Exploring Japan by train is usually an efficient and convenient of getting around, particularly if you plan to visit some of Japan’s major cities. (On the other hand, if you’re headed somewhere out in the countryside, or Okinawa, for example, you might be better off renting a car than relying on public transportation. I speak from experience.)
Last week I briefly mentioned a problem I had a few years ago: my reserved seat in a non-smoking car on a shinkansen (bullet train) or express train often ended up near a smoking car or smoking room, which hardly made the non-smoking car what it claimed to be. After this happened several times, I managed to locate the train layout charts online in Japanese to prevent this from happening again.
Now, most of Japan Railways’ (JR) trains are completely non-smoking in Japan, with the exception of some shinkansen on the Tokaido and Sanyo lines, and sleeper trains.
As I live on the Tokaido line, the train layout charts still come in handy. The layouts are also good for finding out which cars have reserved seats or unreserved seats. Other useful information includes which cars have wheelchair seating, where the bathrooms are located, or if a train has outlets (for cell phone or laptop) and where you can access them.
You might be fine with whatever seat you’re given, but if you would like to have more of an idea where you’re going to be sitting (or where you’d like to sit), let’s look at how to find JR shinkansen and express train seating charts online.
Some information is available in English, but most is in Japanese. JR East, which covers the area from Tokyo to Hokkaido, lists their shinkansen layouts in both English and Japanese. Covering the heavily-traveled area between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka is JR Central — they list the layout of their Nozomi trains in English and the rest in Japanese, although the English version lists car 3 of the 700 series as smoking, while the Japanese version lists car 3 as non-smoking. JR Kyushu lists their train information in Japanese only, and JR Shikoku only provides a pdf in Japanese.
Finally, JR West, covering the area from Shin-Osaka to Kyushu, has a useful website in Japanese called “JR Odekake Net,” which lists shinkansen, express train and some other train information not only for their service area, but other lines that connect to their service area, from Tokyo all the way south to Kagoshima (Kyushu) in the “train gallery” (車両案内). Some of the trains also listed run from Osaka up to Niigata or Sapporo (Hokkaido). Unfortunately, the site is only in Japanese, so let’s take a look at how to find the layout charts.
Once you arrive at the train gallery, click on any route on the map for a list of trains that run in those areas, or choose from the horizontal list below the map (run your cursor over the boxes and the map will highlight the corresponding route). If you don’t know the city names in kanji (Chinese characters), you can do a quick internet search. So, if you want to know the kanji for Tokyo, search for “Tokyo” and some of the results on the first page should show you the kanji: 東京.
If I plan to take the shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto (京都), for example, I would choose the route listed farthest to the left on the horizontal list, which reads: 山陽新幹線・東海道新幹線・九州新幹線. “新幹線” means shinkansen, so the list would say in English: Sanyo Shinkansen, Tokaido Shinkansen, and Kyushu Shinkansen.
After choosing the route, the next page lists a range of different train series and services that operate on each of the shinkansen lines mentioned above, as well as their individual routes, such as Tokyo to Hiroshima (広島), although even if a train is said to run between two cities, it might vary in reality, depending on the day and time. Tokyo and Kyoto are both on the Tokaido line, so I could take the Nozomi (のぞみ), the fastest service, which stops only at major stations; the Hikari (ひかり), which stops at more stations, but not all of them; or the Kodama (こだま), the “slowest” shinkansen service, which stops at every shinkansen station.
If I decide, from looking up the train schedule for my specified day of travel, to take a Hikari, I could end up on the N700 or 700 (although on the Tokaido line, these are the only models run by all three services), so I can click ひかり N700系 or ひかり 700系 with the Hiroshima-Tokyo routes (広島～東京) listed underneath. In either case the information that appears after clicking the model lists another horizontal dark gray bar above a picture of that specific train. To find the train layout I click on 列車編成 (resshahensei, train organization). An image with light gray bars (the train cars) and colorful icons in and above each car appears, indicating the number of cars and various features.
Non-smoking cars are marked by the standard non-smoking sign above them. Reserved seating cars have a green icon with 指 in the middle, which is short for 指定席 (shiteiseki, reserved seat). Unreserved seating cars have a blue icon with 自 in the middle, which is short for 自由席 (jiyuuseki, unreserved seat). Other icons include the standard accessibility icon for wheelchair-seating compatible cars, a green four leaf clover-shaped icon for “green car” (グリーン車) or first class seating, and a phone to show where the public telephones are.
In the case of the Hikari N700, all 16 cars are non-smoking, which is noted at the bottom of the image in Japanese: “全席禁煙です.” 全席 (zenseki) means “all seats” and 禁煙 (kinen) means non-smoking, while です is essentially the “are” if we say the sentence in English. Underneath this though, is a statement saying that they have smoking rooms, or 喫煙ルーム. 喫煙 (kitsuen) means “smoking” and ルーム (ruumu) means “room”. The next sentence tells us which cars have them and what side they are on, which in this case would be car 3 (Hiroshima side), car 7 (Tokyo side), car 15 (Hiroshima side) and green car 10 (Tokyo side).
The N700 also mentions that there are electrical outlets for cell phone or laptop charging (モバイル用コンセント) at all seats in the green cars, and at the front, rear and all window seats in regular cars. And on some of the Tohoku shinkansen, they have some cars with an upgraded version of first class called “Gran Class” (グランクラス).
As for the Hikari 700, all cars but green car 10, and regular cars 15 and 16 are non-smoking. Cars 1 through 5 have unreserved seats, similar to the N700, and cars 6, 7, and 11 through 16 are reserved cars. Cars 8 to 10 are green cars. This is the same layout as the Hikari N700.
If you’d like to see the seat layout (perhaps if you’re wondering where seat 12E in your car is), you can choose 席番配置 (sekibanhaichi). Not all models will list every car on the train, but it will give you an idea of how things are generally laid out. Some trains might not have this information listed.
How do you know what series or model of train you’ll be riding? For the shinkansen, in many cases, there are only a few models but multiple services for those models, which is the case with Tokaido line and the Nozomi, Hikari and Kodama services all running on N700 and 700 series trains. This is also true of shinkansen services on the Sanyo and Kyushu lines. In other cases, the train layouts are listed by the name and a number that is assigned to that particular train and route. So one model of train might be called one of two or three different names, with multiple numbers assigned for various routes and time of service.
Despite the fact that you can look up train timetable information in English via Hyperdia and Jorudan, they don’t list the series or model of the trains. You can find this information in Japanese by looking up the timetables elsewhere on the JR Odekake site. Or, if you are only trying to avoid smoking cars or rooms, like I do, you can look at the models that you could end up on (so for our Tokyo to Kyoto example, on a Hikari train, I could look at both N700 and 700 and decide where I’ll be the most safe when I request a particular car).
If you can’t read Japanese at all, you might find an online translator or browser translation tool such as Rikaikun or Rikaichan useful.
As a final note, most of these train layouts have a note saying that the information could differ at any time. It probably isn’t common, but if you do end up on a train that seems to be laid out in a way it wasn’t online, well, you’ve been warned.
If you have a travel tip or question you’d like to see addressed in this column, drop me a line at email@example.com