Paul Fournier
By Paul

How to Travel Between Tokyo and Kyoto via Shinkansen Bullet Train

There are several ways to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto, but bullet trains (also named shinkansen) are no doubt the fastest and most convenient way to do so.

Keeping that in mind, I’ve written a comprehensive guide in which I’ll tell you everything about them, where to board, and where you can buy your tickets.

About the Shinkansen Network & Its Trains

Shinkansen is the Japanese word for bullet train. They’re operated by Japan Railways (JR) Group company and mostly run on dedicated tracks, connecting Tokyo with most of Japan’s major cities.

The bullet train network has some of the fastest trains in the world, running at up to 320 km/h. The trains are also known for being comfortable, safe, efficient, and very punctual, with an average delay of only 36 seconds.

The Tokaido Bullet Train

Among the shinkansen network’s many lines, the oldest and most widely used is the Tokaido Shinkansen. It reaches speeds of up to 285 km/h, and connects Tokyo with Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka over a distance of 552.6km.

There are three types of trains on the Tokaido Shinkansen line: the Nozomi, Hikari, and Kodama.

The Nozomi is the fastest train with 4 departures per hour and only 4 stops, reaching Kyoto from Tokyo in just about 2 hours and 20 minutes. However, the Nozomi is one of the few JR trains that cannot be used with the Japan Rail (JR) Pass.

The Hikari is the second fastest train, serving up to 10 stops with 2 departures per hour. It travels between Tokyo and Kyoto in 2 hours and 40 minutes, so it’s your best choice if you want to make the journey using a JR Pass.

The Kodama is the slowest train, serving all stations between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka. It takes 4 hours to reach Shin-Osaka from Tokyo, with 2 departures per hour. As the travel time is significantly longer, taking this train is typically not advised unless you need to stop somewhere the other 2 trains don’t.

All 3 shinkansen trains cost the same if you choose a non-reserved seat. However, reserved seats cost more than non-reserved seats, with the Nozomi reserved seats costing the most among the 3 train services.

Shinkansen Seat Classes & Reservations

In this section, I’ll introduce you to the different seat classes you’ll typically find in shinkansen trains, which are found in separate cars.

Ordinary Car

These are the regular seats found on all shinkansen trains. They usually come in rows of 3+2 seats, and are comfortable with a good amount of foot space.

Green Car

This is the “business class” equivalent of shinkansen seats. The Green Cars have larger and more comfortable seats arranged in a 2+2 layout, and have more foot space. All seats in Green Cars are reserved seats.

Reserved vs non-reserved cars

Most shinkansen trains also have non-reserved seats and reserved seats in separate cars, with only a few carrying fully reserved cars. To use seats in reserved cars, advance reservations have to be made for a fee. However, JR Pass holders can reserve seats for free.

Are seat reservations recommended?

In most cases, you won’t need a reserved ticket to get a seat on shinkansen trains. You can just buy an ordinary ticket, and take the next train available.

However, trains sometimes to get booked out during rush hour (between 7-9 am, and 4-7pm), and peak travel days such as New Year and Golden Week holidays. If you’re planning to travel during these times, do consider buying reserved tickets.

Tokyo to Kyoto Bullet Train

From Tokyo, you can board the shinkansen from either Tokyo Station, or Shinagawa Station.

A one-way journey with an unreserved seat costs 13,080 JPY on all 3 shinkansen trains. However, with reserved seats, a one-way journey costs 13,500 JPY on the Hikari and Kodama, and 13,710 on the Nozomi. For JR Pass holders, this journey is covered for the Hikari and Kodama trains.

Nozomi trains run every 10 minutes from 6am – 9pm, while Hikari trains run every 30 minutes from 6:26am – 10pm.

For a more convenient experience, you can pre-book a one-way shinkansen ticket from Klook, and redeem your tickets in Tokyo.

Kyoto to Tokyo Shinkansen

From Kyoto, you can board the shinkansen from Kyoto Station. Entering the station from the Shinkansen Central Gate, Shinkansen Hachijo Gate, and Shinkansen Hachijo East Gate will give you direct access to the shinkansen.

A one-way journey with an unreserved seat costs 13,080 JPY on all 3 shinkansen trains. However, with reserved seats, a one-way journey costs 13,500 JPY on the Hikari and Kodama, and 13,710 on the Nozomi. For JR Pass holders, this journey is covered for the Hikari and Kodama trains.

Nozomi trains run every 10 minutes from 6:14 am – 10:46 daily, while Hikari trains runs every 30 minutes from 6:23 am – 8:49 pm.

For a more convenient experience, you can pre-book a one-way shinkansen ticket from Klook, and redeem your tickets in Kyoto.

JR Pass vs Individual Tickets

The JR Pass is a pass for foreign tourists that offers unlimited use of JR trains, including the shinkansen, throughout Japan. The JR pass can typically save you a lot of money if you are planning on traveling a lot on long distance train trips.

For example, a normal shinkansen return journey from Tokyo to Kyoto costs 26,160 JPY, and a one-way trip on the Narita Express into Tokyo costs 3,020 JPY. An ordinary 7-day JR Pass costs 29,100 JPY. Therefore, getting from Narita Airport to Tokyo, then to Kyoto and back with the JR Pass would save you money already.

However, if your itinerary does not require many long-distance train trips, a JR Pass may not pay off for you and you could buy individual train tickets instead. The JR Pass also limits you from traveling on the Nozomi bullet train line, which has faster and more frequent trains.

If you are planning a journey in which a JR Pass would come in handy, you can book 7-day, 14-day and 21-day JR Passes on Klook, and redeem your passes when you arrive in Japan.

How to Book Bullet Train Tickets

Here, I’ll introduce to you the different ways to buy shinkansen tickets. You can book them online, or buy them directly at JR train stations.

Buying at the ticket counter or ticket machine

You can buy shinkansen tickets at ticket offices at all major and many other minor JR stations throughout Japan. To purchase tickets, you’ll need the following information:

Number of travelers

Date of travel

Departure and destination stations

Ordinary or Green Car

Reserved or non-reserved seat

To reserve a seat, the following is also required:

Train name (e.g. Hikari), train number or departure time

Smoking or non-smoking seat preference

Many ticket office agents may have limited English language skills, so if you don’t speak Japanese, it’s best to write down the above information and pass it to the agent when you buy your tickets to make the process faster.

You can also buy bullet train tickets at some ticket machines. Most of them have menus in English. However, there are some limitations to using them. Not all machines sell reserved seats, and some do not accept credit cards issued outside Japan.

Buying online

You can also buy reserved seat shinkansen tickets online through reputable sites like Klook and GoVoyagin. Both sites are in English, and have many positive reviews from customers who have bought the tickets there.

Tickets on Klook are the cheapest, with a normal one-way trip from Tokyo to Kyoto or vice versa priced at around 14,110 JPY (~130 USD). When you arrive in Japan, you’ll need to present your Klook voucher for an exchange order, and use that to redeem the actual bullet train ticket at selected JR stations.

Tickets on GoVoyagin are slightly more expensive, with a normal one-way trip from Tokyo to Kyoto or vice versa priced from 16,660 JPY (160 USD). However, GoVoyagin also gives you the ability to buy Green Car tickets, and also have your tickets delivered directly to your hotel.

Conclusion

As you can see, taking the shinkansen is a fast, convenient and cost-effective way to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto.

In summary, the below would be my recommendations if you have the following questions:

Which bullet train train should I take?

The Hikari shinkansen is the best train to take if you have a JR Pass. Otherwise, the Nozomi train is the fastest way between Tokyo and Kyoto.

Should I get a JR pass to use the shinkansen?

If you are planning a trip with a lot of long-distance travel, a JR Pass will greatly help with reducing costs. Otherwise, buying individual train tickets would be better.

Where can I buy shinkansen tickets?

You can buy them online or at almost all JR stations nationwide. However, buying online is the best option if you can’t speak Japanese, or want a smoother experience where you can skip queues and pick up tickets upon arrival, or delivered to your hotel.

Hope this guide helps you have a better experience taking the bullet train!

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