The shinkansen (新幹線) is a network of high-speed railways lines that operate over most of Japan. These famous “bullet” trains—so named because of their pointed fronts, as well as their speed—started running in 1964 with the Tokaido Shinkansen, a 500-kilometer track that connected Tokyo and Osaka (Shin-Osaka) stations. Today there are over ten Shinkansen routes in Japan with several more planned over the coming decades, and trains operating on the major routes can reach speeds of up to 320kmph.
While they may no longer hold the crown of being the fastest trains in the world (the Shanghai Maglev, for instance, has a top operating speed of 430 kmph), they are one of the busiest, carrying over 150 million passengers every year, and certainly one of the safest, with not a single fatality or injury since operations began. They were an emblem of the country’s rapid modernization in the aftermath of the war, and today their gleaming white carriages gliding over the Japanese countryside is a symbol of Japan as much as anything else.
The Shinkansen are usually the most convenient way to get between the major hubs and cities (the average annual delay is 50 seconds), and riding in the spotless carriages one of the “must-dos” while visiting the country.
How much does the shinkansen cost?
Pricing for the Shinkansen is not particularly easy to understand at first glance. Most Shinkansen offer passengers the choice of two classes of carriage: ordinary and “green car”. Like business class, the green car carriages offer passengers wider seats and more foot space. Newer models of trains may also have a Gran Class—a first class carriage with reclining seats, dedicated attendants, and a food menu.
The ticket price is broken down into up to four components.
- Basic fare. The basic fee for getting from A to B. Essentially, what you would pay if you went by local train. Like most fare structures, this increases in incremental steps with the distance. In Japanese this basic fare is called jōshaken (乗車券).
- Shinkansen surcharge or super express surcharge. This is the additional amount you need to pay to ride the Shinkansen. In Japanese it is called tokkyūken (特急券).
- Seat reservation fee. This is a small additional charge if you wish to reserve a seat. It is typically ¥520 but may differ by a ¥200 or so depending on the season. In Japanese a reserved seat is called shitei-seki (指定席) and a non-reserved seat is called jiyū-seki (自由席).
- Carriage free. The above fees apply to ordinary class tickets. If you wish to travel in the green car or Gran Class then an additional fee applies.
Below are the times and approximate prices for the most popular Shinkansen routes.
Tokyo to Kyoto
The Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto takes between 2 hours 20 minutes and a one-way ticket costs around ¥13,000 (unreserved) or ¥14,000 (reserved) for a seat in the ordinary car and ¥19,000 for a seat in the green car.
Tokyo to Osaka (Shin-Osaka)
The Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka takes about 2 hours 30 minutes and a one-way ticket costs around ¥13,000 (unreserved) or ¥14,000 (reserved) for a seat in the ordinary car and ¥20,000 for a seat in the green car.
Tokyo to Nagoya
The Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagoya takes about 1hour 40 minutes and a one-way ticket costs around ¥10,000 (unreserved) or ¥11,000 (reserved) for a seat in the ordinary car.
Tokyo to Kanazawa
The Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagoya takes about 2hour 30 minutes and a one-way ticket costs around ¥13,000 (unreserved) or ¥14,000 (reserved) for a seat in the ordinary car and ¥19,000 for a seat in the green car.
In Tokyo, the Shinkansen departs from Tokyo (main hub) and Shinagawa. Despite being two of the busiest stations in Tokyo the Shinkansen does not operate from either Shinjuku or Shibuya.
Where can I buy tickets for the shinkansen?
Tickets for the Shinkansen can be purchased at JR Ticket Offices (called “Midori no madoguchi”) and major Japanese travel agencies. You can also purchase tickets online at the JR East and JR Hokkaido websites (both in English). For foreign visitors planning on making at least one return journey on the Shinkansen the Japan Rail Pass is undoubtedly the most cost-effective way to see the country.