Speedy, clean, and high-tech, there’s a lot to like about traveling around Japan on the shinkansen. As of Wednesday, though, Japan’s bullet trains suddenly became a lot less convenient.
As announced last summer, JR Tokai (also known as Central Japan Railway Company), JR West, and JR Kyushu have decided to institute new rules regarding luggage on the shinkansen. As of May 20, passengers traveling on the Tokaido, Sanyo, and Kyushu Shinkansen Lines (essentially the lines connecting Tokyo with all parts west of the country, including Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka) will be required to make reservations for “oversized luggage,” or pay an additional fee of 1,000 yen if they show up for their train without one. In addition, oversized luggage reservations can only be made by passengers traveling by more expensive reserved-seat tickets, effectively banning the use of large luggage by travelers using the lower-priced non-reserved seat tickets.
JR is defining oversized luggage as any suitcase with total length, height, and width measurements over 160 centimeters. For reference, Japan Airlines’ carryon bag allowance is 120 centimeters, and the total measurements of the suitcase pictured below round to 160 centimeters.
JR will be installing frames where travelers can check the size of their luggage inside stations, as pictured above. However, reservations for oversized luggage must be made at the time the ticket is purchased. Show up without a reservation, and you’ll have to pay the fine.
However, the hassles don’t stop there. The reason you have to make your luggage reservation at the same time as your seat reservation is because the two are linked. JR is designating the back row of seats on reserved-seat cars as “oversized luggage space seats,” meaning that if you want to bring oversized luggage on the train, you have to reserve one of those specific seats.
▼ The space for oversized luggage is behind the last row of seats.
While these seats aren’t priced any higher than other reserved seats, shinkansen trains are, at most, six seats wide, meaning that only a maximum of six passengers per reserved-seat car can travel with oversized luggage.
Just how scarce are the oversized luggage seats? On a Kodama-configuration Shinkansen, there are only 10 standard-class oversized luggage seats for the entire train, plus another 12 in the top-of-the-line Green Car class. That’s a grand total of 22 for the entire train, and the numbers for the other Shinkansen types (32 for Hikari, 42 for Nozomi) aren’t much larger. A couple families of four (mom, dad, two kids) who don’t want to sit apart from each other can fill up the oversized luggage seats in no time.
So what happens if you have an oversized suitcase, but not an oversized luggage reservation? As mentioned above, if you’re willing to pay the extra 1,000 yen, JR will direct you to an unused oversized luggage space where you’ll be allowed to put your bags…if there’s space left. Otherwise, your only options appear to be waiting for another train, mailing your bags to your destination, or, apparently, parting with your worldly possessions and leaving them behind when you get on the train.
▼ One thing to be thankful for: strollers, sports equipment, and musical instruments are exempt from the reservation requirement, though if you plan on putting them at the back of the car you are still asked to make a reservation.
In its website FAQ, JR Tokai says the reason for the new policy is “In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of passengers from overseas, and more people bringing large bags onto the train. We expect these trends to accelerate with the opening of the Olympics and Paralympics” (the luggage policy, and its spring 2020 start, was decided upon before the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics/Paralympics, and JR is sticking to its original timetable).
The FAQ also covers the question of how the policy applies to the Kodama shinkansen that runs between Tokyo and Shin Osaka, which until now has been entirely non-reserved seat cars. Can you take your oversized luggage on without a reservation? Of course not, silly! Instead, JR Tokai is turning one of the cars into a reserved-seat car, so you can reserve one of the special seats (and pay more than you would for a non-reserved one).
In many ways, the new policy looks like a way to indirectly raise shinkansen ticket prices. Between the generous all-you-can-ride shinkansen passes JR has been offering in recent years, a surge in long-haul overseas tourists in Japan, and even a domestic travel boom among Japan residents, it’s possible that JR is bumping up against space/cost limits, and the new policy is a way to cope with those issues. However, it’s still kind of surprising for a Japanese company to institute such a slew of impositions on customers without some sort of apology, and for anyone planning to hop on the Shinkansen, you might want to measure your bag first.
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