Riding the Shinkansen in Japan
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The Shinkansen, or Bullet Train
If there's one train that you should experience while in Japan, it's got to be the Shinkansen. As the fastest train in Japan and one of the fastest in the world, it takes you to your destination in just a flash. Especially for distances around 400/500 kilometres (about the distance between Tokyo and Osaka, for instance), the Shinkansen can be faster and more comfortable than an air plane because you don't have to be there ahead of time and wait for long. Also, you get to see a lot more of the country from the window. Make sure you book a window seat.
How to book the Shinkansen
You have to make a reservation if you want to ride the Shinkansen, either on the spot, or in advance. Booking in advance is advisable when you want to travel during Japanese holidays, because all of Japan wants to travel at those dates, so the train is super full. Outside Japanese holidays seat reservations are not mandatory, except for the Hayabusa, Komachi and Hayate trains on the Tohoku line.
Many tourists ride the Shinkansen with a JR pass. Here's everything you need to know about the JR Pass.
photo courtesy of ibtimes.co.uk
You can book either at a ticket desk, at a machine, or online.
Ticket Desk Reservations
You can make seat reservations personally at ticket offices of all major JR stations across Japan. Any shinkansen train can be reserved from any JR ticket office in Japan. There are special Shinkansen desks at some larger stations, but you can also visit the 'Byuu' (びゅう) counters for reservations when you have a Japan Rail Pass.
If there are long lines at the counter, machines provide a faster way to book. A few types of ticket machines have English menus as well. Unfortunately, Japan Rail Pass holders cannot use the vending machines for their seat reservations.
If you travel in the east of Japan, you can make use of the website of JR East. They operate an English website that allows regular travelers and Japan Rail Pass and JR East Pass holders to make seat reservations for the Tohoku, Yamagata, Akita, Joetsu and Nagano Shinkansen lines, but not for any other shinkansen lines. The other JR companies of Japan also operate websites, but unfortunately only for Japanese residents for now.
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