Being a first-timer to Japan, naturally, I would like to visit all the cliche and touristy places. The golden trifecta of Japan or the so-called “Golden Route” follows the Tokaido Road, with its roots from the Edo Period. Nowadays, this refers to Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka. These destinations are popular with first-timers to Japan. Throughout my virgin 11 nights trip, I covered Tokyo, Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya and Mt Fuji. I got into Japan via Tokyo. To get around the country, I will be using trains. JR have a very high-tech and well-established rail network. Travelling via train is the best way to get around the country. At the very top are the Shinkansen or the renowned bullet trains. These high-speed lines connect major cities in the country. The Shinkansen which has a top speed of 320 km/hr offers an efficient and comfortable way to travel. It may be confusing for first-time travellers. Let me share some of my experiences taking it.
There are two ways of booking Shinkansen tickets. Direct Bookings or using a rail pass like JR Pass. Direct Bookings refer to single-trip journeys where you simply get tickets for a specific route and train you want. The advantage of this is getting the specific trains that you want by booking your train and securing the ticket early online. It also allows you to get tickets for the Nozomi, the fastest train. You are not allowed to take the Nozomi when travelling on a JR Pass. This might be a good point to take note of if you are travelling during peak periods. I have constantly heard of trains being fully booked during the peak travelling period like the New Year Holidays. If you would like to book Shinkansen Tickets, I will recommend doing so via the Smart Ex app. It allows you to search for journeys and check the fares.
A search for a random date for an Ordinary Class Tokyo – Osaka ticket on the Hikari cost 14,200 Yen for Ordinary Class and 15,940 on the Green Class. You can book up to 1 month ahead.
The JR Pass is only available to foreign nationals who are visiting Japan under “Temporary visitor” status. Read more about who is eligible for the pass. There might be an issue exchanging for your rail pass if you entered the country via ABTC or other forms of Visa. I am not entirely sure about this. The JR pass allows you to take unlimited trains on the JR network for the period you bought. This includes the Shinkansen (Except Nozomi Trains). There are various categories of Shinkansen, with the Nozomi being the fastest and the slowest being the Kodama. This is due to the number of stops the train makes. For tourists visiting the major cities, the Hikari is the best when travelling using a JR Pass. For comparison purposes, a trip from Tokyo to Osaka takes 2 hours 22 mins on the Nozomi and 2 hours 53 mins on the Hikari.
You can get JR Pass for Ordinary Class or Green Class. Green Class is like the equivalent of the first class in European trains. You can get the JR Pass for 7, 14 or 21 days. Do some comparison and see if it is worthwhile for you before getting it. Usually, you have to take at least 2 or 3 Shinkansen to break even. A useful rule of thumb is that at the very least you need to take a round trip from Tokyo to Osaka Shinkansen to break even. I bought mine from Klook and got a discount after applying some promo codes. Do plan ahead as it can take up to 14 days for the exchange voucher to arrive.
After buying, you have 3 months to bring the exchange voucher to an office in Japan to exchange for the actual Rail Pass. You can’t travel with the exchange voucher alone! Check here for the locations to do the exchange. I did mine at one of the offices in Tokyo Station. You will then choose a date to start your JR Pass. It will be handy to have all the trains you want written so you can ask the staff to reserve a seat for you.
Tokyo station is huge and you will get lost. Do come here or at least transit here a couple of times before you take your first Shinkansen. This will reduce the chaos when you are dragging your bags along. We took the Yamanote Line from Shimbashi Station to Tokyo Station. Do remember to use your JR Pass instead of your IC Card. It is already valid and JR lines including the Yamamoto are covered even within the city. Every dollar counts!
We then transferred to the Shinkansen platforms. There are signs and it is rather easy to find. Do check the boards to see your train platforms. Be careful with the times as trains in Japan are super punctual. Don’t board the first train you see as it might not be the one you should be taking. The boards will also show where the Ordinary Class and Green Class cars are. They will also show where are the reserved and non-reserved seat cabins. If you have oversized baggage, you have to reserve a seat and a spot for your luggage. They classify oversized baggage as being over 160cm. Check here for more details.
Shinkansen Tokyo to Osaka Ordinary Class
This is the most well-known route and the classic one. Osaka and Tokyo are constantly on every visitor’s plans and most people will like to see them in one go. The Shinkansen is the easiest and most comfortable way to travel between the two cities. The sub 3 hours journey starts from Tokyo Station and will take me through Shinagawa, Shin-Yokohama, Shizuoka, Hamamatsu, Nagoya and Kyoto before pulling in at my stop Shin-Osaka. In total, it will be a 2 hours and 54 mins journey. Do note that some of the stations that the Shinkansen stop at, might not be the main train station of the city. Usually, the stations that the Shinkansen stop in have a “Shin” like Shin-Osaka and Shin-Kobe. These may require another transfer or be within walking distance of the metro.
I will be in the Ordinary Class. The seats are super comfy and spacious. It kind of reminds me of my train journeys in Taiwan where their high-speed rail is modelled after. In contrast to the trains in Europe, seats here are in a 2-3 configuration. Given how we were starting the journey at the terminus, it wasn’t difficult to get our ideal seats. I will share more on this later. Here are some pictures of the cabins.
The seats are comfy and make for a lovely journey. The seat is slightly narrower on the width aspect but leg space is very generous, more generous than European standards. The recline is amazing as well. The power outlets can be found on the armrest. The seats also come with hooks for your outerwear and you also have a huge spacious table.
I love how they have these pictograms behind the table that allows you to see where are the toilets, smoking room, etc. It makes it very clear. Wi-fi service is also available onboard.
Throughout the journey, staff will also come by with carts that sell all sorts of food and drinks. You can get bentos, snacks or drinks. They accept cash or IC cards.
Here are some pictures of the toilets. Very spacious and well maintained.
I love those huge windows. Trains journeys are one of my favourites. You can enjoy the gorgeous countryside views as you travel. You can admire it in your comfort schedule. There might be a surprise waiting for you if you plan your journey well! Check out this view!
The so-called “Mt Fuji seats” refers to seats on the right when you are travelling the Tokyo to Osaka direction and seats on the left in the other directions. If you have trouble communicating this when making seat reservations, just mention Mt Fuji seats to the staff.
Let me share about the storage area. The main storage areas are your leg rest area and overhead racks. This is also the reason why they require you to make reservations for oversized luggage. I am sure you will not want to lift those above your head onto the racks. This space behind the last rows of seats will be reserved for you.
Here are some pictures of the Green Class aka first class on the Shinkansen. They offer seats with more space in a 2-2 configuration. I feel that this is not necessary especially if you are travelling in groups or pairs. There were two of us and we got the whole aisle to ourselves too.
Furthermore, a point to note, all Green Class seats are reserved seatings only. Even when travelling on a rail pass like JR Pass, you do not have the flexibility to hop on any train of your fancy. That might not be good for travelling.
One more train experience clocked! Bucketlist checked! I have been wanting to try the Japan bullet trains after hearing so much about them. It is a super comfy way to get around. If the train journey is less than 4 hours, always choose it over the plane. Prices are on the pricey side for train travel with the quality and the fuss-free experience. Even when you look at the major cities and travel them in one shot, from the North to the South, Tokyo to Hiroshima will only take you 4 hours. Trains travels are miles ahead in Japan over any other countries that I have ever been to.
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