We did not want to miss the Bullet Train on our trip to Japan! Even though I get awesome airline rates as an airline employee, we were willing to forgo this luxury to ride the bullet train both times we traveled from major metropolis to major metropolis.
The first time we rode the Bullet Train was from Hiroshima to Kyoto. 7 days later we took another Bullet Train from Kyoto to Tokyo. We had a great experience both times! We loved the speed, ease, and variety that riding the Bullet Train offered our family. It’s a much smoother experience than flying, from start to finish, though the speeds don’t differ much. Children aren’t as confined, strollers are allowed, and there is a lot more room to enjoy yourself. Our kids loved the experience, the lack of seat-belts, being able to see the moving landscape, the differences in cityscapes, walking down the aisle, and listening to the announcements and trying to pick out words they understood.
We spent a long time researching the Bullet Train before our trip. It’s confusing and it’s hard to know what Shinkansen even means. Is it the same as the JR? To answer all these questions, we put together a handy know-it-all guide for you to reference: 10 Things You Need To Know About Riding the Shinkansen. When it comes down to it, this is an easy experience full of excitement and Japanese culture.
If you click above, you’ll find the reference guide. On this post we’ll go over what each bullet point means in detail.
Bullets for the Bullet Train
- The Shinkansen is the Bullet Train
These words are interchangeable and synonymous. Shinkansen is Japanese, Bullet Train is English.
- JR (Japan Railway) operates the Shinkansen
JR is an acronym for Japan Railways Group. This group took control over the government owned railway lines and operate most of the lines available for public use. This includes both local electric trains, and the Bullet Trains. The JR lines can be found throughout the 6 regions in Japan, however, they are more prevalent in the larger, more populated cities.
- The JR pass allows you to ride any route not privately owned, including the Bullet Train
Basically, the JR pass is not good on every train, or line.
- Except for the Nozomi line Bullet Train; it is not included in the JR pass
The JR pass is not valid on the Nozomi line, but you can use the JR pass on other Bullet Trains. The most important thing to note about this, however, the Nozomi is the fastest Bullet Train. It’s not just the fastest, it also makes the least amount of stops.
- The JR pass doesn’t work for most lines outside of Tokyo
As mentioned earlier, the JR pass is not good on every train, or line. You’ll have a lot more options in the larger cities, and a lot less options in the smaller cities. In a city like Hiroshima, where every ride is a flat fee, your money is probably better spent paying the individual fares. In a city like Kyoto, which is a walking city, you may only take the trains to your initial stop, and your stop home at the end of the day.
- You do not need to purchase advance tickets
Tickets are available at the train station on the day of, or in advance. You have several trains to choose from, and several options to purchase the tickets. There are a lot of options to select between on the computer kiosks and it’s all a mix of English and Japanese.
We elected to go to the ticket booth to make sure it was done correctly. At the ticket booth, we used our app to translate in text: ‘Nozomi Hiroshima to Kyoto Non Reserved’. They’ll pick the next train for you, departing with enough time to find the loading dock, and take care of everything.
- You have to choose between Reserved seating, more $$, and Non Reserved seating, less $$
The non-reserved seating is located in the back of the train, cars 1-3 or potentially more. You must load the train from these bays. You can move between all of these cars, but you may not go to the reserved section. Cars are configured with two seats on the left side of the train, and three on the right. I wish we had experienced both, but alas our journey was relegated to the cheap section.
- There are bathrooms on the train
There are 3 bathrooms per train car, and the sink is outside the toilet. They are big, and nice, and of course they have warming toilet seats and a bidet.
- You can stow large luggage on the train
Along the length of each train is a luggage rack. It’s wide and can fit huge suitcases out of the way.
- You have to get on and get off quick
Prior to each stop, announcements will begin to play on repeat. The announcement will first be played in Japanese, and then in English. It will be accompanied by an electronic reader at the front of the car that displays the current stop, and the next scheduled stop. The second you hear the announcements begin, you need to start collecting your things. Keep your kids in front of you. Have one parent get off, then the kids, then the last parent. The trains keep a tight schedule, and do not stop for more than a minute or two, depending on how many people need to get off. Trains come every 10 minutes, so there is no time for dilly-dallying. Ain’t nobody got time for that, apparently.
Should You Purchase the JR Pass
The JR pass is so expensive. It’s only available for foreigners, and only available to purchase prior to your arrival in Japan. For a 7 day pass, you will spend ¥29,110YEN for a non-reserved ticket. That’s the equivalent of approximately $275, per person. And it’s not all inclusive. Children’s tickets are half that. It doesn’t include every train locally, and it doesn’t include the Nozomi. Alternatively, you can purchase a Nozomi Bullet Train ticket for approximately ¥13,000YEN. It will depend on your starting and stopping point, but no matter how you slice it, that’s half the price! While the local trains are going to run you $1-2 dollars per ride. There is nowhere to discount that price. We looked everywhere for discounts, coupons, or deals. Plain and simple: They don’t discount the JR pass.
Everyone will recommend buying the JR pass – except us. We just didn’t feel the benefit outweighed the cost. The relatively inexpensive daily fares were not a burden, plus the fact that we wanted to experience most cities by walking. Most importantly, we wanted to take the fastest train. We didn’t want to stop every second at every small city along the way.
What is your opinion? Do you agree that the JR pass isn’t the best way to travel through Japan? Did we miss the point entirely? Let us know in the comments!
Check out our other Life In Japan posts, including 10 Things You Need To Know About Riding the Shinkansen of course, Riding the Local Metro and JR with Kids, and How to Shower in a Japanese Tub as an American.