Japan has an extensive and efficient rail network; you can pretty much assume that trains go almost everywhere you'd want to visit. Japanese trains are clean, comfortable and punctual. The average delay to a high-speed (shinkansen) train is measured in terms of seconds.
Most Japanese trains are operated by the Japan Railways (JR) Group. Major Japanese cities are linked by bullet train; or to use their Japanese name, shinkansen. The shinkansen network consists of multiple lines, among which the Tokaido Shinkansen (Tokyo - Nagoya - Kyoto - Osaka) is the oldest and most popular.
- Train travel in Japan is really easy. Language is hardly ever a problem. Stations have signs in English as well as Japanese.
- Each bullet train has its own name; make sure you catch the right one!
- You need to buy a train pass before you leave home; you can't buy a Japanese Rail Pass in Japan.
- Japanese trains are extremely efficient and punctual.
The railway network and train categories
Japan's bullet train network covers much of the country, stretching presently from Hakodate in Hokkaido in the north to Kagoshima-Chuo Station in Kagoshima, in the very south of Kyushu in south west Japan.
All shinkansen lines (except the Akita and Yamagata shinkansen) run on tracks that are exclusively built for and used by shinkansen trains.
There are different train types in Japan:
Local trains stop at every station.
Rapid trains stop at fewer stations than local trains.
Commuter Express trains run during peak commute times in the morning and evening, and stop at fewer stations than rapid trains.
Super Express, aka Shinkansen, trains are only operated by JR. They use separate tracks and platforms. A limited express fee has to be paid in addition to the base fare, yet this is the best option for exploring the country, as it is considerably cheaper than taking a flight.
Shinkansen bullet trains
The Shinkansen run at speeds of up to 320 km/h, and are known for punctuality (most trains depart on time to the second), comfort (relatively silent cars with spacious, forward-facing seats), safety (no fatal accidents during their history) and efficiency. You are recommended to use shinkansen to explore Japan.
The first shinkansen was the Tokaido Shinkansen opened in 1964 between Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, and later extended as the Sanyo Shinkansen to Hiroshima, Kobe and Hakata. There are now a whole range of shinkansen lines linking all the most important cities in Japan, including Niigata, Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Hakata and Kagoshima.
Shinkansen network and lines
50 years have passed since the Tokaido Shinkansen began running between Tokyo and Osaka. Japan’s high-speed train service has expanded over a half century into a broad network of routes that stretches across the whole nation.
The famous “bullet train” network continues to grow, with several new lines planned or under construction, including the next-generation linear maglev Chuo Shinkansen. Some of the shinkansen trains are faster than others, and some you cannot use with your Japanese Rail Pass. Here is a brief overview to help you plan your travels.
The Tokaido Shinkansen opened in 1964, to coincide with the first Olympic Games to be convened in Japan: the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The Tokaido Shinkansen was the world's first full-scale commercial high-speed railway line.
Tokaido Shinkansen is Japan’s busiest and most popular line, as 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.
Three categories of train operate on this line: nozomi, hikari, and kodama. The Japan Rail Pass does not cover the nozomi bullet train, as this is a private line, not part of the national Japan Rail Group.
The Sanyo Shinkansen, operated by JR West, have 553 km of track. This line mainly runs along the Pacific coastline. Sanyo Shinkansen connects the city of Osaka with Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu. The Sanyo Shinkansen was the second shinkansen line constructed, and opened in 1975. It carries over 60 million passengers annually.
Five train categories operate on the Sanyo Shinkansen; nozomi, kodama, mizhuo, sakura and hikari. The fastest train is nozomi, at an operating speed of 300 km/h (185 mph). The nozomi and mizuho trains do not form part of the national JR Group, as they are private lines.
The Hokuriku Shinkansen, jointly operated by JR East and JR West, connect Tokyo and Kanazawa. The distance covered is almost 215 km. The Hokuriku Shinkansen now make it possible to travel between Tokyo, Toyama and Kanazawa in much less time than before.
The Hokuriku Shinkansen line was opened in 1997 for the Nagano Olympic Games. Since then, the line has developed even further, and was extended in 2015. Before it was extended, it was commonly known as Nagano line. Four train categories operate on the Hokuriku line: kagayaki, asama, hakutaka, and tsurugi.
The kagayaki train is the fastest on the Hokuriku Shinkansen line. It has only two stops between Tokyo and Kanazawa. But there are no non-reserved seating areas on this train, so you need to make a reservation before boarding.
The Tohoku Shinkansen, stretching almost 675 km from Tokyo to Aomori, is Japan's longest shinkansen line. There are 6 categories of train operating on the Tohoku Shinkansen; hayabusa, hayate, yamabiko, nasumo, tsubasa, and komachi.
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. Making a seat reservation before boarding the hayabusa train is mandatory. There are no non-reserved seats on this train.
The Tohoku Shinkansen is operated by JR East and carries over 75 million passengers annually. The line opened in stages between 1982 and 2010. There are 2 mini-shinkansen running inside this line; the akita shinkansen and the yamagata shinkansen.
The Joetsu Shinkansen line connecting travelers from Tokyo with the hot springs and leisure resorts in Niigata and its surroundings. Toki and tanigawa are the two train categories that operate on the Joetsu Shinkansen line, which is almost 270 km long.
Shinkansen toki will take you from Tokyo to Niigata in just over an hour and a half and the shinkansen tanigawa will take you from Tokyo to Echigo-Yuzawa in a little over an hour. During the winter season, the Tanigawa train reaches Gala-Yuzawa, getting travelers to the nearby ski resort.
The Joetsu Shinkansen was constructed during the 1970's and opened in 1982. The Joetsu Shinkansen operated by JR East serves over 34 million passengers every year.
Using a Japanese Rail pass
You can use your JR pass almost anywhere in Japan, giving you the freedom to travel the beautiful island country at one simple price, completely hassle-free. There are some limitations, however, which should be noted before you leave.
You cannot use the two fastest types of Shinkansen: nozomi and mizuho. These have fewer stops than other trains, and are most expensive. You can, however, ride the hikari, which is the next fastest after these. Travel times are not too dissimilar, so you do not need to worry about missing out.
The Japanese Rail Pass is designed to be used on lines operated by Japan Rail. The major cities’ metro or subway systems, such as Tokyo’s, are not owned by JR, so you cannot board with your JR pass.
How to use the Shinkansen
Using the Shinkansen is really easy. Follow the steps below and you won’t have any difficulty. At the station where your bullet train departs, there will be both shinkansen and local train lines. Make your way to the shinkansen area, and use your tickets at the gate. If you have a JR pass, just go to the window and show one of the gate attendants.
After passing through the gate you’ll need to find your platform. The easiest way is to look for your train number. However, as the time-table boards only show the next 4 or so trains, you also need to check the direction in which your train will be headed.
Before your train arrives, make your way to the waiting area for your train-car on the platform. People will stand in an orderly manner arranged in the shape of this waiting area, and quickly board when the train arrives. The train only usually stops at the platform for between 1-2 minutes, so be prompt.
You may need to show your ticket to a conductor while on the train, so please keep it safe and handy. At your destination, use the same ticket to exit the gates. Please note that your ticket will be collected by the automatic gates or station staff (except in the case of multiuse passes like the JR pass).
Luggage and access
According to Japan Rail’s official rules, you can carry 2 pieces of baggage on JR trains. The total height + width + depth of each item must be under 250 cm and the weight less than 30 kg per bag. If it’s not much bigger than aircraft “hand-luggage” size, it should fit on the storage rack above the seats.
The shinkansen is easily accessible for passengers in wheelchairs or mothers with strollers. You can also book special seating (free of charge) for those in wheelchairs, but you need to make this request at the train station two days in advance.
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