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Travel tips

Everything you need to know about traveling on the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train

Apr 18, 2024 by The Go Ahead Tours Team

We’ll never run out of reasons to visit Japan, one of the most spectacular travel destinations out there. From its vast history and captivating traditions to its sumptuous cuisine and eye-catching design scene, the country will thrill you. Our immersive Japan tours are built to show off every facet of local culture, which is why most of our itineraries include taking the iconic Shinkansen, or the Japanese bullet train—a shining example of Japanese innovation. These high-speed engineering marvels can run up to 200 miles per hour and operate on a vast network that efficiently connects the many corners of the Japanese archipelago. The impressive combination of safety, comfort, and speed makes the Shinkansen the best way to travel around Japan. (For instance, it will get you from Tokyo to Kyoto—roughly 285 miles apart—in just over two hours.)

On our Japan tours, the logistics of taking the Shinkansen will be taken care of for you. But if you’re looking for some pre-trip insight on high-speed trains in Japan, read on, because, as staffer Tom tells us, “Other countries certainly have impressive networks of high-speed rail, but none will match the speed, cleanliness, reliability, and safety of the Shinkansen.”

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What is the Shinkansen bullet train?

The history

What makes it so fast?

Know before you go

Trips that include a ride on the Shinkansen

What is the Shinkansen (or Japanese bullet train)?

The high-speed train in Japan was created to make local life as efficient as possible. With nine different lines linking nearly every corner of the country, the bullet train is the preferred mode of transport between many destinations in Japan. There are actually three types of bullet trains: The fast trains make limited stops between main stations—say, from Tokyo to Osaka. The semi-fast trains add a few more stops to the itinerary. And, finally, the local trains stop at every station and are often used by daily commuters. Many of our Japan tours feature a ride on the fastest bullet train in Japan not only because of convenience but also so our travelers can experience one of the most spectacular ways to travel by rail anywhere in the world. To us, traveling by Japanese bullet train is one of the must-have experiences in Japan.

Go Ahead staffer Tom has taken the Shinkansen multiple times. He’s convinced it’s the most reliable and safest public transport mode in the world and that it reflects Japan as a whole. “The attention to detail is stunning,” he said. “Train departure times are calculated down to the second, train cleaning crews scour the train in just seven minutes between stops, and safety systems are world-class.”

Discover the Shinkansen

What’s the history of the Japanese bullet train?

Did you know that when it debuted in 1964, the Tokaido Shinkansen made Japan the first country in the world to introduce a high-speed train system? The original plans for the Shinkansen started well before the 1960s, however, as land for the buildout was acquired as early as the 1930s. Japan wanted a high-speed train system to connect Tokyo to other parts of the country, especially as the nation was beginning to experience rapid economic growth and the existing train system was becoming extremely congested. The Tokaido Shinkansen connected three of the country’s biggest cities: Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka. Sixty years later, that line is still among the most widely used in the network and one of the busiest high-speed connections in the world. In the 2022 fiscal year, the Tokaido Shinkansen alone carried 134 million passengers. Today, the Shinkansen travels on a network of more than 1,830 miles of train tracks.

Explore Japan on the bullet train

What makes the Japanese bullet train so fast?

Because of how fast the Japanese bullet train travels, it used to make a loud BOOM! sound on its way out of tunnels. This caused quite the noise disturbance in surrounding communities, so engineers had to redesign the trains to try to eliminate the tunnel boom. The solution was to shape the train like a kingfisher’s beak, with a long, narrow nose that would part the air as the train moved through it. Not only did this address the noise issue, but the redesign allowed the Japanese bullet train to travel even faster.

An aerodynamic body is just one of the features that makes it possible for the Japanese bullet train to travel as quickly as it does. Wider train tracks with no sharp curves also allow the Shinkansen to travel faster, as well as an Automatic Train Control system that receives speed information directly from the track. Although Japan’s bullet train speed of 200 miles per hour might sound super-fast to us, Japan Railways Group actually has other trains that can go even faster: A maglev train that has been in development can go up to 375 miles per hour. It’s not part of the passenger fleet right now, but, who knows? Maybe you’ll get to experience that thrilling piece of technology on one of our future Japan tours!

Experience the speed for yourself

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What you need to know about taking the Japanese bullet train

Many of our trips to Japan include a ride on the Shinkansen, and most of the logistics, like scheduling and booking the train, will be managed by your Tour Director. But there are details about the train experience that you should know ahead of time:

  • The train is very punctual. It’s widely known that the average delay time for the Shinkansen is less than a minute. So, you’ll want to arrive at the train station and platform well in advance of your train’s departure time. According to staffer Stephanie, “The biggest challenge with the bullet train is that you only have about two minutes to board the train before the doors close and it starts to move again.”
  • There’s not a lot of space for luggage. Yes, there is space for some luggage but not much. Staffer Tom, who has witnessed various passengers struggle to fit their luggage into the Shinkansen, recommends packing light. Plus, if you’re on our Japan tours, we ship your larger pieces of luggage to the next destination, which means you’ll only need to carry your necessities onto the high-speed trains in Japan.
  • On-board food has been largely discontinued. It used to be that passengers could buy food on the bullet train, but on many of them, that’s no longer possible. For longer journeys, if time permits, you should buy food in the train station in your city of departure. Happily, Japanese train stations are fantastic for food shopping. Staffer Tom’s hot tip? “Get a bento box in the train station prior to departure.” Popular in Japan, these single-portion boxed meals consisting of several different foods are also convenient for train travel.
  • Try to snag a window seat for the best views. Taking the Japanese bullet train allows for some fantastic sightseeing, as the landscapes it travels through are quite beautiful. The train ride between Tokyo and cities like Kyoto and Osaka often allows you the opportunity to get some incredible views of Mount Fuji. “If you are really hoping for a window view, you can probably ask the Tour Director ahead of time; they do the seat assignments,” said staffer Stephanie. “But the group is always helpful in getting the good shot from the window and sharing in the Go Ahead mobile app’s group chat.”
  • Be courteous. Like anywhere else in Japan, it’s important to be mindful of your surroundings and to keep noise levels at a minimum. This applies on the bullet trains, too. “Train staff asked that people be quiet and remain in their seats when not using the bathrooms, so be respectful of other travelers and enjoy the ride,” said staffer Stephanie.
Ride on the Shinkansen

4 tours you can book that include riding on the Shinkansen

1. Japan: Kyoto, the Japanese Alps & Tokyo

Why you should book this tour: This spectacular 14-day itinerary will get you to three of Japan’s most thrilling cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. You also get to venture to destinations that most visitors don’t often get to see—including the Japanese Alps, where you’ll explore Chubu-Sangaku National Park and Kamikōchi, an incredibly picturesque and remote valley surrounded by snowcapped mountains.

2. Highlights of Japan: Tokyo to Kyoto

Why you should book this tour: First-time visitors love seeing bucket list attractions on this 10-day trip to Tokyo, Osaka, and Nara. In Tokyo, you’ll get to experience the hustle and bustle of Shibuya Crossing (it’s one of the world’s busiest pedestrian intersections) and pay your respects at Meiji Shrine. In Kyoto, you’ll marvel at countless temples, and in Nara, you’ll see the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue. If you want more Japan, take the extension to Hiroshima and Osaka, where you’ll get to fill up on history and street food.

3. Japan for Solo Travelers: Tokyo, Mt. Fuji & Kyoto

Why you should book this tour: From the big-city energy of Tokyo to the majestic beauty of Mount Fuji to the ethereal elegance of Kyoto, this immersive itinerary brings you the best of Japan with the added bonus of exploring alongside fellow solo travelers. Can you imagine a more thrilling trip on which to make brand-new travel buddies than this nine-day tour of Japan?

4. South Korea & Japan: Seoul to Tokyo

Why you should book this tour: We understand that going to Asia is a big commitment, so why not hit two powerhouse Asian destinations on one unforgettable 15-day adventure? You can take a kimchi-making class in Seoul before taking Korea’s own high-speed train to Gyeongju, where you’ll tour Bulguksa Temple with a monk as your guide. Then, it’s off to Japan, where the allure of Fukuoka and Nagasaki (as well as classic Tokyo and Kyoto) awaits.

Ready for the high-speed ride of your life on a trip to Japan? Experience the Shinkansen bullet train on one of our Japan tours.

Know before you go
About the author | The Go Ahead Tours Team
We’re a team of passionate travel experts, dedicated to helping people explore the world. From inspiring stories to tips for an amazing trip, the topics we cover are all about getting you out there and making discoveries.

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