For first-time visitors to Japan, the Shinkansen transportation system has a reputation of being fast, but difficult to navigate. It’s not as though you can step out of immigration at Narita Airport and hop onto a bullet train going exactly where you need to go. And even once you find the nearest Shinkansen (bullet train) station, more than a few foreigners (and Japanese) have found themselves on the wrong train and had to double back. So what can you do to make riding this train easy?
Train sights on your route
Before you even arrive in Japan, it’s easy to research the rates, transfers, and timetables of all Shinkansen cars. Simply use Hyperdia. Once you decide where you’re going, from where you’re departing, how much you’re willing to pay, and have your ticket in hand; make your way to the station.
The Ticket Gate
Fortunately, there’s no wrong entrance for the ticket gates. If you’re transferring from a local train or subway, you will probably have to go through two sets of gates, but once you’re inside, you have access to every train departing north (Tokaido Line), south (Kyushu Line), east, and west (Sanyo Line).
Regular ticket holders can insert their tickets to be validated automatically in the gates. However, anyone uncertain or nervous can easily walk to one of the manned attendant booths and get tickets stamped manually; this is also necessary to inspect any Japan Rail Pass.
Find Your Platform
Like train stations around the world, Japan’s rail system displays the train number, time of departure, and destination on an electronic board next to the platform. This will alternate between Japanese and English. Even if you see a train heading to the same destination, leaving from the same platform at around the same time, it may not necessarily be yours; there are many different times of trains that offer express service to remote areas, and ones that make every single stop at every small Shinkansen station across the countryside.
Find Your Car
Look at your feet; there are numbers on the platform indicating where each car will stop, and where the entrance will be. You’ll have the options to purchase a reserved seat in a specific car at the ticket booth, but unless it’s a high travel time – Obon, New Years, Golden Week – an unreserved ticket is cheaper and more practical. There are regular cars, which sometimes include smoking and non-smoking sections, and Green Cars for premium seats (additional charge).
No one handles your bags but you. Your ticket should be kept on you, as agents will come through (sometimes more than once each trip) to inspect them. Wi-fi isn’t quite available on all trains just yet, but is accessible in most major stations. On the plus side, there is a snack and drink cart that comes by at regular intervals; help yourself to some green tea!
What if I miss my train?
Shogannai (it can’t be helped)! No big deal. Simply use your ticket to hop on the next one. Unless you have a reserved seat for a specific train, your ticket is valid on any train that day.