How to Reserve Seats on the Train in Japan
Reserving seats serves as a great option for travelers in order to insure the optimal means of commute on Japan's famous railways, especially during the busy travel times during Spring, Fall, and Few Years. Read up on an in-depth guide to the many ways of reserving your train seats in Japan.
What are the general guidelines for reserving a seat on the Shinkansen?
The Shinkansen, or bullet train, springs to the top of the list when discussing means of traveling around Japan. Providing high-speed, comfortable rides throughout the country, the Shinkansen is popular with first-time visitors, seasoned travelers, and people living with Japan alike, especially with its ease of access with the Japan Rail Pass that one can order before even arriving in the country.
With this popularity, reserving seats on the Shinkansen ahead of time is a common practice. This is especially recommended during peak travel times, such as Spring, Fall, and New Years, and not just for bullet trains, but for some Express Trains as well. For travelers and local people returning home alike, it is often required to book a seat on the number of rail lines that leave from the airport. (This includes the Narita Express from Narita to Tokyo, and the Haruka Limited Express Rail from Kansai Airport to and from Kyoto and Osaka).
There are a number of seat varieties available in trains in Japan, largely separated into reserved seats and non-reserved seats. As evident by the name, reserved seats are pre-determined for riders. Non-reserved seats are open to riders and are free to taken on a first-come-first-serve basis. Typically, individual cars on the Shinkansen are either fully reserved seats or non-reserved seats and such will be displayed inside each car. Making reservations for seats when using a Japan Rail Pass is free, allowing travelers to save even further. However, for travelers without a Japan Rail Pass, it will cost a bit more to book a seat than for non-reserved free seating.
Also, travelers with oversized luggage are required to make special reservations for seats with access to the oversized luggage area on certain Shinkansen rail systems. There are also the more luxurious Green Cars and First Class Cars along with the special Sleeper Cars that also require reservations to use.
How do I make a reservation for a train from the airport?
As it will likely be the first train trip and first necessary seat to book for foreign travelers, here is a step-by-step guide to reserving a train seat from the airport to one of the major cities of Japan where most will be staying or traveling.
- If you have made the choice to buy a JR Pass voucher to exchange for a JR Pass once arriving in Japan, go to a JR Office at the airport. Narita Airport and Haneda Airport nearby Tokyo, Kansai Airport near Kyoto and Osaka, and New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido all have JR Offices to exchange a JR Pass voucher at.
- At this same office, one can exchange a JR Pass voucher for a JR Pass and then immediately book a seat for the number of express lines that run from the airport to nearby major cities. (Even if you choose not to exchange your voucher for any given reason, reserving a seat is most efficiently done at one of these JR Offices, but with an additional cost for both boarding the train and to book a seat, as opposed to completely free for both riding and seat reservation on the JR Pass).
- The JR Office attendant will inform you on the available departure times of that day or other days as well, in case you will be staying within the vicinity of the airport for some time. Reserved seats will be available on either the Ordinary Car or Green Car on rail systems like the Narita Express and Haruka Express.
- Upon deciding a departure time, you will receive tickets with information on the rail, cars, and seats.
- If traveling with a JR Pass, you will insert the pass along with the other slips you received when you reserved the seats and take them back immediately on the other end of the same gate. If not, you will insert all the slips you received at the JR Office.
- The express rail lines that lead to and from the airport are often directed towards travelers, so there is typically pre-determined space on the trains for large luggage that do not require reservations, unlike some Shinkansen lines.
- Upon departing, in order to exist from the gate, insert your JR Pass if you have one along with the other slips given to you upon the booking at the JR Office.
How can I make a reservation with a Japan Rail Pass?
When using a valid Japan Rail Pass that has already gone through a voucher exchange, reservations will be made at the same JR Offices available at a number of JR Stations within major cities in Japan such as Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Fukuoka, and Hokkaido. Reservations can be arranged through a Japan Rail Office representative just like at the offices at the airport, so the process is rather straightforward.
- Bring your JR Pass to a JR Office.
- The office representative will ask about your desired departing station along with destination (i.e. Tokyo to Kyoto, Osaka to Tokyo, etc.) and departure time. Train schedules for bullet trains and express trains are able to be researched ahead of time, however, the office representative will provide you with more detailed information there.
- You will also be asked about what type of car you wish to ride. On the Shinkansen, typically, the Ordinary Car, Green Car, First Class Car are available, but certain trains may have different options such as sleeper cars. This will largely depend on the local area and destination as well as what days you will be travelling.
- You will be given a reservation ticket with the information for which train you will ride, the car, seat information, and both departure and arrival time.
- Upon the time of departure, you will be required to insert your JR Passes into the gate along with the other tickets you've received when you made the
- It is also important to keep your reservation ticket on you, not just to find your reserved seat, but to show it to the station and/or train attendant when they come around to prove that the seat is yours.
- Upon arriving at your destination, you will need to insert the JR Passes into the gate once again to leave the station. Aside from the JR Pass, you will not receive the other slips back.
It should be noted that making a seat reservation order is now possible at the electronic machines available at stations as of 2021. The following is a guide to making reservations at one of these machines in English.
- Once at the machine press the Reserved Seat button.
- The default language will be Japanese, but if you wish to change it to another language, there a number to choose from for non-Japanese-speaking travelers to use.
- Press Reserve seat with discounted ticket.
- Insert the JR Pass. (Up to 4 JR Passes can be inserted at one time.)
- Input the departure and arrival stations along with departure and/or arrival times. After confirming this information, press the Search button.
- Confirm your route and train combinations (if there are any transfers or multiple trains are to be written), then press the Confirm button.
- Available seats with information on the type of Shinkansen or express train car, location within the car, and placement by a window, by the aisle, or in-between, will be displayed. Choose an available seat (designated with a large, green O) as so desired. Then press Confirm again.
- The machine will return your JR Passes along with printing out your reservation tickets.
How do I reserve a seat on the Shinkansen without a JR Pass?
If you are traveling without a Japan Rail Pass, the process of reserving a seat is a little bit different. However, just as with a JR Pass, reservations can still be made at JR Ticket Offices.
- Head to a JR Ticket Office.
- Communicate the desired departing station along with the destination you wish to travel to. Choose from the available trains and seats that can be seen online or provided by the office representative.
- When going to the platform you will be required to insert your ticket into the gates. Most times, you will receive two separate tickets when reserving. You will likely have to insert both of these tickets at the same time. The same ticket(s) will come out of the same machine when entering the gate and you will need to take these again.
- Just like with the JR Pass, you will need to keep the reservation ticket in order to find your seats along with showing it to the Shinkansen attendant when they come around.
- Upon arriving at your destination station, insert the tickets you used to enter the gates at your departing station. This time, these tickets will not be redistributed to you.
Reserved tickets can also be purchased at the same vending machines one can make a reservation at with a JR Pass.
- Go to a ticket machine at a train station and change to a language other than Japanese if needed.
- Select Reserved Seat on the screen.
- Select For seat reservation on Shinkansen. (There will be other options if you are riding a train other than a Shinkansen.)
- Choose the desired line (or lines) you plan to travel on and a departing station. The default choice is the station one is at at that given time, but for other stations, select Other stations.
- Select an arriving station, a boarding date, the number of passengers.
- Select whether or not you wish to purchase a round-trip ticket or a one-way ticket. If you wish to buy a round-trip ticket, confirm the details of your return ticket as well.
- Pay for your ticket by inserting either cash or card into the machine.
- Take your printed passes and insert them into the gate.
When can I reserve a seat and can I change my reservation?
Reservations for the Shinkansen can be made one month prior to departure and can be changed once prior to the day and time of departure. It's suggested to confirm all these travel plans well ahead and to have things prepared at least a few days in advance, but also note that reservations for seats can only made with a JR Pass after the voucher exchange and the activation date has been issued. Reservations can be changed for more expensive trips but you’ll have to pay the difference in price. When changing to a less expensive reservation, the difference in amount will be refunded. For reserved seats, unfortunately no refunds can be issued if you miss your reserved Shinkansen train.