One of the most famous modes of transport from Japan is the Shinkansen, or bullet train, which has lines that stretch all over Japan. It seems almost like a rite of passage to ride one, being almost mythologized by those outside of Japan. Well, here’s a brief glimpse into my experience and some tips so you can avoid some first-timer mistakes that I made!
Buying Your Ticket
First and foremost, you actually need two tickets: The limited express/express ticket and the regular fare ticket. You can’t board the train without the regular fare ticket and you can’t go anywhere without your express ticket, so both are required. Why they aren’t one ticket is a good question, but one I don’t have an answer to.
You can buy them at most JR ticketing counters or via the ticketing machines. I did the ticketing machine, which has many foreign language options, English included, and I had no difficulty finding my stations, picking my seats, and buying return tickets. I did, however, miss buying the regular fare ticket, so when you’re prompted for that option, buy both! I accidentally only purchased the express ticket without buying the local fare ticket, meaning I had to go back and ask the service counter to help me out. It was super easy to get, though, so even if you forget, you can get help to buy your tickets.
Google Maps can be helpful with figuring out where you can go and the fare on the Shinkansen (if you have a specific path in mind) and JR East has an English website where you can purchase tickets online. We purchased ours at good old Kawagoe station. The staff is always very friendly and helpful, especially since we speak to each other in stilted English and Japanese. They really are great there!
Traveling on the Shinkansen
When you board the train, you’ll need to insert both your regular fare and Shinkansen ticket into the turnstile. If you came from another station to your Shinkansen station on a JR line, you’ll need to insert the ticket or swipe your Passmo/Suica card before putting in your Shinkansen tickets. We found this out the hard way, as our JR East train left us in the JR area, but we hadn’t yet tapped our Passmo cards again to pay for our fare to the Shinkansen station in Omiya. To sum up: Pay your local fare first, then put in your Shinkansen tickets.
My wife and I opted for the regular car, as it was the cheapest option and we weren’t going too terribly far by Shinkansen standards (only about a one-hour trip). To be honest, the seats are super nice and you can’t go wrong with what you select. We chose reserved seats so we wouldn’t have to worry about being separated. One thin you should note is that the Shinkansen waits for no man. No sooner had we gotten on and taken off our coats the train began to leave the station. Being exceptionally quick about getting on and off is the norm. None of this lallygagging like you do on a local train!
The cars themselves have a small area near the doors where you can store larger bags and overhead storage where you can put smaller bags (similar in sizing to the overhead racks on the local trains). Every so often, a stewardess will come by and you can purchase drinks, snacks, and souvenirs from your Shinkansen journey.
The actual motion of the train wasn’t of much concerns; you go very fast and I had a friend who experienced motion sickness. I suppose if you’re not comfortable in a moving vehicle, this won’t be the most pleasant of experiences for you, but for me, the average traveller, I didn’t experience any discomforts because of the motion or speed of the train.
Japan Guide has a wonderful Shinkansen guide that really helped me out on my own trip so I highly recommend checking it out! The convenience was marvelous: It was fast, easy, and hassle-free. It’s definitely doing at least once!