Japan: to catch the plane or the bullet train?

By Chris Chamberlin , February 24 2015
Japan: to catch the plane or the bullet train?

With high-speed rail and a choice of airports in cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, getting from A to B in Japan is one easy task.

But which is the best choice for your journey – taking to the skies and flying from city to city, or jumping on a Shinkansen bullet train to cross the country?

There’s really no right or wrong answer, but each has its ups and downs depending on why and how far you’re travelling.

Japan’s Shinkansen high-speed bullet trains

Lengthy queues at check-in and boarding, the security screening rigmarole and excess baggage charges: three things you won’t find on the Shinkansen.

Instead, just hop on board, power up your laptop, tablet or smartphone and start working online immediately – try doing that on an aircraft from gate to gate!

Seating in the 'Green Cars', the first class of the Shinkansen
Seating in the 'Green Cars', the first class of the Shinkansen

When it’s time to alight, chances are you’ll already be in the city centre or at one of the major public transport hubs for an easy link-up to your Japanese hotel room, rather than landing at an airport that requires a connection into the city and then another before you can relax.

Missing from the parcel are frequent flyer points and airport lounges, although you can always use your points-earning credit card to buy your Shinkansen tickets, and we daresay that lounges aren’t a necessity when you’ll very shortly be on your way.

Domestic air travel within Japan

For passengers arriving from or connecting to international flights – particularly Qantas’ and JAL’s services between Sydney and Tokyo – flying is still the winner.

Your bags can be tagged through to your final destination, and chances are you’ll have access to comfy lounges during your transit and can make use of the shower facilities and indulge in a little food and drink.

As you’d expect, flying typically comes with a serve of Qantas frequent flyer points and status credits – and when combined with the haul from your credit card spend, you could well be enjoying a free flight or upgrade sooner rather than later.

'Class J': Japan Airlines' domestic business class
'Class J': Japan Airlines' domestic business class

With the fastest Shinkansen trains capped at 300 km/h, you’ll also find air travel a real time-saver if jetting from one corner of the map to the other, such as between Hachinohe and Kagoshima.

But for regular trips between Tokyo and the likes of Osaka, Kyoto, Fukushima and Nagoya, there’s simply no beating the convenience and speed of the Shinkansen: even without the promise of frequent flyer points and perks to help you along the way.

Also read: Japan's Shinkansen 'Green Car' first class review

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Chris Chamberlin

Chris Chamberlin is the Associate Editor of Executive Traveller and lives by the motto that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, a great latte, a theatre ticket and a glass of wine!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Jan 2013

Total posts 715

If part of your entry/exit leg into/out-of Japan, flying does indeed make sense, but if it's a seperate journey inside Japan not connected to country arrival/departure, then trains win almost every time I think.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

06 Nov 2014

Total posts 343

Another advantage of train is the JR pass. You can ride as many time as you like on the Shinkansen. So you can work your way down (or up) and stop over in many cities. Tokyo-Yokohama-Atami-Nagoya-Kyoto-Osaka. You just can't do that with flying. 

Also, the seats in economy on Shinkansen has a pitch and recline that rivals international premium economy on planes, which I find very comfortable. 

22 Mar 2013

Total posts 27

One good thing to travel by air is the so called J class offered by JAL. Only 1000 yen more than economy tickets, you will be able to fly Business class. It's not the same business class you'd imagine, but the best bit of it is you will earn business status credit on it.  I flew HND to ITA last year, paid about $120, and it was a 40 status credits trip! 

04 Aug 2014

Total posts 39

It really depends on where your destination is. For example around 70% of travellers between Osaka and Tokyo opt Shinkansen as it offers consistent service and punctuality. 

Some people do choose airplane though, as it's sometimes more convenient and faster than Shinkansen depending on specific place you live and destionation you're going. 

In Japan we tend to say if travel time on Shinkansen is more than 4hrs, most people would turn away from Shinkansen and choose airplane. 3.5hrs is where these two major transports have most intense competition in Japan, for example, Tokyo-Okayama, Tokyo-Hiroshima.

GM
GM

Air NZ Airpoints

12 Mar 2014

Total posts 36

Agreed. Also bear in mind the distance from the city centre/your destination of the airport. For example, Hiroshima airport is such a loooong way out of town and there is (unusually for Japan) no airport rail link, so even though flying may be quicker in terms of absolute time from downtown Tokyo, the inconvenience of the bus trip at the Hiroshima end tilts the decision in favour of the Shinkansen for many.

12 Dec 2012

Total posts 957

Itami airport in Osaka has no rail link either. (There is a monorail, but it doesn't go into Osaka).

04 Aug 2014

Total posts 39

This is probably why premium business travellers tend to travel in airplane than normal citizens. Premium business travellers have their own cars along with personal driver. Bear in mind lots of people in Japan do not own a car. Driving in Japan is incredibly expensive and it's not very easy for people to get to the airport. 

Shinkansen stations are mostly located at the central part of city and easy to transfer to local subway network. For majority of people it's easiest way to travel than taking planes.

QFF

12 Apr 2013

Total posts 1446

I vote train - used hi-speed train between London and Paris and it is far better than any plane and faster considering passport control, custom, waiting for baggage and getting to and from airports.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

28 Nov 2014

Total posts 7

I currently live in Japan (in the countryside) and I usually take the Shinkansen if my end destination can be reached within 3 hours. Anything further, I take the plane. (An example is that I currently live on the Western tip of Honshu and will take the Shinkansen up to Kyoto. To Tokyo, I'd take the plane).

However, I also take price into consideration, as sometimes (and provided you buy it at the right time), flying can be cheaper than Shinkansen. From where I live, it can cost me up to $75 cheaper flying return to Tokyo, than taking the shinkansen.

Pretty much, it really depends where you are starting, and where you are going. Either way, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to Japan's efficient public transport system!

25 Jul 2011

Total posts 14

It's really hard to beat their on time running record...

Also, if you are travelling between Tokyo and Osaka, the service runs every 10 minutes or so, much more frequently than the plane service.

For business trips between major cities in Japan, we always prefer shinkansen. Advantages: time saving, easy access, much more seat / leg room / wifi. Disadvantage: ticketing is old school (not online/app), and not available for purchase more than a day before. This may present an issue when arranging travel for staff - you will need to explain how to purchase tickets / select a "car" & seat. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

02 Jul 2011

Total posts 1386

Also worth seeking out the JAL Domestic First class (for a Y8000) surcharge.

A good SC earn on QF Frequent Flyer, and generally a great meal and a really good seat (better than QF J Dom)

Limited routes though:

Tokyo Haneda -- Sapporo, Fukuoka, Osaka and Okinawa on selected services.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

28 Nov 2014

Total posts 7

Even when you do fly Dom J on JAL, for just 1000 yen extra and generous SC's, you'd be going up the ranks on QFF in no time!

(Went from Bronze to Gold in the space of a year due to my numerous travels between Yamaguchi/Fukuoka and Tokyo)

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

21 Aug 2014

Total posts 513

I hope this comes to Australia one day between any major route, but oh well there will be a load of debate before.

20 Apr 2014

Total posts 94

For leisure travellers more focused on price than convenience the LCCs can be cheaper than Shinkansen depending on when you book.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

18 Jan 2016

Total posts 2

Did both - travelled day trip return Shinkansen from Osaka to Hiroshima utilising JR West 5 day pass for Y13000. This allows unreserved travel - no problem seating on the way for the whole family in economy style seating but plenty of leg room, but had to stand (all 85mins) on the way back as it was packed around 6pm departure and kept filling... We also used the pass to go to from Kyoto, to/from Nara and from KIX upon arrival. I worked out the individual tickets would have cost nearly Y25,000 so Y13,000 for the pass was excellent value. We used the NOZOMI both ways (not sure we were meant to?)

Also did domestic Jetstar flight (NRT/KIX) as it was only 6000 Qantas points and $14 in taxes - quite efficient and got a good view of Mt Fuji overhead.


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