Last Updated: Jul 26, 2023
This really shouldn’t come as a surprise given how much I travel but I take a lot of bullet trains. In fact, when people ask me where I live, I often say that my official address is in Tokyo but I actually live on the Shinkansen. Over the course of my many years of traversing the countryside, I’ve come up with a plethora of little tricks and hacks that can be used here and there to eke out a little bit more value from your ride. Today, I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned while on the road.
In this article, we’ll mainly be taking a look at what is called the Jiyuseki in Japanese. Essentially meaning “free seating,” the Jiyuseki are those seats at the front of the bullet train that don’t require a reservation. Though these seats can be had for a few hundred yen less than their reserved counterparts, sitting in the Jiyuseki area often comes with a major downside — namely you might not be able to snag a good seat (or even get one at all on the busiest of days).
Now, when sitting in the Jiyuseki, it’s wise to be waiting on the platform a good 10–15 minutes before your departure. The reason for this is that the Jiyuseki is on a first come, first serve basis. Thus, to ensure you get a seat, you want to be one of the lucky people at the head of the line. Note that this tactic generally only works when you are at the starting station or trying to hop on somewhere that is known for being a place that many people tend to get off at (e.g. Kyoto or Osaka).
No Reserved Seats
Generally I suggest that people reserve a seat for themselves when taking the bullet train. After all, few things suck more than having to stand for the entirety of your Shinkansen trip. That said, just because you have an assigned seat doesn’t mean you actually have to sit there. Occasionally when options are sorrowfully sparse, I’ll book whatever crappy cushion I can find and then go line up for the Jiyuseki. If I can grab a good seat, I’ll use that for the duration of my travels instead of what I reserved.
When positioning myself to make this ploy, I’ll always make sure that I buy a reserved ticket instead of saving a few yen with a gamble. The reason for this is quite simple; by buying myself a reserved seat, I have a worst-case scenario fall back should the Jiyuseki look full. At the same time, I also give myself the chance to get a precious window seat with a power plug should all things go according to plan. This trick is especially handy if you’re boarding a bullet train from its starting station.
If you happen to ever make use of this tactic, just understand that you also have a moral imperative to give up your spot in the Jiyuseki should the train get crowded. Otherwise, you’re hogging up two seats by continuing to sit there. At the end of the day, only those with reserved tickets can make use of the non-Jiyuseki cars whereas those with reserved ones can sit in either. Thus, you’re being quite the selfish soul if you continue squatting in the Jiyuseki. #NotCool
One period where the above tactic is particularly helpful is during three-day weekends and other national holidays. While it won’t save you from the annual chaos that is Golden Week, it can often aid in escaping the dreaded middle seat (at least until the number of passengers starts overflowing the train’s capacity and you need to go back to your reserved seat). Though I don’t do it often, it’s always nice to have this proverbial ace in the hole as backup when I have to get some work done on the train.
Just recently, I used this stratagem on the way from Toyama Prefecture to get myself and my travel companion side-by-side seats which would have otherwise been impossible. In our case, we didn’t have the fallback of a reservation due to the bullet train being completely booked. At the same time though, by following all of the other steps I’ve outlined, we were able to sit in what eventually became a Shinkansen car that was packed tighter than a can of sardines.
Making a Pitstop En Route
Moving on, another trick to maximizing your ride on the Shinkansen via the Jiyuseki is to temporarily get off at stations before your final destination. Unbeknownst to many, you can actually ask the helpful attendants to quickly let you out to buy something at the station before reboarding another train. Normally, doing so would forfeit your reserve seat (as that train would be long gone) but if you’re willing to battle it out for a space in the Jiyuseki, you can have a much more flexible trip.
One of my favorite times to deploy this hack is when coming home from anywhere north of Nagano. As anyone who has heard me rant about them before, I absolutely am in love with the local meibutsu. Known as oyaki, these tasty morsels are fermented buckwheat dough that is wrapped around a stuffing of Japanese vegetables, fruit, or anko bean paste and then roasted on an iron pan. Since I am addicted, I always like to make a pitstop at Nagano to get a few before continuing on home in the Jiyuseki.
For what it’s worth, know that there are a few times when I haven’t been able to get the nice station attendant to let me out. While this was never related to anyone’s temperament, it is something to keep in mind as you might run into the same issue. From what I can gather, it is a product of having a split ticket for your Shinkansen and regular fare. This only ever occurred during work trips when I wasn’t purchasing the tickets for myself though so I don’t know what the real issue was.
Jiyuseki & JR Rail Passes
Finally, I’d like to end this one-off rant with some advice for those of you with Japan rail passes. Though you can indeed get yourself a reserved seat for the bullet train with these handy passes, you will need to line up at the station and get someone’s assistance to do so. I’ve heard from my silly friend Sandy that you can somehow do it at the kiosk but we never managed to figure out how to do it. Seeing as I can’t make use of any of the passes anymore with the border open, you’re on your own here.
Regardless of how you reserve a seat when using a pass though, the fact remains that you still need to actually do so. Especially when there are longer lines at the station, this can be a bit of a hassle. Moreover, you’ll also likely struggle with the language barrier in all but the biggest of stations. Thus, it is oftentimes better to just skip trying to make a reservation all together and grab a seat in the Jiyuseki. Should things look overly crowded, you can always head back to the ticket desk and make a reservation.
This works great if you’re making a half-day stopover in a place like Hamamatsu where the Tokaido Shinkansen are frequent. Alas, for more rural destinations that don’t have as regular departures as major stations, you’re going to want to ensure that you can actually get a seat. Otherwise, you might find yourself having to wait upwards of an hour with little to do if it’s somewhere like Kurobe-Unazuki Onsen Station up in Toyama Prefecture.
Until next time travelers…