you can take the Hikari instead.

Hikari

(ひかり, “Ray of light”)

The Hikari is the little sibling of the Nozomi - same route, same trains - the only difference is it has a couple more stops along the route. If you are using the JR Pass, this is the train you’ll likely be travelling on. Be sure to book a seat D or E on the Hikari to see Mt Fuji zoom by on a clear day.

Kodama

(こだま, “Echo”)

The Kodama stops at every station along the route and is considered a “shuttle service”. Use this train to access the smaller cities and countryside of Japan, or to enjoy life one stop at a time.

Mizuho

(みずほ, “Bountiful Harvest”)

The Mizuho is the fastest service on the Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen lines and travels between Shin-Osaka and Kagoshima-Chuo station. Similar to the Nozomi, it is a commuter service for business travellers.

Sakura

(さくら, “Cherry Blossom”)

The Sakura Shinkansen is the semi-fast express train on the Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen which stops at most important stations between Shin-Osaka and Kagoshima-Chuo. Using the JR Pass, this is a good train to travel on.

Tohoku Shinkansen

The Tohoku Shinkansen covers the entire line, connecting Tokyo with Aomori in the island’s far north. The JR East South Hokkaido Pass covers the entire line.

This train line also features two branch lines – the Akita and Yamagata lines – that are considered mini-shinkansen. Six train services run on this line: Hayabusa (fast), Hayate (semi-fast), Yamabiko (semi-fast), Nasuno (local), Komachi and Tsubasa. The Komachi service splits off at Morioka and continues on the Akita line, while the Tsubasa service splits off at Fukushima and continues on the Yamagata line.

Train Services:

6 services available on this line

Hayabusa

(はやぶさ, “Peregrine Falcon”)

The Hayabusa is the fastest Shinkansen in Japan and connects Tokyo to Hakodate on the Hokkaido and Tohoku Shinkansen. It only stops at the most important stations. The best thing is that the Hayabusa Shinkansen is completely covered by the JR Pass. Prior seat reservations for this train are required.

Komachi

(こまち, “Feminine Beauty”)

The Komachi Shinkansen is often operated together with the Hayabusa Shinkansen between Tokyo and Morioka. At Morikoa, the trains are disconnected and the Komachi travels onwards on the Akita branch line.

Yamabiko

(やまびこ, “Mountain Echo”)

The Yamabiko is a semi-express service on the Tohoku Shinkansen between Tokyo and Morioka.

Nasuno

(なすの, Named after Nasu Highlands)

The Nasuno is an all stops service on the Tohoku Shinkansen between Tokyo and Koriyama station. It is primarily used for daily commuting in and out of the greater Tokyo area.

Tsubasa

(つばさ, “Wing”)

The Tsubasa is coupled to the Yamabiko between Tokyo and Fukushima. It operates at 275 km/h or 170 mph.

Joetsu Shinkansen

The Joestu Shinkansen travels from Tokyo across to Niigata on the north coast, stopping at Ueno, Omiya and Nagaoka along the way. The two train services on this line are the Toki (fast) and the Tanigawa (local).

Train Services:

2 services available on this line

Toki

(とき, “Crested Ibis”)

The Toki is the fastest service on the Joetsu Shinkansen line and connects Tokyo to Niigata.

Tanigawa

(たにがわ, Named after Mt. Tanigawa)

The Tanigawa Shinkansen is the all stop service on the Joetsu Shinkansen. Most services only operate between Tokyo and Echigo-Yuzawa and are primarily operated during rush hour.

Kyushu Shinkansen

The Kyushu Shinkansen is the dedicated shinkansen for Kyushu Island, connecting Fukuoka’s Hakata Station with Kagoshima-Chuo. As it crosses the island, it stops at destinations including Kurume, Kumamoto and Sendai. Regional passes that cover this line include the All Kyushu Area Pass, the Northern Kyushu Area Pass and the Southern Kyushu Area Pass.

Train Services:

3 services available on this line

Mizuho

(みずほ, “Bountiful Harvest”)

The Mizuho is the fastest service on the Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen lines and travels between Shin-Osaka and Kagoshima-Chuo station. Similar to the Nozomi, it is a commuter service for business travellers.

Sakura

(さくら, “Cherry Blossom”)

The Sakura Shinkansen is the semi-fast express train on the Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen which stops at most important stations between Shin-Osaka and Kagoshima-Chuo. Using the JR Pass, this is a good train to travel on.

Tsubame

(つばめ, “Swallow”)

The Tsubame is the all stops service on the Kyushu Shinkansen. Most services operate between Hakata and Kumamoto, with a select few going further.

Hokkaido Shinkansen

The Hokkaido Shinkansen goes from the city of Aomori on Honshu with Hakodate on Hokkaido Island, connecting the two via the Seikan Tunnel. The JR East – South Hokkaido Pass regional pass covers this line, as well as travel to Tokyo and Sapporo. There are two train services on this line, the Hayabusa (fast) and Hayate (semi-fast).

Train Services:

1 service available on this line

Hayabusa

(はやぶさ, “Peregrine Falcon”)

The Hayabusa is the fastest Shinkansen in Japan and connects Tokyo to Hakodate on the Hokkaido and Tohoku Shinkansen. It only stops at the most important stations. The best thing is that the Hayabusa Shinkansen is completely covered by the JR Pass. Prior seat reservations for this train are required.

Hokuriku Shinkansen

The Hokuriku Shinkansen, also known as the Nagano Shinkansen, runs from Tokyo to Kanazawa, with stops in destinations like Nagano and Toyama. There are four train services on this line: Kagayaki (fast), Hakutaka (semi-fast), Asama (local), and Tsurugi (local).

Train Services:

4 services available on this line

Kagayaki

(かがやき, “Brilliance”)

The Kagayaki Shinkansen is the fastest train on the Hokuriku Shinkansen between Tokyo and Kanazawa. Only a few Kagayaki services run per day and require a prior seat reservation.

Hakutaka

(はくたか, Named after the legendary white hawk “Hakutaka”)

The Hakutaka stops at most important stops along the Hokuriku route.

Asama

(あさま, Named after Mt. Asama)

The Asama is an all stops service and operates between Tokyo and Nagano station.

Tsurugi

(つるぎ, Named after Mt. Tsurugi)

The Tsurugi Shinkansen is an all stops service between Nagano and Kanazawa.

Akita Shinkansen

One of the branch lines of the Tohoku Shinkansen, the Akita Shinkansen travels from Tokyo to Akita. This mini-shinkansen only has a single service, the Komachi Shinkansen.

Train Services:

1 service available on this line

Komachi

(こまち, “Feminine Beauty”)

The Komachi service is limited to 130 km/h or 81 mph and stops at places including Tazawako, Kakunodate and Omagari.

Yamagata Shinkansen

The other branch line of the Tohoku Shinkansen is the Yamagata Shinkansen, heading between Tokyo and Shinjo station in Yamagata.

Train Services:

1 service available on this line

Tsubame

(つばめ, “Swallow”)

The Tsubame service is limited to 130 km/h or 81mp/h and stops at Yonezawa, Yamagata, Murayama and Oishida.

Frequently Asked Questions
About Japan’s Shinkansen Train Lines

  1. Where can I find a Shinkansen timetable? 

    To see any shinkansen timetable the best place to go is to the Hyperedia wesbite. There you can do a search for trains running on your desired route and see train timetables, how long the journey will take and which shinkansen stations the train will stop at. You can also filter your search to only see shinkansen trains and trains within the Japan Railway network.

  2. What is the Shinkansen price?  

    Shinkansen fares naturally depend on the route and how far you are going if you buy individual tickets for each journey. You can find costs for specific shinkansen travel times on the Hyperdia website.

    An alternative that can prove to save you money is travelling with a Japan Rail Pass. Rather than buying shinkansen tickets for each train journey, a Japan Rail Pass provides unlimited travel on JR trains for a period of 7, 14 or 21 days. You can also buy these tickets in advance of your travel date.

    The JRPass.com Fare Calculator is a powerful tool designed to help you work out whether a JR Pass will save you money on your Japan trip. Using our shinkansen fare calculator you can compare shinkansen ticket prices against the cost of a JR Pass.

    Much like the shinkansen price, Japan Rail Pass prices depend on whether an adult or child is travelling, and whether they travel in Economy class or First Class.

  3. Can I use my Japan Rail Pass on the Shinkansen? 

    Yes, the Japan Rail Pass does cover all shinkansen lines in Japan. However, it is important to understand that there are a select few train services such as the Nozomi and Mizuho services on the Sanyo Shinkansen line that are excluded.

  4. Are there luggage restrictions on the Shinkansen?

    Each passenger is allowed to bring two pieces of luggage on shinkansen trains. However, shinkansen luggage rules state that each bag must weigh under 30kg and the sum of the height, width and length of each bag must be under 250cm. Luggage delivery services are available in Japan for oversized bags.

    To prepare for the upcoming Olympics and Paralympics in Japan, new luggage restrictions will be introduced prior to the games. On the the Tokaido, Sanyo, and Kyushu lines, bags with a sum of their height, width and length greater than 160cm will require a reservation in the special luggage area.

  5. Are there different classes of travel on the Shinkansen? 

    There are three different classes of carriage available on shinkansen trains in Japan: Economy, Green Class and Shinkansen Gran Class. Regular tickets are for Economy carriage cars and feature a 3x2 seating plan.

    Next is Green Class, essentially Shinkansen First Class which provides travellers with more space and comfort thanks to a 2x2 seating plan, and usually has a quieter environment. Besides the more comfortable seating, Green Class is usually easier to make seat reservations for during busy periods.

    Finally, there is the Shinkansen Gran Class that is offered only on select trains. This is the most luxurious option for high-speed train travel in Japan and is equivalent to first class on airplanes.

  6. How do I make a Shinkansen reservation for my seat?

    Travellers who hold a JR pass can reserve shinkansen seats for free, which will ensure you get a seat on your desired train. A shinkansen reservation is recommended when travelling during busy periods or holidays. There are also certain trains like the Hayabusa and Kagayaki Shinkansen services that always require advance shinkansen reservations.

    Reservations can be made in person at any JR ticket office or JR station “Midori-no-madoguchi” ticket windows. For the Hohoku and Hokkaido regions, seat reservations can also be made online through the JR East Eki-net website

  7. What are the hours of operation of the Shinkansen? 

    Although shinkansen trains are not a 24 hour service, the shinkansen hours of operation do run late into the evening. It’s best to search the Hyperdia website to see when the last available service for your route is.

  8. Is food served on the Shinkansen? 

    When you’re on the shinkansen, food is another thing you might need, especially on a long trip. While dining cars are a rare concept in Japan, there are food carts that periodically move through the train selling snacks, drinks and bento box meals.

  9. How do I purchase Shinkansen tickets?

    To buy a Japan shinkansen ticket you should visit a ticket office at any of the major, and many minor, JR stations around Japan. However, if you wish to travel on the shinkansen with a JR Pass, it’s best to buy it online in your home country. A rail pass can be bought using a mobile device, tablet, or computer and within a few business days of your purchase, it will be mailed to you. Upon arriving in Japan you can activate it at one of five train stations.

  10. Can I bring my pet on the Shinkansen? 

    Small pets including dogs, cats and birds are allowed onboard trains, granted they weigh less 10kg and are secured in a container with a maximum total height and length of 90cm.

  11. Is there WiFi on the trains?

    The Japan Rail network is currently in the process of rolling out free Wi-Fi to all shinkansen trains in preparation for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Until this initiative is complete, WiFi is only available on select trains for a service fee. Another option is to order a pocket WiFi so that you have unlimited internet where you go.

  12. Can I bring my bicycle on the Shinkansen?

    Passengers can bring their bicycle on board shinkansen trains free of charge. The only requirement is that they must be folded or disassembled and packed in a bag and stored behind the back row or in the extra storage space.

  13. Are the trains accessible?

    Passengers in wheelchairs are able to access special seating free of charge on high speed trains. However, this request must be made two days in advance at your station of departure. Stations also offer easy access to platforms with elevators and escalators. Parents with strollers may also bring strollers on board free of charge, so long as they are folded and stored in designated areas during travel.

  14. What if I leave something on the train? 

    Should you lose or forget something on a Japan Rail train, you should call Japan Rail as soon as you are able. Items found on trains by staff are taken to lost and found counters at the Travel Service Centres in major train stations. Lost items are held there for a week before being relocated to a regional Police Lost and Found Centre.

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