Traveling on the Shinkansen: Everything you need to know
Shinkansen or Bullet trains are Japan’s best mode of inter-city transportation. Covering about 300-320 km per hour, they’re the most optimal option to save time and money. The Shinkansen lines are a part of the JR Pass Package that can be purchased for extended travel plans in the country. Here’s a quick guide to everything you need to know about traveling on these trains.
Who can buy the JR Pass?
The criteria to be eligible for a JR pass is simple – you need to be a tourist! As long as you’re a tourist visiting Japan on a visit visa (One time entry 15-90 days), you are allowed to purchase and use a JR pass.
The program does not cater to any other visa types (business, multiple entry visa, student visa, residency, etc). Japanese passport holders are not eligible for the pass either.
Where can I use the JP Pass?
The JR Pass can be used on most Shinkansen trains with two exceptions – Nozomi or Mizhou lines. These two lines need separate tickets and are not part of the JR Pass package. However, there are other lines that take the same routes that are covered by the JR Pass, so don’t worry!
You can also use the JR pass for all non-Shinkansen trains, especially within Tokyo. There are several lines that form an inner-city metro grid. The network might not connect every corner, but you can put the pass to good use.
What is special about the Nozomi or Mizhou lines?
I wondered the same, what’s so special that they’re not included in the JR pass. These lines are an ‘express’ version of their counterparts (fewer stops) that take the same routes. However, I looked at the schedule and didn’t see myself saving more than 15-20 mins Tokyo – Kyoto. The only way to travel on these two lines is by buying individual tickets at the station for them.
Is it worth it for me to buy a JR Pass?
There are two aspects you can evaluate to determine this –
Traveling on the Shinkansen has always been a ‘must-do’ when in Japan. The high-speed railway network connecting most major areas, has been the pride of the country for a very long time.
It is the best optimization of your time when touring Japan. There might be cheaper and slower alternatives that I would personally not recommend. Here’s why I think buying the pass is worth the money:
- Shinkansen is safe
- Plenty of over-head luggage space on the bullet trains
- You can take advantage of the reservation system with the JR Pass, guaranteeing seat assignments
- The pass can be used on ALL JR lines (Shinkansen and non-bullet), inner and intercity (again, exception of Nozomi or Mizhou lines) and the usage is unlimited for the duration of the pass
The best way to measure your cost worth is to plan your trip / destinations in advance. A round trip ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto itself is about $250. A 7-day JR pass is $280. If you plan on doing more travel than a Tokyo-Kyoto round trip in 7 days, it is totally worth buying the pass. I did Tokyo – Kyoto – Osaka – Hiroshima – Tokyo in 7 days and the total fare would have cost me around $450-500. So the pass was definitely worth it for me.
If you want an estimate for individual ticket prices, this tool is very helpful – Hyperdia
What kind of JR Pass are available?
There are 7, 14 and 21 day passes available for a minimum cost of $279 (7-days), $445 (14 days) and $569 (21 days).
Can I use all JR lines with a full-access pass?
You can use most Shinkansen lines with the exceptions are the Nozomi and Mizhou lines and all non-shinkansen lines maintained by JR.
Where can I buy the JR Pass?
You can only buy the JR pass outside of Japan. I know it’s a weird concept, but go with it. Basically you purchase an order form or ‘Exchange Order’ outside of the country and exchange it for a ‘pass’ at a JR office once you’re in the country. Let’s break this down:
There are two ways you purchase the initial Exchange Order:
- Online: JR Pass Website The order cannot be emailed to you, it can only be mailed to your address. This is a security measure taken to ensure the purchaser of the order is the only person using it. The drawback to this is that it takes about 7 business days for the mail to be delivered, 3-5 days if you fast track it. The distributer of these orders is located in one location in Paris, France and that’s why it takes a few days for anyone ordering it from North America or Asia to receive it. If you’re running short of time, you can have them deliver the exchange order to your hotel in Japan (still takes 3-5 days).
- In Person: You can also purchase it from a local tour company, provided they sell the pass. Make sure you take your passport with you to purchase. The list of offices can be found here according to the region. If one is not listed for you, online might be your only option. I would call ahead to confirm they sell the passes. This is how I purchased mine, very convenient.
Can I buy the JR Pass in Japan?
Nope, passes (exchange orders) can only be purchased from outside the country.
Can I buy a JR Pass for someone else?
Yes, you can buy passes for other people. You will need a copy of their IDs and enter their detailed information in the JR pass application (name, DOB, passport #). This is so only the person the pass the purchased for can use it.
How to use / activate my JR Pass?
You have up to 90 days to start using your pass after the date of purchase. To activate your pass, you can take your exchange order to any JR office in Japan. JR offices are located at almost every major train station. You can find a location from the list here.
Once activated, you may go ahead and make your travel reservations in advance. Some high volume trains (Kyoto – Osaka, Kyoto – Hiroshima) get filled up really early. If possible, make these reservations a day or two in advance.
What / How much can I carry aboard the JR Trains?
There is plenty of leg-space and on the overhead grill to place your bags when traveling on the Shinkansen. You can easily stuff a backpack near your legs and a slightly larger handbag (small checked luggage size: 24 – 26”) in the overhead space. I would not recommend a full-sized suitcase (26”+) for a Japan trip. These bags are highly uncomfortable to travel with for two main reasons:
- You might be able to precariously balance them on the overhead grill, but lifting a bag of that size up there (for an average built person) will be a task.
- Not all stations and all platforms have an elevator or escalator to get up or down. There have bene several occasions where I’ve had to carry my bags up and down several flights of stairs and packing light was the only way I survived that.
How can I plan my trip beforehand?
There is an excellent tool you can use to check for train schedules and prices and plan your entire train travel before going to Japan. You can access it here.