Should I Reserve a Seat?

Making seat reservations with your JR Pass

Japan rail pass

With the many different types of trains in Japan, tickets and reservations-- and whether you need them or not-- can get a little confusing. If you're traveling using a Japan Rail Pass, here's some travel advice for you to decide if you should make a reservation or not.

which trains have reserved seats?

All shinkansen (bullet) trains have reserved seats, as well as trains called Limited Express. Both of those types are trains that move rapidly across large expanses of the country, so they are a little more expensive and a little more fancy than an average commuter train.
All shinkansen have three cars of unreserved seating either at the front or the back of the train, and will be marked as such in both English and Japanese. Announcements on the platform will also help you find out where these are. The rest of the cars are reserved seating only, with conductors stopping by to check your ticket.

Limited express trains also have unreserved cars, although the number varies depending on the line (ranging from one to three). These will also be marked on both the train and the platform.

Do i need a reservation?

Your Japan Rail Pass entitles you to free seat reservations on all trains that are valid with your rail pass. You may find that having a specific seat is more comfortable than looking for empty seats on the unreserved cars, especially if you are traveling with your family and would like to sit together.
If you are making a reservation with a rail pass, only you (the passholder) can do this, and it must be done once you are in Japan. After activating your rail pass, take it to any JR ticket office and present your pass to make a free reservation. You can do this as far in advance as you would like/is possible, or even just before you plan to get on a train. Learn more about the ticket reservation here.

NOTE 1 : The day that you take your voucher in to exchange it for a rail pass does not need to be the start date of your pass; you can set it to start on another day. Once the voucher is exchanged, you can make ticket reservations at any time you would like, as long as the date of your train travel falls within the date the rail pass can be used.

NOTE 2 : From May 2020, a seat reservation near the luggage area will be MANDATORY in the shinkansen of the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu lines if the sum of the dimensions of your luggage exceeds 160 cm. In addition, the total height + width + depth of each item must be less than 250 cm.

trains where you don't need a reservation

Trains that are just called "express" are different from a Limited Express, and most likely have only unreserved seating. These are commuter trains that skip over some of the smaller stations, rather than trains that travel long distances. Some examples include the "JR Rapid Express" that carries students and workers between Osaka and Kyoto cities in Kansai, or Tokyo and Yokohama cities in Kanto. You do not need to make reservations for express trains, although you may find that these are very crowded during peak rush hours.
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