Japan is a huge country with a ridiculously massive amount to see, and often not enough time for the people who visit. So, which method of transport should you choose: Shinkansen or plane?
As far as I’m concerned, there’s no better way to travel in the world than by Shinkansen. They’re fast, reliable, clean, and have oh so much legroom. While traveling by plane isn’t necessarily a bad way to do things, Japan’s rail system raises the bar to a somewhat unbeatable level.
While I’ll admit it’s normally my bank account that’ll make this decision for me, it’s not always a straightforward choice for everyone. So, which should you choose between Shinkansen vs plane? Let’s figure that out!
Top Tip: Unsure where to grab your next flight or shinkansen to in Japan? I’ve made a Japan travel quiz just for you!
1. Speed and Efficiency
If you know anything about Japanese transport, I’m confident it’s just how efficient they are. Trains, and more specifically Shinkansen, are at the forefront of it all. It’s just one of those things that make Japan special, undeniably so.
How fast do Shinkansen go?
|Tokyo – Aomori
|Tokyo – Akita
|Tokaido – Sanyo Line
|Shin-Osaka – Tokyo
|Shin-Osaka – Kagoshima-Chuo
The speed a Japanese Shinkansen travels depends on the route you’re taking and the type of train you’re on. For instance, the fastest train in Japan (and the world) is the Japanese Maglev.
While it’s not currently operating for travelers, it has clocked speeds of around 375mph (603kmph). That’s a damn sight more than the Shinkansen available to the public.
By the year 2027, the Japanese maglev should be shuttling passengers back and forth between Tokyo and Nagoya in just 40 minutes. The Nozomi (the fastest train for this route) currently makes the journey in around 1 hour 40.
If we take Tokaido Shinkansen (the route most first-time travelers take around Japan) as an example, it’s important to remember that they all travel at a relatively similar speed. The only thing that drastically differs between them is the number of stops.
The Nozomi Shinkansen stops the least of all on this route and will get you to your destination the fastest. It departs around 4 times per hour per station but can’t be used with the JR Pass.
If you’re looking to make your trip as efficient as possible, this is the train to get. It’s the one we normally take from Tokyo to Osaka in the unreserved area (more on that later).
Next up is the Hikari.
It’s about half an hour slower than the Nozomi (from Tokyo to Osaka) and has around two departures every hour. While I never aim to specifically get on this train, I’m more than happy to if I’m not in a rush and it’s the next train available.
The slowest (and cheapest) Shinkansen is the Kodama. It takes around 4 hours to get all the way from Tokyo to Osaka as it stops at every single stop.
…Still, that’s much faster than the Japanese night bus…
If you still want to travel by bullet train but don’t have as much money, it’s worth researching something called the ‘plat Kodama’. You’ll have to prebook quite a way in advance, but you’ll get ¥4-5k yen off the ticket price and a free drink. I’ll write an article on that soon!
If you grab an unreserved Shinkansen ticket (which happens to be cheaper), you can pretty much hop on a train every ten minutes or so. For a service that takes you practically the entire length of the country, that’s astounding.
Of course, you may have to get somewhere in a hurry (which could mean waiting for the Nozomi), but either way, there’s a lot of choice for you.
In terms of timekeeping, Japanese shinkansen are highly efficient, far more so than planes. They’ll usually stop at a station for anything from 30 seconds to a minute or two, and then they’re off again. If anything, it’s tighter than the usual commuting trains which is really impressive.
I’ve traveled around the world via plane and have definitely had my fair share of problems. Delays, cancellations, queues, you know the score. The scene in Japan is much the same.
Of course, not all experiences are like that, but you’ll probably know what to expect if you’ve ever been on a plane before. Japan, unfortunately, is not unique in this regard.
That said, flying is a very quick way to get from A-B. From Tokyo to Osaka, the average flight time is just 1 hour 15 minutes. So you won’t need to know how to deal with Jet lag in Japan, at least not from this flight anyway!
That’s much faster than even the speediest Japanese train. So which is the better choice if speed is the biggest factor?
Although technically the plane arrives at its destination faster, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be faster for you. Tokyo flights to Osaka usually operate from Haneda, that’s a 45-minute journey from Shinjuku.
Arriving at Kansai airport, the closest to Osaka, you still need to take another 50-minute train to end up in central Osaka. So that’s almost an extra two hours traveling which doesn’t even include time to get through customs, baggage check-in, and security.
In terms of speed, Shinkansen is better than flying!
2. Scenic Views
Riding on the Shinkansen gives some absolutely fantastic views (that are perfect for these travel cameras), though it does depend on what line and time of day you’re traveling on.
The Tokyo to Osaka Tokaido line is filled with beautiful rice fields, mountains (just near Hakone), and cracking views of each and every city you pass. However, when I found myself on the Shinkansen to Hiroshima from Osaka, it wasn’t as great.
Quite a bit of that journey was spent darting in and out of tunnels, which really disrupted the immersion. And some of those tunnels can be quite long as well. It may sound trivial, but part of the reason I take Shinkansen in the first place is for the views (as do many others), so it’s important to take this into consideration before booking.
I’ve also fairly regularly seen people complaining about traveling on Shinkansen at night time (because of the lack of view), but I don’t think that’s much of a problem at all.
If you’ve planned your itinerary so that you move on to the next city in the evening (giving you a full day in the place you’re currently staying), don’t be afraid to take the Shinkansen at night. If you’re going from Tokyo-Osaka, some of the cyber-punk-esque views you’ll see outside your window are flipping stunning!
Top tip: Sit on the right-hand side of the train if you’re traveling from Tokyo to Osaka, and on the left-hand side if you’re traveling the opposite way. That way you’ll be presented with an unobstructed view of Japan’s immortal mountain.
Flying from place to place in Japan may not give you such an intimate experience of the countryside and other places you’d likely not see on your journey, but that’s no reason to consider the views from the plane redundant.
There’s something very special about flying right over the top of Japan’s biggest and most famous snow-capped mountain, amongst other highlights.
At the end of the day, if you’re interested in seeing up close and personal views of Japan, the Shinkansen is likely the best way to experience that. If you’d prefer a bird’s eye view with constantly changing scenery over the country, flying might be the better way to travel.
Keep in mind, clouds are definitely a thing that might mess up these views haha!
3. On-board experience
Out of everything on this list, the onboard experience is the main reason that this continues to be my favorite way of traveling around Japan. From the exceptional amount of legroom to the incredibly calm atmosphere, it’s practically perfect.
Need to get some work done?
I frequently need to write when I’m onboard the Shinkansen and my girlfriend does the same (or edits videos). I don’t use the tray table in front of me, but I do have my laptop on my lap and still with ample amounts of room to get comfortable and type away.
I’m 6ft, and I can practically stretch out as far as I need to. Absolutely no cramping up like on the plane where there’s barely enough space to stretch.
And there’s no worrying about running out of charge either. Most Shinkansen (check beforehand) have USB or charging ports in the armrests as well as wifi.
Do they serve food on Shinkansen?
On some of the lines, you’ll find that someone will come through the car with snacks, drinks, and even bento boxes. However it’s only a small cart, and you’ll be much better off grabbing your food before you get on if you’re after something specific.
Whether you fancy grabbing a couple of bits from the closest konbini, or you’re waiting until you’ve gone through to the ‘departure area’ (a little like in the airport) to pick from a selection of bento boxes (an experience you’ll hold for a long time), just make sure you’ve got enough to keep you satisfied.
I always find traveling on Shinkansen very relaxing and being fully stocked up on food and snacks makes the onboard experience even better. Not that you can’t do that when flying but, you know, weight limits…
The onboard experience you have when flying in Japan will differ drastically depending on the airline you fly with. My flight from Tokyo to Sapporo was with Peach, a budget Japanese airline that pretty much exists just to get you from A-B.
You won’t get a lot of legroom, and you won’t have a large checked baggage weight, but you will get to your destination. In-person service was still great, or at least enough for what I paid for.
If you’re feeling fancy you could pay for JAL or ANA, but as you’ll see in a minute the ticket prices for those are absolutely bonkers.
There’s not much to say about the onboard experience of flying in Japan because it’ll likely be akin to what you’ve had before when flying with a budget airline. Perhaps it’ll be a bit busier depending on the time of year, but on the whole, it’s exactly what you’d expect.
Cost is likely to be a big part of your decision when deciding whether to fly or get the Shinkansen in Japan. Shinkansen are almost always more expensive.
You can expect to pay around ¥13,000 yen from Tokyo to Osaka depending on the train you chose and whether you go for a reserved or unreserved seat. You also have the option to pay for a ‘green car’ which is basically the seat upgrade equivalent of business/first class.
Unreserved Seat: No guarantee of seats together (not ideal for bigger groups), but able to take any train on your route. Ideal for adaptability.
Reserved Seat: Specific seats are guaranteed, but you can only take the train you book. Ideal for those with a definite plan.
Unless you really need more legroom, a bigger seat, a reading light, and carpeted floors, I’d give it a miss. It’s money you’ll be better spending somewhere else on your trip to Japan.
Flying will typically be cheaper than catching the plane, but a lot of the prices quoted don’t include any check-in luggage. I could likely get a flight to Osaka for around $30-40 dollars depending on the time of year, but if you’ve got one or two carry-ons or a particularly heavy backpack then you’ll need to pay for those as extras.
Even if you’ve managed to get a really cheap flight, you still need to take into consideration the amount it’s going to cost to get from the airport to the area you’re staying at/going to. Sometimes it’ll still work out a lot cheaper, but other times it’ll start to become harder to justify.
5. Accessibility and convenience
Take a look at the picture I took above in Odawara. That’s two Shinkansen spaced only 5 minutes apart and because I had just bought an unreserved seat ticket, I can travel on either!
The most convenient part about traveling on a Shinkansen is that you can turn up and just go. No moving through customs, no getting all your bags checked, no weight limits (within reason), and no time schedules.
I’m a big fan of traveling without a plan if you can afford it. It means that if I want to spend another few hours in a Japanese city on my itinerary before moving traveling halfway up the country, I can.
It means I won’t be charged extortionate last-minute fees, will likely get a seat in the unreserved section, and can adapt my schedule on the fly. Is there any better way to travel?
Luggage on the Shinkansen
If you’ve got luggage that’s outside JR guidelines on the Tokaido route (Tokyo to Osaka), you’ll have to book an oversized space on the train (which is limited). I’ve written about exactly how to do this over at Ski Asia, as well as the best alternative choices you have.
As far as I’m concerned, convenient is never a word I’d use to describe traveling on a plane. Other than having to weigh your bags several thousand times and second guess yourself as to whether you’ve actually packed your passport, the whole thing just isn’t ideal.
Perhaps the biggest difference when comparing the Shinkansen vs plane is how much preparation you have to do before you get onto a plane vs the distinct lack of such need on the train.
Luggage while you fly
When I took a trip to Sapporo, I experienced a situation that made me wish the Shinkansen would hurry up and be built to Hokkaido as quickly as possible. We’d just handed in our check-in luggage and before we got into the departures lounge we had our hand luggage, accessories, and anything else on our person weighed.
I’ve never had this level of scrutiny before while flying, and whether it’s common for this kind of thing to happen or not, it’s not exactly the kind of “zen” feeling I look for when traveling. Usually, if you’re flying I’ll recommend using the Ta-q-bin service by Yamato Transport.
If you’re interested in reading more about that, you’ll find it up in the linked Ski Asia article above. In essence, you’ll drop your bags off beforehand and they’ll arrive (usually) at your hotel before you do. This way you’ll get to experience the “hands-free” travel experience that’s constantly touted over here.
Trust me, it’s a much better way to travel than lugging all your bits up to the airport!
So which method of transport should you choose?
In case you haven’t guessed yet, the winner of this article is the Shinkansen. Apart from Japan’s last sleeper train, it’s absolutely my favorite method of transport. It’s quick, reliable, clean, and comfortable. There’s really nothing more you’ll need!
My Top Japan Travel Resources:
What’s the best way to get cheap flights to Japan?
Going is BY FAR the best way to secure dirt-cheap flights to Japan. We’re talking as much as 90% off!
Should I live in Japan?
Maybe – I’ve made this quiz specifically for you! Who knows, perhaps you’re closer to those bowls of ramen than you think 😉
Where should I visit next in Japan?
It depends – To help you figure it out, I’ve made this quiz just for you!
Can I get online in Japan?
You can! – The eSIM is the one I’d recommend using, plus it’s perfect if you’re planning to travel somewhere else afterward.
Can you help me plan my trip to Japan?
Yes – I’ve got a Japan bucket list just for you! Simply download the PDF, print it out, and tick off some of the things you’d like to see, do, and eat.
Can I get money out in Japan without getting charged?
Yep – The Zero-fee card I use to get money in Japan hasn’t steered me wrong yet. Highly recommended to any traveler!