How to Buy Shinkansen Tickets – Online or in Japan

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Helen Foster

The recent 70 percent rise in the price of the Japan Rail Pass makes it more likely that you’ll be trying to use the Shinkansen by buying individual tickets for each trip – the good news is, it’s a lot easier to do this than you might think. You can buy Shinkansen tickets easily in Japan – or, book them online in advance. Here’s how to do both.

Quick Summary

You don’t need to buy Shinkansen tickets in advance as it’s easy to buy them on the day once in Japan; But you might want advance tickets if you’re traveling at a busy time, in a large group, or with large luggage – and I’ll talk more about that below.

If you do want to buy tickets in advance, then you can buy them from the Smartex app, from the individual Japan Rail companies directly, or from Klook – each method has pros and cons which I’ll also cover.

But first, let’s clear up a myth…

Shinkansen train crosses a bridge with Mount Fuji in the background

Article by Helen Foster. Disclosure: Some links in this post are affiliate links. See our Affiliate Disclosure.

Wait, You Don’t NEED A JR Pass?

A big misconception people have about getting on trains in Japan is that you have to have a JR Pass to travel – you don’t. Anyone can buy a single JR Ticket for the Shinkansen and ride it to wherever they need to go.

The reason for the JR Pass was that Shinkansen travel isn’t cheap and it was a great way for tourists to travel for less.

With the old pricing, it was cost-effective to buy the JR Pass if you were just doing one long return trip and a couple of day trips, however, that’s no longer the case, and for most people, buying individual Shinkansen tickets will be the cheapest way to get between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka (although you might want to look into the Kansai Passes once you get there – we explain those here).

So, now you know why you’re going to be buying Shinkansen tickets, let’s look at how you can do it.

How to Buy Shinkansen Tickets in Japan

Buying Shinkansen tickets once you’re in Japan is pretty easy. The first way is to go to the ticket office – known as a Midori no Madoguchi – in the station and do it in person. In big stations, there will be dedicated Shinkansen offices, but you can buy Shinkansen tickets from any JR station ticket office.

At the counter, you’ll be able to book your train, choose your seats, and, book the area at the back of each carriage for oversized luggage if you need it. They will take cash and credit cards. The staff might not be fluent in English, but, if it’s a simple journey like Tokyo to Kyoto, everything will be fine.

The dedicated Shinkansen and JR Line Ticket booking office at Tokyo Station. This is where to buy shinkansen tickets in Japan, but you can also buy them online in advance.

Or, you can buy from a ticket machine. These all have buttons in English and increasingly they take major credit cards. So long as you know what station you’re leaving from, what station you’re going to, and, roughly what time you want to leave or arrive you have all the information you need.

If you’re traveling in a reserved-seat car you’ll also be able to pick your seats while you book.

Tickets at ticket offices and ticket machines go on sale a month in advance of the departure date.

How to Book Shinkansen Tickets Online in Advance

While buying tickets once you arrive in Japan is super easy some of you might prefer to book your tickets in advance for various reasons – and the good news is, it’s never been easier to do so. Here are your options.

Buying Shinkansen Tickets from Klook

Super easy as you can do it from your app or your computer and their system supports all foreign credit cards.

They offer the widest network of offshore advance bookers with over 2900 train routes – they also include the Narita Express, and some smaller lines that are popular with tourists (like Kawaguchiko for Mount Fuji) so you can book journeys other than the bullet train.

They will deliver your tickets by QR Code and then you go to the station and pick up the printed ticket and your seat reservation from either a ticket office or print it out at a ticket machine.

Hand holding a blue Reserved Seat Ticket for the Hikari Shinkansen in Japan. A blurred out bullet train is in the background of the picture

You can make a booking 90 days in advance and your booking will be confirmed 25 days before your date of travel. However, you’re better to book within 30 days of your travel as you’ll then get confirmation within 48 hours.

Klook does charge a small admin fee so booking your tickets with them does cost a little bit more, you’re paying for convenience and low-stress booking!

Find the advance Shinkansen booking page here – it also lists some of the most common routes like Tokyo to Kyoto and the Narita Express

Using the Smart Ex App

This app works to book the Tokaido Sanyo Shinkansen which runs between Tokyo and Hakata and all the bullet train stops in between (so that’s Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, etc). It’s very easy to book and you can choose your seat.

After you’ve booked you can either go to a Smart Ex ticket machine or a ticket office and pick up your ticket and your seat reservation. Or you can now add your QR code to your Apple wallet and use that to get through the gate.

The cost is the same as buying directly from the rail companies. And you can book a month in advance. You also get confirmation straight away.

IF you book shinkansen tickets in advance on the Smart Ex app you'll get a white piece of paper showing your seat details. Photo is of a hand holding this at the shinkansen platform

When I used this in May you also needed to collect a piece of paper after scanning a printed QR code – this had your seat details on it. I’m not sure if this is the case now as they have upgraded to integrate the tickets with Apple Wallet, but, you get full instructions when you are sent your ticket details.

If you do still need this, the gate should spit it out after you’ve scanned your QR Code – if it doesn’t go to the ticket window and they will print one like the one above.

The downside is that like many online services in Japan, SmartEx requires you to have a credit card that is 3D secure enabled so it doesn’t always work for everyone. It’s also not available in every country – right now, for example, it’s not supported in Europe.

Find the app in your app store, or see more here.

Booking Shinkansen Online from Japan Rail

The benefit of doing this is that you can choose your seats, but, the downside is that each train line – JR East, JR West, and JR Central offers a separate booking system which can get a bit confusing if you don’t know who you’re controlled by.

If you’re traveling from Tokyo to Osaka and Kyoto then you’ll need to book with JR West. Same if you’re going from Osaka/Kyoto to Hiroshima. If you’re going from Tokyo to Nagano or Sendai, then you’ll book via JR East.

Even with that heads up the systems are a little bit clunky, but you can choose your seats and you can book the seats with luggage.

To book on JR East click here

If your journey is covered by JR West, then book their tickets here.

The Sagano Romantic Train pulling into it's station in Arashiyama Kyoto. It's an old fashioned looking train with a red and black livery.

One thing booking direct is very good for is booking specialty trains like the Sagano Romantic Train (above), the Sunrise Sleeper train, or the Hello Kitty Shinkansen as they let you book by train name rather than by route.

Again, not every credit card is supported by the JR system so make sure you have 3D secure enabled and tell your credit card company that you’re making a foreign purchase.

When Should You Buy Shinkansen Tickets in Advance?

There are a few reasons why it might be a good idea.

You Just Want a Confirmed Itinerary

Japan is a big country and there’s a lot to do and see. If you’re only on a short trip you probably want to know exactly what time you’re going to be leaving one city and what time you’ll arrive at the next one ready to sightsee.

While you can still plan all of that without booking tickets (see our guide on using Navitime to do this) there’s still an element of doubt if you haven’t got your trains sorted – and, while it’s true that trains are frequent so you might only need to wait 10 or 15 minutes if the one you want is full, it’s still an added stress that maybe you decide you don’t need on your holiday.

You’re Going from Plane to Train

If you want to jump on the Narita Express into Tokyo or catch a shinkansen within a couple of hours of your flight, you perhaps don’t want to deal with negotiating ticket offices, ticket machines, or queues, when tired from your trip. Booking your seats in advance means you know what train you’re getting on and just have to pick up your seat reservation to do it.

White nose of a shinkansen train pulling into the station in Japan

However, do make sure you check ticket change and refund options carefully in case your flight is delayed and you miss your original connection and always make sure you allow enough time for delays at immigration or baggage reclaim.

You’re Traveling in a Big Group

If you’re traveling as a family or a large group of friends and want to sit together, then booking your ticket – and seats – in advance gives you more time to ensure you’re all sat together. Klook doesn’t allow you to pick your seats but you can book them via SmartEx and the Rail Companies.

You’re Traveling in a Busy Period

There are three times when being able to book your Shinkansen tickets in advance is a definite advantage – if you’re traveling around Golden Week (April 29-May 6 give or take a few days), Obon, which occurs in mid-August and, around Christmas and New Year.

These are times when many Japanese people are also traveling on trains and seats become more limited. If you’re traveling in these times, particularly the public holidays around Golden Week, I’d suggest booking your tickets as far in advance as you can (see more about Golden Week travel here).

If you Have Large Bags

If you’re traveling with oversized luggage, or if you can’t lift your bag onto the overhead rack, it’s better to book in advance.

As I explain in our post on the Shinkansen luggage rules, bags over 160cm (if you add up the length, width, and height) are classed as oversized bags on the Shinkansen and they need to travel in a special area – and there are only a few seats available that have that area.

Illustration of a green suitcase on a pink background. Lines run alongside the case saying height, width and depth to show how to measure your luggage for the bullet train

However, do note, that because you don’t choose your seats with Klook, you can’t book these using their service although it is available via SmartEx and the Rail Companies themselves.

If you book your tickets via Klook and then find yourself carrying more than you thought, you can go to the station and pay a small supplement to take your bags on the train, although you might not be sitting next to them.

Watch Out: If You’re Ending Up at a Small Station

Not every single station is available via Klook or SmartEx so if you’re trying to go to, say, Bunny Island (Okunoshima) from Fukuyama, you might feel more comfortable booking this at the JR Office who should be able to help you with the whole journey.

The other option is to book the bullet train section in advance, which is the one that’s likely to be busiest, and then buy a ticket for the local section once you leave the bullet train, or you could use an IC Card like Suica, Icoca or Pasmo on this segment.

You can use Navitime to plan your journey and time all your connections. If you haven’t used this before, have a look at our guide to using Navitime here.

So, that’s the basics you need to know about booking Shinkansen tickets in advance, or in Japan, but if you do have any more questions, please head over to our Facebook group and we’ll do our best to answer them.

Who Writes This Blog?

My name is Helen Foster, and I’m a journalist and author. My travel articles have appeared in publications including The Australian, RAC Horizons, Jetstar Magazine, Sainsbury’s Magazine, and more.

I’ve traveled to Japan five times before- solo and with my partner – and I’ve just returned from trip six in June 2023. So, everything here is pretty up to date.