Reserving seats on Japanese trains

Many visitors to Japan want to reserve seats on trains before they arrive in Japan. Whether they have a rail pass or need to buy individual tickets, they want to be certain of getting seats on trains to fit in with their planned itinerary. Until fairly recently, it was not possible to buy or reserve rail tickets outside of Japan, something that surprised many visitors. While often it is ok to wait until arriving in Japan to book or buy tickets, for some routes and dates, it’s reassuring to book ahead.

JR East has had the facility for foreigners to buy and reserve tickets online for a little while now. This allowed for shinkansen trains from to Kanazawa, Niigata, Akita and Hakodate, but not the shinkansen to Osaka and Kyoto which is probably the most popular route among foreign tourists. This is because Tokyo-Kyoto/Osaka route is actually run by JR Central. It also covers selected routes in the JR Hokkaido area.

JE Central has provided the SmartEx App which enables shinkansen bookings for residents of certain countries. They also promoted shinkansen ticket packages on the Japanican website, which can be good value if they fit your itinerary.

That left a large area of Japan and many trains unable to be booked prior to arrival in Japan. The good news is that has changed. Now JR West and JR Kyushu provide online booking services on their websites.

The JR West online booking service covers not just JR West shinkansen and limited express trains, but also JR Central shinkansen and limited express services. It also covers the shinkansen in Kyushu.

The JR Kyushu online booking service covers shinkansen and limited express trains in Kyushu and also key JR West routes.

How it works

The online reservation processes work in a fairly similar way, requiring you to pick up the tickets the day before travel. Sometimes you pay at the time of booking, other times when you pick up the tickets.

The JR East online service also enables JR Pass holders to make reservations before arriving in Japan and to pick up tickets once in Japan. This can only be done at certain stations so take note of which stations will be most convenient for you. The JR West and JR Kyushu websites don’t seem to have reservation functionality for JR Pass holders yet.

Finally, don’t feel you have to book in advance. Shinkansen run often enough between Tokyo and Osaka that booking is generally not necessary except during holiday periods. With the Narita Express, it’s best to leave that until you arrive in Japan, as your plane may arrive late, or you may get through formalities faster than expected. Some less frequent trains can get busy, eg the Hida Wideview Express from Nagoya to Takayama, and it’s worth considering making an advance reservation.

This is a fairly general overview of advance reservations for JR trains. For exact details, look at the relevant websites and pay close attention to the requirements for payment and picking up tickets. Some private railways also have an online reservation facility, eg Tobu for going to Nikko. With the rapid growth in visitors to Japan, expect more changes in this area. I’ll bring you updates as I hear about them.

You might also be wondering about whether to buy individual tickets or a rail pass. I’ve written about how to work this out, using three different methods ranging from easy to very detailed.

Do you have any questions about taking trains? Please feel free to contact me.

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For further information, the ebook Japan Just for You is a practical step-by-step guide to planning your trip to Japan, starting with developing your own personal trip concept. It’s now available on Apple, Amazon and Kobo, and other stores.