The Essential Guide to Japan’s Bullet Trains

Known as Shinkansen, high-speed bullet trains are one of the most recognizable symbols of modern Japan. With their futuristic style, breakneck speeds and contemporary comforts, these trains are a must-do experience for anyone travelling the country.

But it’s when reading the statistics that you can truly appreciate what an engineering triumph these trains are. Not only do they reach speeds of up to 320 kilometres per hour, but they are also punctual to the second. And after more than 50 years in operation and over 5.5 billion passengers, there’s been no fatal accidents to date. Making these iconic trains not only incredibly efficient but one of the world’s safest forms of transport.

Travelling in Japan can be a very daunting experience, so to help you plan your Shinkansen journey, we’ve answered all your questions below.

Shinkansen bullet train Japan

Where can I go on Japan’s bullet trains?

The main islands of Hokkaido, Kyushu and Honshu are all served by the bullet train network, which connects the capital Tokyo with most of Japan’s major cities and tourist sites. However, the oldest and most popular line is the Tokkaido Shinkansen. Running from Tokyo past Nagoya and Kyoto to Osaka, this route takes in views of the majestic Mount Fuji.

Operated by Japan Railways, the bullet train lines also offer multiple train categories. These range from the slowest category, which stops at every station, to the fastest which only stops at major stations. There are also further plans to expand the network.

Map of Japan's Bullet Train Routes

How much does it cost?

Unfortunately, riding the bullet train isn’t cheap. A ticket comprises both a base fare, based on the distance and time of your journey, and a Shinkansen supplement. There are also additional costs for seat reservations or if you want to go in the Green Car (first class).

Typically, the price of a one-way, regular class bullet train journey from Tokyo to Kyoto is around US$125. However, you can easily cut the costs by purchasing a Japan Rail Pass. There are options for both national or regional rail passes giving you unlimited travel within a time period of 7, 14 or 21 days. The pass covers all fees involved and can be used on almost all Shinkansen trains.

Interior of Japanese bullet train

What’s it like on board?

Ordinarily, the seats on Japan’s bullet trains come in rows of two or three, with the option to swivel them around to speak to other passengers. There are also tables, open-overhead shelves and some are equipped with electrical sockets with WiFi gradually being introduced.

Most of the trains are served by small refreshment carts, offering hot drinks, beer, snacks and hot meals (bento) at regular intervals. There are also multiple toilets, the majority of which are Western-style.

When it comes to bullet train etiquette, it’s best to be quiet and respectful, avoiding loud talk and phone noise. Signs and announcements are made in both Japanese and English, so you don’t need to worry about missing your stop.

Nose of bullet train in Japan

Traveller Tips:

To ensure you have the best possible experience aboard Japan’s bullet trains, here are some handy tips for the journey:

  • You must purchase rail passes before arriving in Japan.
  • As the refreshments offered onboard can be limited, it’s best to buy a meal at the station or shops before boarding.
  • The air-conditioning can make the train cabins quite cool. Therefore we recommend packing an extra layer of clothing to keep warm.
  • If you don’t have a seat reservation, be sure to check the departures boards. You’ll find the numbers of the unreserved carriages up there – so you know where to go.

Interested in visiting Japan? We travel by bullet train on many of our group tours.

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