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

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.

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.

47 thoughts on “What is the Shinkansen (bullet train)? Most convenient and the fastest train service throughout Japan.”

  1. Hi,
    I was told by one person about the type of bullet trains, one being super-express. It’s my understanding that all the bullet trains in Japan are super-express trains.

    Is this not correct?

    1. Hi Roger,

      All bullet trains are called “Super Express”. But some trains skip many stations and others stop at all stations. For example, on Tokaido Shinkansen between Tokyo and Shin-osaka, there are three kinds of trains which are Nozomi, Hikari and Kodama. Nozomi is the fastest train and it stops at Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shin-Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto and Shin-Osaka only. Hikari stops more and Kodama stops at all stations. But these three trains are called Super Express. As long as train runs on Shinkansen (bullet train) track, it’s called Super Express.

      Cheers,

      Takeshi / JPRail.com

  2. Hi Takeshi,
    I will like to travel to Gujo Hachiman in the Gifu Prefecture from Kyoto. I understand that I can take JR Tokaido to Nagoya then transfer to Gifu.

    If I am using JR Pass, which is the most direct route i should take? I am confused on which transport to take at Nagoya.

    Thank you very much.
    Regards,
    Matthew

    1. Hi Matthew,

      The easiest route is taking Wide View Hida. You can get Minoota directly without any transfer.
      https://jprail.com/trains/sort-by-type/limited-express/limited-express-wide-view-hida.html

      There is only one trip running from Kyoto which departs from Kyoto at 8:34. You can find this schedule at Hyperdia:
      https://jprail.com/travel-informations/basic-informations/timetable-and-reservation/hyperdia-perfect-guide-train-timetable-and-route-search-engine.html

      If you cannot take this train, you can proceed to Nagoya by Shinkansen (bullet train) and take Wide View Hida from Nagoya. Wide View Hida depart from Nagoya almost every hour.

      After arrival at Minoota, you will take Nagaragawa railway to Gujo-Hachiman. JR Pass does not cover Nagaragawa railway.

      Cheers,

      Takeshi / JPRail.com

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