Updated May 2014
I met Hitoshi, my hubby, while I was living in Akita. Hitoshi lived in Tokyo. These two cities are far apart. In fact, the shinkansen (bullet train) takes about four hours. Flying takes about the same once you count the bus to the airport and the airport nonsense. I took the night bus once.
My best option was the shinkansen and since I really liked my new honey, I channeled a chunk of my earnings towards the speedy train to Tokyo. I took the shinkansen 13 times in less than four months. (Hitoshi did come to Akita, too.)
The price for the Komachi between Akita and Tokyo then was around $160 one way. (What was I thinking? I have no idea. I was in love.)
Perhaps a concerned (or perplexed) coworker or maybe Hitoshi told me how to save money on the shinkansen. This post is about what I discovered buying discount tickets.
Tiketto Shoppu or Kinken Shoppu (Discount Ticket Shop)
If you do not have a Japan Rail Pass or it is expired (or you are in love with someone who lives really far away), ask at your accommodation or an information centre about the closest discount ticket shop where you can buy tickets for the shinkansen. These shops are in most cities that have a shinkansen station. (Those links are my love letters to the shinkansen.)
To find the shops, a map is a necessity. Shops are usually near train stations and are small. Look for posters in the windows, price lists on boards outside the shop, cartoon bullet trains, the JR symbols or display cases with tickets to every destination sold. Some travel centres and agents also sell these tickets.
I will say it again: get a map. I spent about two hours looking for these ticket shops with a map in Ikebukuro, Tokyo and could only find two out of the three shops I wanted to check prices at.
Bring the name of your destination in Kanji (Japanese characters) or Hiragana if the name isn’t in Kanji (e.g. Iwaki City) so you can check prices. Your ticket will be in Japanese so this is another way to check to make sure you have the right one. This is important because tickets from a ticket desk are usually printed in English if you don’t speak or look Japanese.
Be ready to use Japanese or write everything to show the agent. I fumbled my way through buying tickets the first year with embarrassingly little Japanese and you can, too!
I found out that tickets are not valid on holidays and most vendors will ask when you are traveling. Check the dates for use on your ticket for the expiry dates.
Vendors will ask you if you want a one-way (ka-ta-mi-chi) or return (ou-fu-ku) ticket and how many people are traveling. You may be asked to fill in a form but this varies with the agency. I found this to vary even at the same agency. Sometimes I would be asked to fill in a form and other times I wasn’t.
The ticket that you get does not have a seat assigned. If you want a reserved seat or the train you are traveling on only has reserved seats, like the Komachi to Akita, go to a JR Ticket Reservation counter to exchange your ticket. The new or additional ticket will most likely be in English.
Vendors set their own prices for these special tickets so consider shopping around. Ticket sellers can also sell out of certain destinations but if you’re in a major city, another vendor will likely be nearby.
Note! A few trains heading west from Tokyo still have smoking cars. As a non-smoker, this is important to me. Check your ticket or car as they will be clearly marked. Update – August 2012. We took a few bullet trains in the west that had smoking rooms instead of smoking cars.
While tickets prices from some vendors are now online, Hitoshi found these only in Japanese (February 2014). If you know of discount ticket vendors in English (or other languages), please comment!
How much of a discount can I expect?
It varies. We checked out prices in 2014 and the discounts didn’t seem as big as in prior years. I wouldn’t expect more than between 5% and 10%.
Have you used discount tickets for the shinkansen?