Riding the Shinkansen with the Japan Rail Pass
The Japan Rail Pass allows for unlimited travel on almost all Shinkansen trains, making it a popular option for travelers to Japan. Take a look at the guide below to see exactly how to ride the Shinkansen when using a JR Pass.
The Japan Rail Pass & the Shinkansen
Japan’s world famous railway system is largely operated by a number of private organizations, and the most prominent of these organizations is that of the Japan Rail Group. This is the organization that provides the Japan Rail Pass, a popular travel pass that allows for unlimited access to a majority of the Group’s travel network all under one price, so the access and savings provided by the pass make it an essential for most travelers, especially those with itineraries involving a lot of Shinkansen travel throughout the country. This general guide to accessing the Shinkansen with the JR Pass will help to optimize their ease of travel.
What can I ride with a Japan Rail Pass?
Shinkansen trains except for the Nozomi Shinkansen that goes between Tokyo and Osaka and the Mizuho Shinkansen that goes between Osaka and Kagoshima can be ridden with the JR Pass. Note that travel between these destinations is still very much accessible (and commonly done), but just through different Shinkansen trains.
Additionally, the inner-city railway systems operated by the Japan Rail Group (often labeled as JR Lines), are all fully accessible with the pass, so local travel is also covered along with the cross-country bullet trains.
But don’t let the name mislead you, as the pass is not limited to just rail travel. Japan Rail Group also operates a large number of local buses within cities in Japan that are accessible via the pass, and even the ferry to Miyajima Island in Hiroshima can be boarded with the JR Pass.
What kind of Japan Rail Passes are available for purchase?
There are primarily two types of rail passes available for use; the National Japan Rail Pass and then the Regional Japan Rail Passes.
The National Pass, as the name implies, allows access to facilities all around the country. It is available in iterations of a 7 day(50,000 yen), 14 day (80,000 yen), and 21 day(100,000 yen) pass. The standard National Pass allows access to the
Ordinary Reserved or Non-Reserved Car. There also exists the Japan Rail Green Class that allows access to the more luxurious Green Car available on Shinkansen.
The Regional Pass allows unlimited access to Japan Rail Group operated transportation within a specific region in Japan, such as Kansai or Tohoku. The option of the Regional Passes should not be underlooked if travelers are focusing their itineraries on specific regions as they are more affordable.
The usage period for these passes varies depending on the region. For example, there exists a 5 day and 7 day pass for the Hokkaido Regional Pass, but for the JR East Regional Pass that services much of central Honshu and Tohoku, there is only a 5 day option available for purchase.
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How do I exchange my voucher for a Japan Rail Pass?
It should be noted that what is sent to the traveler's home prior to departure is not the usable Japan Rail Pass itself, but rather a voucher that signifies the order of a Japan Rail Pass. This voucher is exchanged for the actual JR Pass upon arriving in Japan. This can be done at the number of exchange offices that exist throughout the country. One will likely be accessible at the airport of arrival or a major train station.
Many of these exchange stations come in the form of Japan Rail Offices (also known or marked as “midori no madoguchi”). Upon arriving at one of these exchange offices travelers will present their order voucher and their passport. They will then receive the usable JR Pass and be asked to choose an activation date. It is from that date that the pass will be usable.
How long can I use my pass for?
The pass calculates time in days of usage, and not by specific hours or minutes.
What this means is that the first day of activation will count as the first day of the validity period and that the time of activation or time of first usage is not accounted for.
For example, if someone is to activate a seven day pass on one day, the pass is usable throughout the first day and up to six days afterwards. On that last day, the pass is fully usable until the end of the day, regardless of the time of activation on the first day.
Note that there are no train lines in Japan that operate for full 24 hour periods, so the final train of the day is something that should be kept in mind. Inner city trains will operate up to relatively late hours (usually a bit before or after midnight depending on the train line), but Shinkansen trains and other rail lines that traverse farther distances usually cease operations earlier, as they typically take a longer time to reach their final destinations.
How can I reserve seats on the Shinkansen with the Japan Rail Pass?
Making a reservation for seats on the Shinkansen is an option that is highly recommended, especially during the peak travel seasons in Spring, Fall, and New Years. Making a reservation on the Shinkansen Ordinary Car with a standard National Japan Rail Pass is free of charge. Making a reservation on the Green Car or Gran Class Car is also possible, but this incurs an additional fee. On the Japan Rail Green Class, the Green Car is accessible without additional fees (though the Green Car pass has a more expensive base price). For seats on the Green Car a prior reservation is always required even with the pass.
These reservations can be made a number of ways, most notably at a Japan Rail Office or at a ticket kiosk at a station. At a JR Office, inform the representative about your desired reservation and present your JR Pass.
For the kiosks, there are a number of languages available for travelers who do not read Japanese. You will be required to insert your Japan Rail Pass and also take separate tickets for boarding the Shinkansen and the reserved seat.
Can I bring my larger luggage onto the Shinkansen?
As of 2020, there are new rules in place in regards to bringing oversized luggage onto the Shinkansen train. Oversized luggage is defined as any suitcase that is between 161 cm and 250 cm in total dimensions (height, width, and length measured and combined), and not exceeding 30 kg (66 lbs) in weight. Any luggage that exceeds these dimensions are considered too large or heavy to be brought onto the Shinkansen, so be wary of these regulations.
If you are bringing on luggage such as this, it will need to be stored in the oversized luggage area and use of this area requires a reservation. The reservation for such can be done largely the same way as general Shinkansen seat reservations.
When at a Japan Rail Office to make a reservation, inform the attendant about your large luggage and this space will be reserved for you as well as a seat that is nearby the storage space as is available. There are additional prompts for these reservations at the ticket kiosks, but if you need any help, station attendants will be present to assist you.
Note that things such as musical instruments or strollers do not count as oversized luggage even if they exceed the dimensions listed above. Therefore, they do not need to be put into the oversized baggage area. However, if you do wish to use this area for such items you will need to put a reservation in place.
How to board the Shinkansen
Entering the ticket gates and boarding the Shinkansen is something that may not be inherently intuitive for foreign travelers. To fully pass through the gate, you will be required to retake the previously inserted tickets after they have been redistributed to you once they are read by the ticket gate machine.
Your reservation ticket will have information on the Shinkansen that will be ridden, the train car, seat number and row. The platform will often label what car number will be boardable at a given spot. Keep this reservation ticket and the Japan Rail Pass on you to present to the train attendant when they come around in order to prove your seat.
Upon arriving at your target station, just like when you entered the ticket gate, insert your Japan Rail Pass once again into the gate and take it again before passing through completely. Typically, individual tickets will not be redistributed, but since the JR Pass is a reusable ticket, you will receive it again.
What is it like inside the Shinkansen?
Since the Shinkansen bullet train is designed for high-speed traversal across longer distances, the space and amenities inside the train car is by default more luxurious than that of the local commuting trains. Seats are usually forward facing, though oftentimes they can be swiveled and adjusted to face each other in case you are traveling with family or a large party.
For food and beverage, there is a deployable table connected to the seat in front of you. Some Shinkansen will have vending machines on board. Some Shinkansen bullet trains will have an attendant with a snack and beverage cart going up and down the aisles, though this service will be ending towards the end of October in 2023. These refreshments are payable by cash, card, or a pre-loaded IC card.
The Ordinary Car is the most general access car. The Green Car is one step up in luxury and features more leg room and a more feature-laced seat with deeper recline and padded headrests. One step up from this is the Gran Class Car which upgrades even further from the Green Class. Occasionally, snacks and refreshments are included with Gran Class Seats.