Swivelling seats to silence cars: favorite features of bullet trains

Updated April 2014

adult and child seat on train

adult and child seat demo model, shinkansen exhibit, Mito (Credit: S.W.)

I love taking the shinkansen, “shink” for short or bullet train in Japan. In my first year living in Japan, I took the shinkansen over 20 times. This post is about my favorites features of the shinkansen that I discovered using the super speedy bullet train.

Swivelling seats!

If you’re in a group in consecutive rows or feel like facing the other way, stand in the aisle and find the lever under the seats. Push down, swing the seats around and enjoy!

seats sitting face to face on train

fun seats on the shink! (Credit: Hitoshi)

You’ll also now have a large, personal luggage space between the back-to-back seats. The only issue we discovered when we were travelling with my long-legged parents was turning the seats meant less leg room.

Moving the seats will not hit anyone sitting in the row in front but it’s polite to ask if it’s okay to move the seats, even if you are only using sign language and a big smile.


It’s rare to find squat toilets on bullet trains.

squat toilet, Ueno Park

squat toilet, Ueno Park

Toilet doors have a picture and/or words noting the kind (i.e. squat or “Western Style”) and standing toilets are available for men. The large, accessible toilets have change tables for babies.

I couldn’t figure out how to flush the toilet the first few times. While some toilets have buttons, I have seen more with a sensor you hold your hand over. I sometimes had a small panic, especially when there was a button for flushing and one to call for help and I couldn’t figure out the difference. I never pressed the help button but always felt relieved when I had chosen correctly!

Sinks are usually in a separate booth and some have a soap dispenser and dryer on either side of the tap! I thought this was the most amazing invention when I saw it the first time. As some sinks don’t have a dryer, consider carrying a small towel. This is generally true of travelling almost anywhere in Japan.

I also liked how some sinks had a curtain to pull across for privacy. For the first five months of our relationship, Hitoshi lived in Tokyo and I lived in Akita. This was a four-hour shinkansen ride each way and we made the trip every few weeks. I cared a lot about how I looked so you could find me in these little cubicles doing my best to freshen up in the last half hour before getting to Tokyo.

Luggage and Shipping

Luggage space is limited. There is a rack above the seats but it isn’t big enough for large bags. I have seen some people roll their suitcase in front of them at the seat but if you have long legs, it is cramped.

empty shink car

This never happens! A car all to ourselves en route to Kyoto.

Bags can sometimes be stored behind the last row of seats in the car or in open luggage closets on some trains. These closets are just that. A tall, narrow, open space so leave your gigantic suitcases at home or ship them! This is also useful since we’ve come across many stations without handy escalators or elevators that have a lineup.

waiting for the train

waiting for the shinkansen early in the morning, Tokyo

If you are going to a ski hill, I recommend shipping your gear. We didn’t do this more than once and you and everyone else is trying to get their snowboards on the racks above the seats. I shank into my seat and pretended that we weren’t taking up four seats worth of space with our stuff! Propping your board bag in front of you on a packed train is also not a comfortable way to travel.


Watch what the staff do when they come and go from the car. My jaw dropped the first time and I make sure now to watch every time.

Here is an example of another feature of some trains.

rules for the Silence Car on the shinksen

Silence Car notification on seatback

What did you notice the first time you took the bullet train? If you have never taken the shinkansen, would you like to be on one right now?

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