Japan has a state of the art transportation system and I LOVE riding the train here. Sure, it’s pricey (we residents are NOT eligible for Japan Rail passes) but Japanese trains are fast, clean and nearly ALWAYS on time.
Booking a train ticket is not terribly difficult, but there are still a few things to know before you head to the station. I’ll talk about booking shinkansen tickets today, though some of these sections apply to limited express and other reserved trains as well.
– You can purchase tickets in advance or on the same day you want to travel. If you are traveling on a weekend, I recommend purchasing your ticket at least a day out. If you are traveling over a Japanese holiday or during Obon or Golden Week (God forbid), by ALL means get yourself to that station and purchase a ticket as early as you can.
– You do NOT have to be at your departure station to purchase a ticket from there. For example, you can go to Shinjuku station to purchase a ticket from Kyoto to Hiroshima.
– You can purchase a ticket using either the ticket machines just outside the ticket gates or at the ticket offices. Be aware that the ticket machines have some limitations – you can NOT use a foreign credit card to complete your purchase if using the machines. You will have to pay in cash (inserting the money in, ATM-style) and some journeys might require you to have a significant amount of cash on hand. If you go to the ticket office, you can use a foreign credit card (and have any questions answered that you might have).
– You MUST keep your ticket with you until the end of your journey. You are required to insert your tickets into the machine both at the beginning and at the end of the journey. Do NOT lose that ticket. 🙂
Reserved (Shiteiseki – SHTAY-ee-seck-ee) – If you are traveling on a weekend or during a peak commuter time (7am-9am, 5pm-7pm) or are traveling with a group, you’ll most likely want to consider a reserved seat. This allows you the convenience of heading to the boarding area at the last minute, knowing your seat is already secured. Reserved seats are generally ¥300-¥1500 more expensive than non-reserved seats but can be worth the price for the peace of mind and the extra luggage space.
Non-reserved seats (Jiyuseki – GEE-you-seck-ee) – Non-reserved seats are a good option for those who are traveling during off-peak hours and don’t have a lot of luggage. Most shinkansen have at least three cars (usually Cars 1-3) that are designated as non-reserved seating. Note that stations will sell more tickets than there are seats for non-reserved cars; there is a chance you could get stuck standing for a portion of your trip. Luggage space can be limited in the non-reserved cars; there is room for bags on the overhead racks but larger luggage may have to be held or placed in front of you. I often opt for non-reserved seats when traveling on weekdays or going short distances on the shinkansen.
Green Seats – Green cars are the shinkansen’s “first class” option but frankly, I don’t find it worth the price at all. The refreshment carts are the same ones that roll through the other cars and the seats are only marginally bigger. Unless you have a lot of money to burn, save your pennies and go with one of the other options.
Most travelers to Japan find themselves using Japan’s main shinkansen line, the Tokaido Sanyo line. There are several types of trains that run this route:
Nozomi – This is Japan’s fastest train, making the fewest stops as it travels between Tokyo and Hakata (Fukuoka). This is also Japan’s priciest train and you’ll need a special express ticket to use it (don’t worry – it all gets factored in when you make the purchase). For Japan Rail pass holders, be aware that you can NOT ride the Nozomi train without also paying the surcharge. Also, some Nozomi trains do not have non-reserved seating options.
Hikari – This is the second-fasted train on the Tokaido Sanyo line, making some stops at smaller stations in addition to the main stations. The Hikari line is slightly cheaper, but still requires a small surcharge. Rail pass holders, however, do not need to pay anything extra.
Kodama – This is the slowest of the Tokaido Sanyo trains, stopping at all stations on the line. It is the cheapest option and often has at least three cars of unreserved seats. Often, the Kodama train gets held up at some stations while it waits for a Hikari or Nozomi train to pass on the same track.