Each Shinkansen has its own name that allows aficionados to tell which line it is running on and how often it will stop until it reaches its destination.
Here are a few pointers to help you understand how the network is organized and the names of all the bullet trains.
TWO MAIN SHINKANSEN LINES
First of all, it is important to know that the Shinkansen network is divided in 2 sectors: one that goes from Tokyo to Kagoshima (Kyushu), itself divided in 3 successive main lines, the Tokaido line, the San'yo line and the Kyushu Shinkansen line.
The second sector, which also starts from Tokyo, but goes north along the Tokyo-Aomori axis, with branches that run inland, going as far as Nagano, Niigata, Shinjo and Akita.
THE DIFFERENT TRAINS ON EACH LINES
On each Shinkansen line there are express, semi express and local trains. They all bear a different name.
For example, the one linking Tokyo to Osaka on the Tokaido Shinkansen line is called the Nozomi (It's the fastest train, but keep in mind that the Japan Rail Pass does not give access to it). On the same line, the Hikari stops at 1 to 4 train stations more than the Nozomi and is available for Japan Rail Pass holders, as is the Kodama which stops at all train stations.
It is a similar idea on the Shinkansen line that goes North to Aomori.
The Hayabusa leaves from Tokyo and only serves the following train stations : Omiya, Sendaï, Morioka, Hachinohe (only certain trains), and Shin-Aomori.
The Hayate, the second fastest, stops at 1 to 4 stations more than the Hayabusa.
Then the Yamabiko, a slower train that goes as far as Morioka, and then the Nasuno, with an even shorter route ending at Koriyama.
THE MEANING BEHIND THE SHINKANSEN'S NAMES
What is the meaning behind these names? Do they help us understanding the destination and speed of the different trains? Yes and no.
It does when the name conjures up the idea of speed. It is easy to understand that the Hayabusa (peregrine falcon) or the Hayate (gust of wind) are faster than the Yamabiko (moutain spirit).
It also does when the name refers to a cultural element of the region crossed. For instance, the Komachi, that serves Akita, is named after a poetess who is said to have lived there.
When buying a Shinkansen ticket it is good to know that the total includes two elements: a basic fee depending on the destination and an extra 'express' fee that depends on the speed of the Shinkansen used.
FOR THE JAPAN RAIL PASS HOLDERS
The Japan Rail Pass holders can of course use all these Shinkansens except the Nozomi and the Mizuho that are the fastest express trains on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen lines, and for which you will have to pay the integral fee.
All the JR lines are very practical but the Tokaido line, linking Tokyo and Kyoto, the new and the ancient capitals of Japan, is the line most frequently used by the Japan Rail Pass holders.