It is not so difficult to buy Shinkansen tickets at stations in Japan even if you don't speak Japanese. But when it comes to booking in English on the internet, it is practically impossible to book your Shinkansen seats without the help of agency (or friend in Japan). We explain the options and their pros and cons in this article. Let's start with the summary.
The facts and situations are complicated. Here's a quick summary at glance.
We explain each option in detail below. Let's start with the official Japan Railway websites.
The official English website to buy Shinkansen tickets is offered by JR East, one of the JR companies operating the eastern region trains of Japan. You can buy Shinkansen tickets which are operated by JR East through the site.
What you should know is that tickets for major Shinkansen lines serving big tourist destinations like Kyoto and Osaka are NOT available through this site, as they are operated by other JR companies. The most popular Tokaido Shinkansen that connects Japan's three largest metropolitan areas (Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka/Kyoto) is operated by Central Japan Railway Company (JR Tokai)*.
*Central Japan Railway Company has recently started their new online reservation system (offered in English too) in September 2017, however the IC card, which can only be purchased in Japan, has to be registered at a dedicated website alongside a credit card. As far as we can tell, this does not change the situation that reservation cannot be made (or at least very hard to make) outside Japan.
You can reserve the train lines below operated by JR East company at their official booking site in English.
Why does this happen? That is because the national Japan Railway company was divided into six independent companies by region in 1987, and their booking systems are silos and not connected to each other even now.
Then, you may be thinking of buying Tokaido Shinkansen tickets through the Central Japan Railway Company's website. However, Central Japan Railway Company (JR Tokai), does NOT have English booking website. It also requires online purchasers to have its branded credit card just to buy Shinkansen tickets online.
So, the next official option for you to book Shinkansen tickets in advance is to simply go to a train station after arriving in Japan.
We strongly recommend booking your Shinkansen seats at stations in Japan, if your schedule and patience allows.
JR's ticketing staff usually speak enough English to help you find, reserve and buy right tickets. You might have to wait in line for a while in a busy time of the day, but it's the easiest way to book your Shinkansen tickets.
The obvious downside is that you can not book your seats in advance, and you have to physically go to the station. When you arrive in Japan and reach the station, you may see a long line like this picture/article: 90-minute long line at JR EAST Travel Service Center at Narita Airport. In addition, seats may be sold out (which happens often in Japan for peak seasons) for busy travel seasons. If you want to know more about busy travel seasons, read our article on The Best Time to Travel on Shinkansen: Peak, Regular and Off-season. Local people know this so that they reserve their seats much ahead of their travel.
We know that family or group travelers want to securely reserve their seats and travel together. However, you cannot reserve seats/tickets through JR official services before coming to Japan. If you have friends in Japan, consider asking them to book tickets for you at a station, and buy him/her a dinner to show your Arigato(appreciation).
Then, let's examine travel agents options now.
There are a small number of major Japanese online travel agents who can sell Japanese train tickets for you. But there is a catch: they sell tour packages and you have to book the whole trip including things like hotel, etc. And tour packages include non-reserved seats, not reserved seat tickets.
Unlike sophisticated air travel reservation systems, train booking takes a lot of manual labor for agencies to complete. Therefore, they don't want to just sell trains to you, but the whole trip because selling train tickets alone are very low margin.
For reserved seat tickets, things are a little more complicated. Inventory of reserved seats must be managed carefully; ideally real-time, at least by daily batch processing. Connecting to silo JR systems is practically impossible and no agents have real-time inventory information. As a result, online travel agents do not handle reserved seats for a small fee.
No wonder nobody's offering Shinkansen booking online. Let's move on to offline brick-and-mortar channels to booking your Shinkansen tickets.
If you want to reserve Shinkansen tickets from outside of Japan before your departure, you'd think that you can use brick-and-mortar travel agencies. However, JTB, the largest travel agency in Japan, do not sell Shinkansen tickets alone outside Japan, though they sell JR Pass and tour packages to international tourists. This is an official answer from JTB reservation center.
There could be an unofficial service menu at local JTB shops. According to this article, you can ask local JTB shops outside Japan to reserve a ticket, but JTB charged US$76 per ticket! The $76 came from $56 service fee plus $20 courier fee to deliver your ticket to your hotel in Japan.
Well, you can have a nice Sushi dinner for you and your friend for $76!
* The cost information is from this article in 2011.
We believe most people do not want to pay an additional $76 per ticket. Here is an online and cost-effective way to book your Shinkansen tickets.
You can buy Shinkansen tickets or any train tickets in Japan through our website, Shinkansen-Ticket.com. We charge around $20+ per ticket, including free shipping to anywhere in Japan.
We understand your need to secure your tickets/seats even during peak travel periods. You want to make sure your family and friends can sit together during Shinkansen rides? And, preferably, you would like to have seats with beautiful Mt. Fuji view? Our agents will securely reserve your seats with the best seating combination from available options. Book your tickets from us now!
You can book Shinkansen/Bullet train tickets online here. We purchase tickets for you and deliver to your hotel. Reserve your tickets/seats without the hassle.
We started this service in April 2016 just because we were asked to buy Shinkansen tickets by our international friends visiting Japan. We have served hundreds of customers and processed thousands of orders since then.
Regular seats used on Reserved cars and Unreserved cars of Shinkansen. Consider it as "economy class" seat.
Better seats with more space than ordinary seats. All Green Seats are reserved only. Consider it as "business class" seats.
Your seat is reserved and secured when you book your tickets. Head to the station with a peace of mind.
Seats are the same as Ordinary Seat.
Better seats and free blankets. Popular among Japanese business persons, executives and people who
Know as "First Class" of Shinkansen seats. Only available on Hokuriku and Tohoku Shinkansen lines.
You can take any open seats in unreserved cars of any train on the departure date. (No departure time will be indicated on your tickets.)
The best seat type if your priority is the cost and are traveling during less-crowded season/time.
For further information and photos, please visit official page at http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/ticket/types.html