I’ve been on the bullet train (Shinkansen) several times in Japan and I can tell you that it’s an experience you don’t want to miss. It’s a safe and relaxing ride that usually lasts for 2 – 4.5 hours. Endless breathtaking scenery for photo opportunities will keep you clicking your camera. A late-night or early morning train is a fantastic way to get countryside photos.
While it’s exciting to think about your bullet train experience, plan your bullet train rides before coming to Japan. A good plan will allow you to buy your ticket, easily find the station, know which track to board the train, and where to stand before boarding. Without speaking the local language it’s going to be difficult to ask these questions after you arrive.
Bullet trains offer a close look at some of the natural sites in Japan. Have your camera ready!
- Spring – The cherry blossoms bloom in March and April. My personal favorite.
- Summer – Summer green and rice fields. Best time to see Mount Fuji on the Tokyo to Osaka train.
- Autumn – Autumn colors are vivid on any train ride. End of November till early December in central and southern Japan. September in Northern Japan and mountain ranges in the west.
- Winter – Snow-covered areas in northern and western Japan are simply breathtaking by train.
Japan Rail Pass
The most cost-effective way to ride the bullet train is the Japan rail pass. See my review of the Japan Rail Pass here. Be sure to buy the Japan Rail Pass before coming to Japan because you can only buy it at certain venues here and it cost a lot more after arriving in Japan.
The alternative is several expensive and confusing tickets instead of one low price ticket that covers almost all JR (Japan Rail) trains.
Time of the Day
Bullet trains are crowded more than usual at early morning and evening when people are going to and returning from work.
Peak Travel Season
When planning a travel date remember to keep in mind the peak season for bullet train travel. Book sooner rather than later or you’ll probably be in for a shock.
I rode the bullet train one time when it was peak season. The only seats that were left were on the unreserved car. I was going from Yamagata to Tokyo which is a 3-hour trip. When I entered the car I found that all seats were full and people had started standing in the aisle. I stood 2.5 of the 3-hour journey and then had a 6-hour flight to the Philippines. My legs were stiff and sore when I arrived.
See my video of a Japanese Bullet Train gathering speed then passing another bullet train here.
Prices for the bullet train, airfare (international and domestic), hotels, and Airbnb go up. Plan your trip as early as possible to keep the cost down and ensure a seat reservation. Six months in advance is recommended.
- New Years and Hatsumode (first Shinto shrine visit of the new year)
- January 1st to January 4th (different dates depending on area).
- Japanese people go to shrines and temples to place their wishes for the new year and pray for a good year. They usually, do this in groups.
- Visits can be to local shrines and temples but millions will visit popular shrines and temples because they have a few days off.
- Spring Vacation or Cherry Blossom Season
- March 21st to April 5th (different dates depending on area).
- School ends the third week in March and spring vacation begins.
- Cherry blossom season starts late March through the end of April. Cherry blossoms last one week but start at different dates throughout Japan.
- Anywhere popular to see cherry blossoms are going to be packed with tourists and Japanese. Many parks will hold a Cherry Blossom Festival.
- Golden Week
- Late April to early May (different days each year)
- Four different national holidays in a row.
- Several companies are closed or allow most workers to have time off.
- Busiest travel period in Japan
- Large crowds wherever you go
- Summer break or Obon
- Middle of August
- Not a national holiday.
- Festivals in every part of Japan.
- Japanese travel back to the area their family came from.
- Read my Obon article here.
So Very Clean
Trains in Japan are clean and always look brand new. I’ve traveled to several countries and been on several trains but Japan trains by far are the cleanest and most relaxing. When the bullet train reaches its last destination (always on time) the passengers leave and the cleaning crew boards.
The cleaning crew cleans the entire train in just 7 minutes. That’s right, 7 minutes. What can they possibly do in 7 minutes? Let’s take a look and find out.
Start to 1 1/2 minutes
All large trash items are removed and all overhead/luggage racks and seats are checked for items the passenger may have left.
1 1/2 to 3 minutes
Manual rotate seats and sweep dirt and trash into the middle aisle.
Auto-rotate all seats forward to face trains new direction.
3 to 5 minutes
Change any dingy seat covers
Clean all seatback trays
Open curtains or raise window shades
5 to 6 minutes
Sweep the Isles
Remove trash and trash bags
6 to 7 minutes
Quality check to ensure everything is clean
When the cleaning crew is done they assemble at the train side and bow to the new passengers.
In just a few minutes the next bullet train will arrive and the process will begin again.
Check out my luggage guide here.
Some bullet train routes are charging more for large luggage. Here’s a video describing some of the latest changes.
If your luggage has overall dimensions of 160cm (5.25 feet) you will need to make a reservation or you’ll be charged a fee.
Each person can bring only 2 pieces of luggage.
Check out my Japanese culture page here to review train etiquette.
Have you taken the bullet train in Japan? Tell your story below in the comments section.
Have any questions about the Japan bullet train? Please ask below in the comments section.