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Shinkansen: The Japanese bullet trains
Shinkansen bullet trains are the fastest way to discover Japan. Discover more about the high-speed trains and the 9 rail lines they cover.
Shinkansen bullet trains are the fastest and most convenient way of discovering Japan. The Japan Rail (JR) network is extensive and the trains reach a top speed of 320 km/h (199mp/h). This allows you to get to wherever you need in little time.
The nine Shinkansen lines take you in different directions around Japan. From Tokyo to the south runs the Tokaido Shinkansen line, connecting the capital with Osaka. The Sanyo Shinkansen line connects Osaka with Fukuoka and, from there, the Kyushu Shinkansen line runs through the island of Kyushu from north to south.
The other six lines either take you north or inland from Tokyo. These are the Akita, Hokkaido, Hokuriku, Joetsu, Tokoku, and Yamagata Shinkansen lines. The Hokkaido line takes you the furthest north, all the way to Hokkaido island.
Using the Japan Rail Pass
The Japan Rail Pass allows you to make a free reservation for these two types of trains, but you still need to pay for the ticket. The Hikari, Kodama, and Sakura bullet trains are the fastest trains you can board using the Japan Rail Pass. They make just a few more stops than the express trains.
Types of bullet trains
On each of the Shinkansen lines there are fast trains, semi-fast trains, and local trains. The fast trains only stop at the main stations, semi-fast trains make a few more stops, and local trains stop at every station.
For instance, on the Tokaido Shinkansen line (which links Tokyo to Osaka) the fast train makes 6 stops, the semi-fast train makes between 7 and 12 stops, and local trains stop at all 17. See the "Shinkansen lines" section below for more information.
All Shinkansen trains are covered by the JR Pass except the Nozomi and Mizuho fast trains which run on the Takaido and Sanyo lines. JR Pass holders can catch the semi-fast and local trains on these lines instead. The semi-fast trains take just a little longer than the Nozomi and Mizuho trains.
The Shinkansen railway network includes several lines that cover most of Japan and connect all the main cities. Thanks to this great railway system you can travel quickly and comfortably throughout the country without too much of a second thought.
The companies that make up the JR Group operate a total of 9 lines, 7 Shinkansen lines, and 2 mini-shinkansen lines. Each line offers different train services.
The Tokaido Shinkansen connects Tokyo with Kyoto and Osaka passing by Nagoya and its extension, the Sanyo Shinkansen, which connects Osaka with Fukuoka, from where you can take the Kyushu Shinkansen that covers the entire Kyushu island, from North to South. Tokyo is connected to Kanazawa by the Hokuriku Shinkansen, a train covering Nagano, and to Niigata by the Joetsu Shinkansen. The Tohoku Shinkansen connects Tokyo with Aomori and branches out into two mini-shinkansen: the Akita Shinkansen and the Yamagata Shinkansen. From Aomori you can cross the sea that separates the main island from Hokkaido, thanks to the Hokkaido Shinkansen.
The Tokaido Shinkansen line is Japan’s busiest and most popular shinkansen line. It connects the three biggest metropolitan areas of the country: Tokyo to Yokohama, Osaka to Kyoto, and Nagoya. It is also famous for being Japan’s first high-speed railway, opening in 1964 for the Japan Olympic Games.
Three categories of trains operate on this line: Nozomi, Hikari, and Kodama. The Japan Rail Pass does not cover the Nozomi bullet train.
Line map and route
The Hikari train connects Tokyo to Shin-Osaka in exactly 173 minutes. The maximum operating speed is 285 km/h (178 mph), which makes it the second fastest train on the Tokaido line. Hikari also runs on the Sanyo Shinkansen line with an operating speed of 300 km/h (185 mph).
Kodama is the slowest of the three trains which operate on the Tokaido Shinkansen line. This is due to the larger number of stops in comparison to the other two bullet trains on this line. The Kodama train stops at every station and takes almost four hours to reach Shin-Osaka. It runs at a speed of 285 km/h (178 mph).
The Sanyo Shinkansen line connects the city of Osaka with Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu. Completed in 1975, it is the second oldest Japanese Shinkansen line. There are 5 train categories that run on this line: Nozomi, Hikari, Kodama, Mizuho, and Sakura. The fastest train is Nozomi which reaches an operating speed of 300 km/h (185mph). The Nozomi and Mizuho trains are not covered by the JR Pass.
Line map and route
Hikari is the fastest train service on the Sanyo and Tokaido Shinkansen lines which is covered by the JR Pass. The majority of Hikari trains are formed of 16 cars though some have 8. There are three Green Class cars on the 16-coach Hikari train. The operating speed of the Hikari train is 300km/h (185mph). It takes a little over an hour to reach Okayama from Shin-Osaka.
This is the slowest train service on the Sanyo line, as it stops at all train stops until it reaches its final destination. Because of this, Kodama trains take almost five hours to arrive at Hakata station from Osaka. The trains have 8 cars but no Green Class cars. There are both reserved and non-reserved seating areas on the Kodama train service. The operating speed of the Kodama train is 285 km/h (185mph).
This is one of the fastest train services operating on the Sanyo Shinkansen line. Its operating speed is 300km/h (185mph), similar to the other trains on the same line, but the Sakura trains make fewer stops. It operates with 8-car trains with both reserved and non-reserved sections. There are also some Green Class seats on one of the cars.
The Tohoku Shinkansen line connects Tokyo with Aomori. There are two branch lines - the Akita and Yamagata lines which go to the Akita and Yamagata prefectures. There are six different train categories, which run on the Tohoku line: Hayabusa, Komachi, Hayate, Yamabiko, Nasuno, Tsubasa.
Line map and route
Hayabusa is the fastest train in Japan, reaching a maximum speed of 320 km/h (200 mph). There is a direct train connecting Tokyo to Shin-Aomori in just 189 minutes.
Yamabiko is a high-speed Shinkansen. It operates at a speed of 240 km/h (150 mph) and connects Tokyo with Morioka. There is a direct train service that will take you to Morioka in exactly 198 minutes.
The Hayate trains connect Tokyo with Morioka. Unlike Yamabiko trains, they do not stop between Sendai and Omiya. The Hayate train’s operating speed is 275 km/h (170 mph) and it takes approximately two hours to get from Tokyo to Morioka.
The Nasuno serves all the stations between Tokyo and Koriyama. It is the slowest type of train on the Tohoku Shinkansen line and it is designed for commuters who travel from the Fukushima and Tochigi Prefectures.
The Akita Shinkansen is the branch of the Tohoku Shinkansen line which connects Tokyo with Akita. The Komachi Shinkansen is the only type of train which runs on the line. It is an E6 series, also known as the Super Komachi.
Line map and route
All seats on the Komachi train services requires seat reservation. There is a direct train service from Tokyo to Akita which takes exactly 237 minutes. The Komachi train can run at a maximum speed of 320 km/h (200 mph) on the Tohoku line. The Komachi train services are operated by E6 series trains with 7 coaches.
Between Tokyo and Morioka, the Komachi trains are coupled with Hayabusas Shinkansens to form 17-car trains. The Komachi trains detach from the Hayubasas at Morioka and run to Akita.
Yamagata Shinkansen is a Tohoku Shinkansen branch line. Tsubasa is the only type of train that runs on the Yamagata line between Tokyo and Shinjo. Tsubasa services are operated by 7-car E3 series trains.
Line map and route
All cars on the Yamagata Shinkansen line are non-smoking. There is a direct train service from Tokyo to Yamagata which takes 165 minutes. The maximum operating speed of the Tsubasa train is 275 km/h (170 mph).
The Joetsu Shinkansen line dates back to 1982 and connects travelers between Tokyo and the hot springs and leisure resorts of Niigata and the surrounding area. Toki and Tanigawa are the two train categories that operate on the line.
Line map and route
The Toki trains include a range of models including double-decker trains called Max Toki. The operating speed of the train is 240 km/h (150 mph). The Toki Shinkansen takes you from Tokyo to Niigata in just over an hour and a half.
This is the slower of the two types of trains which operate on this line (Toki and Tanigawa). This is because Tanigawa Shinkansen stops at all train stations between Tokyo and Echigo-Yuzawa. During the winter season, the train reaches Gala-Yuzawa, getting travelers to the nearby ski resort.
The Tanigawa Shinkansen takes you from Tokyo to Echigo-Yuzawa in a little over an hour. The operating speed of the train is 240 km/h (150 mph).
There are three types of trains which operate on the Kyushu Shinkansen line connectiong Fukuoka with Kagoshima-Chuo: Tsubame, Sakura, and Mizuho. The Tsubame and Sakura trains are covered by the Japan Rail Pass. Mizuho trains are not.
Line map and route
Tsubame is the slowest of the trains operating on the Kyushu Shinkansen line as it stops at all stations until it reaches its final destination. It is also has the fewest cars and there are no Green Class ones. The operating speed of Tsubame trains is 260 km/h (160 mph). A trip from Kagoshima-Chuo to Hakata with the Tsubame train will take you a little over an hour and forty minutes.
The Sakura train is the second fastest train on the Kyushu line, serving fewer train stations than Tsubame Shinkansen trains. There are two different types of Sakura trains: 8-car and 6-car trains. The larger one offers both Standard and Green Class cars, while the smaller one only has Standard cars. The operating speed is 300 km/h (185 mph). It takes approximately an hour and a half to reach Hakata from Kagoshima-Chuo Station.
The Hokkaido Shinkansen line connects Aomori (on the main island - Honshu) with Hakodate (on Hokkaido island) via the Seikan Tunnel. Two types of train run on the line: Hayabusa and Hayate. The line will be extended to Sapporo by 2030.
Line map and route
The majority of the trains which run on the Hokkaido line are Hayabusa Shinkansen trains. They operate between Tokyo and Hakodate with a top speed of 320 km/h (200 mph). The journey from Tokyo to Hakodate takes approximately 280 minutes. The Hayabusas go all the way to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto, a station located between Hakodate and Hokuto. From there, you can take the local Hakodate Liner to get to Hakodate in 19 minutes.
A few of the trains on the Hokkaido Shinkansen line are Hayate. They usually operate between Hakodate and Shin-Aomori (and Morioka) during the morning and late evening.
The Hokuriku Shinkansen line was originally opened in 1997 for the Nagano Olympic Games. The line now stretches from Tokyo to Kanazawa after it was extended in 2015. Before this development, it was commonly known as Nagano Shinkansen. There are four types of trains that operate the Hokuriku line: Kagayaki, Asama, Hakutaka, and Tsurugi.
Line map and route
The Kagayaki train is the fastest on the Hokuriku Shinkansen line. It only stops twice between Tokyo and Kanazawa. The overall journey takes less than two and a half hours from Tokyo to the final destination - Kanazawa. The train operates at 260 km/h (160mph) and has 12 cars (10 Standard cars, a Green Class car, and a Gran Class car).
The name Asama comes from the name of an active volcano on Mount Asama, located near Karuizawa. Two train types operate on this line: 8-coach and 12-coach trains. Both are have reserved and non-reserved seating spaces, Green Class cars, and wheelchair spaces.
The Hakutaka and Kagayaki trains are the only two on the Hokuriku Shinkansen line that runs from Tokyo, all the way to Kanazawa. Hakutaka is the slower of the two trains as it makes more stops. The operating speed of Hakutaka trains is 260 km/h (160 mph). A trip from Tokyo to Kanazawa takes under three hours.
The Tsurugi train serves as the main connection for locals between Toyama and Kanazawa. The service was first introduced in 1961 and includes a sleeping car. The trains are formed of 12 cars including a Green Class car.
If you don’t have a JR Pass you can buy bullet train tickets individually. The ticket prices depend on the distance of the journey, whether you reserve a seat, and which class of ticket you choose. You can buy Shinkansen tickets at train stations or online (through the websites of individual JR operators).
The price of a basic Shinkansen ticket is made up of base fare and limited express fee (Shinkansen supplement). Additionally, it is possible to add a seat reservation fee and Green car fee, if required.
Extras on board
Although free WiFi is planned to be offered on most Shinkansen lines by 2020, only a few of them offer that possibility at the moment.
Passengers are allowed to take their bicycle with them on board for no additional fee. However, its front wheel needs to be removed (unless it is a foldable bike) and it needs to be stored in a bike bag.
Small pets such as cats, dogs, and birds are allowed on board as long as they weigh less than 10 kg, are shorter than 90 cm in length, and are safely put into a container.
Travellers are allowed luggage on board for no additional cost. However, there is a limitation of two pieces of luggage, both of which should have a maximum weight of 60kg and a total of 250 cm in height, length and width. There is a delivery service option.
From May 2020, new Shinkansen luggage restrictions will apply on the Tokaido, Sanyo, and Kyushu lines in order to prepare for the influx of tourism expected with the upcoming Olympics and Paralympics in Japan.
Travellers with oversized bags (length, height, and depth dimensions over 160cm and up to a maximum of 250cm) will be required to make a seat reservation in the last row of seats on the train, behind the locked luggage area.
It will not be possible to bring oversized luggage into non-reserved cars on the specified lines. Passengers who have not made a seat reservation will be required to move their luggage to the designated area and pay a ¥1,000 surcharge not covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Ease of Access
The bullet trains are very easy to access for passengers in wheelchairs and parents with strollers and the stations are well-equipped and the elevators and escalators.
You can book special seating free of charge if you are in a wheelchair. The only requirement is that you make this request two days in advance at the train station where you will board. Strollers are also allowed on board free of charge. The only requirement is for them to be folded and safely placed in the designated places.
Please take note of the maximum sizes allowed on board, as you must comply with the set regulations.
Can I make seat reservations on Shinkansen bullet trains?
Japan Rail Pass holders are entitled to book a seat on all Japan Railways trains free of charge. All seats should be booked before boarding the train. The JR Group does not allow passengers to change to a reserved seat once you have boarded the train.
What is included in the Japan Rail Pass?
The Japan Rail Pass is valid on the JR Express Trains, all Rapid and Local trains along the JR lines, JR local buses, the JR Miyajima ferry, as well as airport transfers like the Narita express and the Haruka express. All the shinkansen bullet trains are also included with the exception of the Nozomi and Mizuho trains.
I left something on the train. What should I do?
The Japan Railways lost property service is excellent. If you have lost something on a JR train there is a good chance that you’ll recover your belongings. When a member of staff finds something on a Japan Rail train they hand it to one of the lost and found counters where it is kept for around one week. After this, the lost property is transferred to the regional Police Lost and Found Center.
Are Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen covered by the JR Pass?
Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen bullet trains (both reserved and non-reserved) are not included with the JR Pass. These two types of trains operate on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen lines. To use these trains, JR Pass holders would need to pay full fare.