You can make seat reservations and buy tickets for Japan Rail (JR) trains before or after arriving in Japan. Of course, the big question is this: Do you even need train reservations in Japan? Here are all the details.
- Some JR express trains and all shinkansen have reserved and unreserved cars.
- If you’re traveling alone or as a couple during off-peak hours and outside of the New Year’s period, you will usually find open seats in unreserved cars.
- If you’re traveling as a family or group, especially during peak hours and during the New Year’s period, you should make reservations.
- You can make reservations in person at any JR station after arrival in Japan.
- Seats on JR trains can be reserved up to one month in advance.
- You can buy reserved seat tickets online (including before arrival) using the JR East and JR West booking systems.
- If you purchase a Japan Rail Pass online from JR, you can use the JR online booking system to make seat reservations.
- If you just want to use the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu shinkansen lines (ie, the direct line that runs from Tokyo through Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and down into Kyushu), the best way to buy individual tickets online is with the SmartEX app.
- Scroll down for all the details.
Do You Need to Make Train Reservations in Japan?
Some JR express trains and all shinkansen have reserved seats. Those trains also have unreserved seats. When I’m traveling alone in Japan for work, I almost never make reservations: I just show up at the station, look at the destination board and board an unreserved car on the next train going my direction. I’ve always been able to find an open seat (but, I usually travel off-peak and I don’t travel during the New Year’s period).
However, for most travelers, especially families and groups, you’ll feel more comfortable making seat reservations. The thing is, you don’t have to reserve far in advance. Even during busy periods, it’s only necessary to reserve a few days out. See the following section for details.
Making Reservations at a JR Station in Person After Arrival
Here’s what I recommend for most people: After arriving in Japan, say, on your first full day in the country (NOT on the day you arrive), go to a major train station like Tokyo Station or Shinjuku and make all the seat reservations for your trip. If you’re not using a rail pass, this will mean buying individual reserved seat tickets for your whole trip. If you’re using a Japan Rail Pass, this will mean activating your pass and then making seat reservations for your whole trip. The pass covers payment for your tickets and you’ll just be issued seat reservation tickets (shitei-ken in Japanese). If you’d like to make your seat reservation online before arriving in Japan, see the following two sections.
Buying and Reserving Individual Tickets Online Before Arriving in Japan
You can use the JR East online reservation system (for the Tokyo area and northern Honshu) and the JR West online booking system (for central Japan, Kansai and western Honshu) to purchase tickets (reserved and unreserved) and regional rail passes. If you’d like to purchase an all-country Japan Rail Pass, see the following section.
JR West Online Reservation System
When you purchase tickets or regional passes using the JR East and West online systems, you pick up your actual tickets/passes at ticket machines or ticket counters in Japan. For all the details on the JR West system, see our How to Buy Japan Rail Tickets and Shinkansen Tickets Online. The JR East system is similar.
Buying a Japan Rail Pass and Reserving Tickets Online Before Arrival in Japan
It’s now possible to buy Japan Rail Passes online direct from JR (which you then pick up in Japan). The advantage of buying your rail pass direct from JR is that it allows you to use the online JR Reservation System. Using this system, you can make reservations on shinkansen and certain express trains online up to one month in advance. You then pick up your tickets either at a ticket counter or special ticket machine at JR stations in Japan. Here’s a full guide to picking up tickets reserved this way.
JR Online Reservation System
SmartEX Shinkansen Ticket App
If you just want to use the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu shinkansen lines (ie, the direct line that runs from Tokyo through Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and down into Kyushu), the best way to buy individual tickets online is with the SmartEX app.
SmartEX is not a third-party vendor, so you don’t have to worry about being scammed. It’s operated by JR Central, JR West and JR Kyushu. Tickets cost about the same as those bought from JR ticket offices (in most cases, there’s a Y200 surcharge, but a variety of discounts are available for advance purchases). The best thing is that you can link SmartEx to your IC card (Suica or Pasmo) so that you can use one card for all your transport in Japan (effectively eliminating the need for any paper tickets). We will be covering SmartEx in more detail in future articles.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, you might save money with Japan Rail Pass – see if it's worth itfor you
- A prepaid Suica card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance. Buy at home or while traveling and claim online from anywhere in the world