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Lunch on the train

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.

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Getting comfy and reading the announcements

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.

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Views from the train, suburbs

If you click above, you’ll find the reference guide. On this post we’ll go over what each bullet point means in detail.

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Trains A Coming!

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.
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Electronic reader board at the station
  • 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.
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Views from the train, city
  • 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.
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Views from the train, farmland
  • 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.
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Platform Signs
  • 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. 

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Views from the train, train yard

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!

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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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I think it it worth to buy th e pass, but it depends on your itinerary , i bought 14 days pass, to go from and to the airport, tokyo to nikkko round trip, tokyo to hskobe, hakone to Kyoto, kyoto to nsra and osaka then to Miyajima ,hiroshima then back to Tokyo. If i calculated it will save me some miney, buying tickets everytime plus free reserved seats.

    Im planing to try to forward my luggages from city to city as mush as i can.

    Buy what im scared about after reading your japan blog is trains with kids inside Tokyo, i would like if you give ne more advices , ibhave three yoi ng kids like you , and i dont want to miss my stop or get separated.
    What should i do with my stroller when i ride the train in tokyo?
    How i will prevent not to miss my stop?
    Thank you

    • There are electronic display screens on the trains above the doors indicating exactly where you are on the line. You’ll know when your stop is approaching and can prepare to get off. The people in Japan are very kind, but they don’t mind pushing and getting extremely close. Keep watch over kids by keeping one hand on your kids at all times. For our older kids we asked them to hold on to us and we kept track of them that way.
      The stroller can be wheeled right onto the train, and the kids can stay put in them. That makes it easy!
      We also assigned a child to a parent. So rather than both of us trying to keep track of all 3 kids, my husband watched the baby, and I kept track of the twins. We also made sure that each person kept their own ticket, and that we both had cash in case we did get separated. We also decided if we did get separated we would meet up at our final destination.
      Let us know if you have any more questions.

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