Are shinkansen seat reservations a good idea during off-peak seasons?
September 18, 2015 9:54 AM   Subscribe

Traveling to Japan for the first time in October! We (party of 2) have JR Passes, which apparently means we can board non-reserved shinkansen cars w/o any interaction with ticket booth staff. The question is, is this wise, or are we still likely to find ourselves standing or split up on some trains?

Most advice covers when to definitely not wing it on the trains (Obon, etc) but the picture of how busy trains are at other times is less clear. Specifically, we'll be taking the Tokaido and Sanyo lines - Tokyo to Osaka on a Saturday, Osaka to Hiroshima on a Friday, and Hiroshima to Tokyo on a Monday.

We're basically balancing "oh noes, we should have gotten seat reservations! stands for two hours" against the stresses of being introverts + a language barrier.
posted by cyrusdogstar to Travel & Transportation around Japan (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
No. I have asked this question before - I can't remember if it was here or with someone else, but I've been repeatedly told not to worry about it, and I've never had a problem.
posted by JPD at 10:18 AM on September 18, 2015

Best answer: Seconding not to worry about it--my husband and I traveled for 3 weeks in Japan over the New Year's holidays without a problem.

You can make seat reservations at any station for free, though! For the heaviest-traveled holiday days we went to the JR offices at the nearest station 1 or 2 days before and booked seats together. The day that a snowstorm delayed us enough that we missed our connecting train, we just stood in line at the connecting station for a while and they rebooked us on a later train, no problem.

We are also introverts and speak no Japanese. The train station agents spoke enough English to get the basics of communication with us down--if you're really worried, book in advance at one of the larger stations, like Tokyo or Kyoto, where there will be more English-fluent people.
posted by telophase at 10:31 AM on September 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you have any advance notice at all, I'd recommend getting a reservation.

Remember also that you don't get to travel on all the shinkansen--the fastest trains (Nozomi) aren't included in the JR pass.
posted by yellowcandy at 11:27 AM on September 18, 2015

Response by poster: JPD, telophase, thanks!

yellowcandy, yea, we're aware - in fact I've wondered if the "second fastest" set of trains (Hikari etc) that we are eligible for are likely to be more, or less (or the same) crowded vs Nozomi/Mizuho, which are not only faster but also seem to run more frequently.

Re: advance notice, we know which days we're traveling, but not exactly which trains, and probably won't know that til the morning of.
posted by cyrusdogstar at 11:39 AM on September 18, 2015

I travelled on the Tokaido in January, midweek, and we made reservations at the station just before we caught the train (the train was empty enough we didn't have to, but I think I thought we had to, or something. Anyway). At Tokyo Station the staff at the shinkansen counter deal with tourists all the time, they speak enough English and can book you no problem. They are really helpful. Just head to the counter and show your JR pass and point at a timetable.
posted by corvine at 12:26 PM on September 18, 2015

We (a party of four) had no problem traveling on those lines without reservations, any day of the week.
posted by pickingupsticks at 12:41 PM on September 18, 2015

I actually found it helpful to get reservations when I was there a couple weeks ago because they built out my whole itinerary including transfers. I did it same day and it was free, they spoke excellent English, and I like the peace of mind of knowing I'll have a seat. I also thought the reserved cars seemed a little nicer, but that may have just been my imagination.
posted by chatongriffes at 1:09 PM on September 18, 2015

Get a reservation if you can. I went to Japan around Christmastime a few years ago and remember it being standing room only on the Shinkansen from Osaka to Fukuoka. Plus since we didn't have reserved seats there was this mad dash on the platform from car to car to find one that we could stand in. We even missed the first train because it was just too crowded. I have a ton of travel experience in much less developed countries and still I remember it being pretty chaotic and confusing at the station. Not very fun.
posted by pravit at 1:51 PM on September 18, 2015

Best answer: October 12 is a public holiday, so if you're traveling that weekend, it would be a good idea to book. Otherwise you'll probably be okay to use non-reserved seating.
posted by Sar at 2:09 PM on September 18, 2015

Best answer: Reserving seats is not necessary. Having said that, there are some good reasons why you should reserve them anyway:

1. On the Sakura service that you will probably have to take between Osaka and Hiroshima, reserved seats are in a 2-2 formation, rather than the standard 3-2 that you'll see in non-reserved. These seats are wider and much more comfortable than the ones in non-reserved. They are the same as you'll find in the green car. FREE LUXURY SEATS! NO MONEY DOWN!

2. People boarding the train at the first station will queue for the non-reserved cars, often from around 30 minutes before the departure. If you want to choose your spot, you''ll have to be there too. With reserved seats, you don't have that issue.

3. Non-reserved cars are often at one end of the train. This means you have to schlep up there, which isn't that much fun when you're in a hurry or if you have to do it after boarding the train. And if you're schlepping cases, rather than using kureneko, well - even less fun.

4. Since non-reserved seats cost less than reserved ones, guess where you're more likely to find families and their noisy offspring. This also means that non-reserved cars are the first to get busy. It's very difficult to say with any kind of certainty, but while you should be able to get a seat, it's unlikely that you'll always have unlimited choice about where that seat will be.

5. I speak Japanese and I'm an introvert, but when I book tickets I always use English. That's what the staff expect. Sometimes, I write the journey details out, but not always. They know what to expect, and they'll tap away at their little computer and print out all the reservation tickets. You can get all your reservations done in one go if you want.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 3:06 PM on September 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Tokyo's clearly the epicenter of "yes they usually speak English" - but are the agents in Osaka and/or Hiroshima still likely to have at least some English? We may not know exactly which trains we'll be able to catch later in the trip, at the start - which days, but not which specific train. (Wondering whether to suck it up & reserve specific trains anyways, before leaving Tokyo, or to just arrive early each travel day & reserve then.)
posted by cyrusdogstar at 3:13 PM on September 18, 2015

Best answer: but are the agents in Osaka and/or Hiroshima still likely to have at least some English?

You'll have no problem using English with JR staff in these cities.

My pro-tip for making reservations is to go to the ticket office in the evening when it's less busy if you can. Especially - but not exclusively - in Tokyo. Remember, you can make reservations at any JR ticket office.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 3:27 PM on September 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I went to Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Osaka and every single JR agent I encountered spoke very good English. I also arrived to the station about 30 minutes early to reserve my seats and never had a problem.

Happy traveling!
posted by chatongriffes at 3:28 PM on September 18, 2015

I always do reservation, because why not? I mean I've never used the JR Pass, but if its still free with reservation I'd do it. Mostly the agents will speak a little English, if you get one who is uncomfortable with it they might drag someone else over.

Worst case scenario, you fail to communicate and just walk away and do without reservation. But I think thats unlikely.

With reservation everything is nice and easy, you don't have to worry if you both get up and leave your seat unattended, you know exactly where on the platform to go, etc.
posted by thefoxgod at 4:11 PM on September 18, 2015

I've actually done all those trips! Nthing you don't need to book, but should anyway. Jr staff everywhere speak a little English. We had no trouble with seats, but the trip was nicer when reserved and more stress free. You can book quite far in advance so just grab them when you arrive in eg Osaka, then spend your three days or whatever there, then you can just waltz onto the train when is time to go.

Have a great trip.
posted by smoke at 4:19 PM on September 18, 2015

On the not-speaking-Japanese front, I bought tickets in the JR Tours offices in the main train stations in Tokyo and Nagoya and speak no Japanese. (JR Tours is the travel agency subsidiary of JR. I assume their staff is less likely to know English than the main JR ticket office staff.) In Tokyo, there was clearly a designated English speaker, who was helping someone else when it was my turn. I got someone who was clearly very nervous doing a transaction in English (I suspect she'd never done it before), but was more than capable of helping me in English. I don't think the JR Tours office in Nagoya expects people who don't speak Japanese. The person who helped me wasn't able to handle a transaction fully in English. I'd written down the train I wanted, she somehow conveyed to me it was sold out (her English must have gone that far--my Japanese covered 'no', but not 'sold out' or 'unavailable'), grabbed a schedule and showed me the ones I could have, I pointed and that was that.

I believe you can book seat reservations at the ticket machines, but I don't know if it'll handle reservations when you have a rail pass (unless the reservations are always free on the trains you want).
posted by hoyland at 4:26 PM on September 18, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks again, all! Sounds like I'll be making the effort to reserve (we try to get to stations early anyways so that part's no problem).
posted by cyrusdogstar at 4:32 PM on September 18, 2015

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