What is the Shinkansen (bullet train)? Most convenient and the fastest train service throughout Japan.

Joetsu, Nagano and Hokuriku
Most of the Tohoku Shinkansen trains are operated by this type of train.
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Shinkansen

The Shinkansen (新幹線) is a high speed train service that is operated by JR. It is one of the fastest trains in world and sometimes called “Bullet Train”. JR has this high speed train network throughout Japan. You can save lots of your trip time by taking this train system.

I would like to share a basic information about the Shinkansen train system in this post.

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What is the difference between the Shinkansen and the regular trains?

The Shinkansen is completely different railway system from conventional trains that is called Zairaisen (在来線) in Japanese. The Shinkansen is completely separated from other train service and the Shinkansen has fewer stations than conventional lines because this is a long distance intercity train service.

e.g. the segment between Shin-Osaka and Kyoto.
No stations on the Shinkansen
13 stations on the conventional line (JR Kyoto line)

The Shinkansen does not share the track with other conventional trains because of the train operation system. The rail gauge of Shinkansen (1,435 mm) is much wider than JR conventional line standard (1,067 mm). The Shinkansen cannot run on the conventional railway track basically.

And the different fare system is applied to the Shinkansen. When you change the trains between the Shinkansen and the conventional trains, you have to go through the Shinkansen transfer gate even though both trains are same JR trains.

Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen is shown by blue and Tohoku and other four Shinkansens are shown by Green.
The signage of Shinkansen transfer gates in Tokyo station. The Tokaido and the Sanyo Shinkansen is shown by blue and Tohoku and other four Shinkansens are shown by green.

When you change the trains between Shinkansen and other JR trains, please expect to spend at least 10 minutes to transfer and sometimes need more in the mega terminal station, like Tokyo, Shin-Osaka.

All Shinkansen routes

JR has now seven Shinkansen lines and another two “Mini” Shinkansen lines.

Shinkansen network map (C) Hisagi [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons (Click to view large)
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The Tokaido Shinkansen

The train names are Nozomi, Hikari and Kodama.
It runs between Tokyo (東京) and Shin-Osaka (新大阪). It is connected with the Sanyo Shinkansen at Shin-Osaka. Nozomi is not covered by Japan Rail Pass.

The Sanyo Shinkansen

The train names are Nozomi, Mizuho, Hikari, Sakura and Kodama.
It runs between Shin-Osaka (新大阪) and Hakata (博多). Since many trains go through from the Tokaido Shinkansen, we call Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen. The Sanyo Shinkansen is connected with Kyushu Shinkansen at Hakata as well. Many direct train services, Mizuho and Sakura run between Shin-Osaka, Kumamoto and Kagoshima-Chuo.
Nozomi and Mizuho are not covered by Japan Rail Pass.

The Kyushu Shinkansen

The train names are Mizuho, Sakura and Tsubame.
It runs between Hakata (博多) and Kagoshima-Chuo (鹿児島中央). All Mizuho and most of Sakura are operated between Shin-Osaka (新大阪) and Kumamoto or Kagoshima-Chuo. There is no direct train service from Tokyo (東京) to Kyushu. Mizuho cannot be used by Japan Rail Pass.

The Tohoku Shinkansen

The train names are Hayabusa, Hayate, Yamabiko and Nasuno.
It runs between Tokyo (東京) and Shin-Aomori (新青森). This Shinkansen line is connected with the Hokkaido Shinkansen at Shin-Aomori. Many trains run between Tokyo and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto on Hokkaido Shinkansen line.

Tohoku Shinkansen does not connect with Tokaido Shinkansen at Tokyo (東京). You have to transfer the train at Tokyo station.

The Hokkaido Shinkansen

The train names are Hayabusa and Hayate. This line runs between Shin-Aomori and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto. But in the train operation, this is the extention part of Tohoku Shinkansen. All trains come from the Tohoku Shinkansen line.

The Joetsu Shinkansen

Train names are Toki and Tanigawa. Some trains are operated by by-level train set. These trains are called “Max Toki” or “Max Tanigawa”.

Max double decker E4 series
Some Joetsu Shinkansen trains are operated by Max by level E4 series.

This Shinkansen line runs between Tokyo (東京) and Niigata (新潟). This Shinkansen share the track with the Tohoku Shinkansen between Tokyo (東京) and Omiya. In winter season, some Tanigawa run between Tokyo and Gala Yuzawa.

The Hokuriku Shinkansen

The train names are Kagayaki, Hakutaka, Asama and Tsurugi.
It runs between Tokyo (東京) and Kanazawa (金沢). This Shinkansen share the track with the Joetsu Shinkansen between Tokyo and Takasaki. This Shinkansen line is officially called Hokuriku Shinkansen.

The Yamagata Shinkansen

The train name is Tsubasa.

It runs between Tokyo (東京) and Shinjo (新庄) via Yamagata (山形). This Shinkansen train are coupled with Yamabiko on the Tohoku Shinkansen between Tokyo and Fukushima (福島). And it runs on the upgraded regular track. Shinkansen train is basically completely separated from other conventional trains. But Yamagata Shinkansen share the track with a local train between Fukushima and Shinjo. This is a reason why it is called “Mini” Shinkansen.

The Akita Shinkansen

The train name is Komachi.
This Shinkansen line runs between Tokyo (東京) and Akita (秋田). This Shinkansen trains are coupled with Hayabusa on the Tohoku Shinkansen between Tokyo and Morioka (盛岡). And it share the track with the local trains between Morioka and Akita, like Yamagata Shinkansen between Fukushima and Shinjo.

Comments

  1. Leo says:

    Hello Takeshi, can please suggest me which railpass (-es) should I buy for my 2 week itinerary:
    Day1 Tokyo
    Day 2 Tokyo
    Day 3 Tokyo
    Day 4 Tokyo – Kobe – Himeji – Kobe
    Day 5 Kobe – Arima Onsen
    Day6 Arima Onsen – Nara – Osaka
    Day 7 Osaka – Tokyo
    Day 8 Tokyo – Koyasan
    Day 9 Koyasan – Kyoto
    Day 10 Kyoto
    Day 11 Kyoto
    Day 12 Kyoto – Hakone
    Day 13 Hakone – Tokyo

    Is it worth getting the 2 week Japan Rail Pass or just for 1 week and then get the local passes like Kansai 3 day and the rest.
    Thank you very much!

    • Hi Leo,

      14 days JR pass is okay. But I’m curious. Why do you go back to Tokyo on day 7? It’s wasting time but this round trip to Tokyo make you get the worth of 14 days pass.

      If you don’t go back to Tokyo on day 7 and stay somewhere in Kansai area, both 7 days and 14 days passes do not work. Single ticket is okay for Tokyo-Osaka and local deals in Kansai area. Please think about it.

      Cheers,

      Takeshi / JPRail.com

      • Leo says:

        Hi Takeshi,
        thank you very much for your quick answer.
        I knew that you will ask about day 7. It’s very frustrating but we are returning back to Tokyo for 1 day beucase my gf wants to go to Ghibli Museum and we managed to get tickets only for 7th of May.
        It makes things complicated but….

        • Hi Leo,

          Okay, now I got it. But you can use 14 days pass and it makes your trip be easier.

          Cheers,

          Takeshi / JPRail.com

          • Leo says:

            MR Takeshi, I’ve managed to reserve a seat on Limited Express to Nikko from Tokyo with the Nikko City area pass.
            Is there a way to reserve the Limited Expess from Osaka Namba to Koyasan if I bought Koyasan World Heritage Ticket?

            And also, is there a way to reserve seats on JR line online?
            Or my only option is to reserve them first thing at the kiost at Haneda airport?

            Thank you very much.

            • Hi Leo,

              You have to reserve your seat for trip to Koyasan in Japan.
              You cannot book a seat for Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka either. You need to book it after you arrive in Japan too.

              Cheers,

              Takeshi / JPRail.com

  2. Julia says:

    Hello Takeshi-san,
    We plan to take the shinkansen hikari 511 from Hakone-Yumoto to Odawara to Kyoto. Can you please refer me to a website which I can reserve tickets for non-Japanese nationals?
    Thank you.

  3. tait le lievre says:

    hi there,
    My partner and I are traveling to Japan late October and were wondering what would be the cheapest option and how would we travel between these places?
    Tokyo- Kyoto
    Kyoto-Hiroshima
    Hiroshima- Osaka
    Osaka – Nagano
    (day trip from Nagano to Snow Monkeys)
    Nagano-Yamanashi
    Yamanashi- Lake Kawaguchi
    Lake Kawaguchi- Tokyo

  4. Ivy says:

    Hi there,

    I am planning a trip this Dec with my family of 4 adults + 1 child. Pls advice if taking passes or single trip would be better;

    Osaka – Kyoto
    Kyoto – Takayama
    Takayama – Osaka

    Thanks,

  5. Val says:

    Hi,

    I will be travelling to Japan for 8 days with my family. Total we have 5 adults and 3 children.
    This is our itinerary.
    Day 1 -3 – arrival at Nagoya. Going around to town area and visiting the shrines (by train).
    Day 4 – travel from Nagoya to Takayama (1 day trip)
    Day 5 – travel from Nagoya to Osaka
    Day 6 – travel from Osaka to Kyoto (1 day trip)
    Day 7 – Osaka city to Kansai Airport

    Need your advice for the passes.
    Thank you.

  6. Shindy says:

    Hello Sir,

    My friends will be traveling on February 21, 2017 from Manila-Nagola-Manila. My question is what is the best way for them to get Tokyo as soon as possible? and how much it will cost? and how long is the trip? Your reply will be a big help for us as a first time traveler in Japan. Thank you!

  7. JR Custodio says:

    Hello Takeshi,

    I have some questions for our upcoming trip next month(Mid-October):

    First, I am planning to buy a shinkansen ticket through Platt Kodama (http://www.jrtours.co.jp/kodama/en/) for my trip going to Nagoya from Shin-Yokohama station. Will I be able to buy that ticket in the JR Tours office in Shinagawa station even if I will not be boarding the Shinkansen in Shinagawa station?

    Second, my friends will be travelling at this order:
    Shinagawa-Yokohama-Kyoto-Osaka-Nagoya. Would you recommend that they buy individual Platt Kodama tickets or they avail of a JR pass? Which one would be cheaper?

    Third, is there a limit as to the number of platt kodama tickets that you can purchase or are there no limit as long as there is availability?

    Lastly, if they would buy a JR Pass will they be more guaranteed that they will be able to get a seat in their preferred train schedule compared to when they buy individual platt kodama tickets?

    Thank you very much!

    • Hi JR,

      1. Yes, you can.

      2. Platt Kodama is cheaper.

      3. You can purchase as many as you want as long as it’s available.

      4. JR pass gives you more chance to book. Some part of reserved seat is sold for Platt Kodama. But all reserved seat is available for JR pass. And JR pass covers both Kodama and Hikari. There are many more trains and many more seats for JR Pass.

      Cheers,

      Takeshi / JPRail.com

  8. ellen says:

    Hi there.
    We are visiting Japan at the end of Sept for 15 days. We would like your recommendation as to go with the rail pads or not for these journeys.

    Tokyo to hakone
    Hakone to kyoto
    Kyoto to Osaka
    Osaka to fukuoka
    Fukuoka to Osaka airport

  9. priyani says:

    Helloo..
    I am planning to tokyo next month. If I want to go to toyama (alpine route) from tokyo. I am better use joetsu shinkansen or horuriku shinkansen? Which one is cheaper?
    Thanks

  10. Chiara says:

    Hello,
    I am planning a fortnights staying in Japan and I am getting lost with the Shinkansen and JR trains and passes.
    If I want to do the below itinirary what is the best pass to take?
    Tokyo-Hakone day trip
    Tokyo-Hiroshima
    Hirsohima-Osaka
    Osaka-Kyosan
    Kyosan-Kyoto
    Kyoto-Kanazawa day trip
    Kyoto-Kamikochi
    Kamikochi-Tokyo

    Thanks for yor help

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