Bus travel in Japan

Understand

Whether it's connecting small towns, big cities or airports, buses are an important and relatively inexpensive mode of transportation in Japan.

The most popular buses are those that streak along Japan's expressways by night. Several decades ago, the preferred mode of overnight transportation was on the country's network of sleeper trains. Over time, buses began to take center stage while overnight train service declined in both popularity and reliability. Today, fierce competition between bus operators results in better prices, and for those willing to pay a little extra, better amenities.

In other parts of the country - such as Kyoto where rail transit is sparse, or Hakone where winding roads must be navigated to reach popular hotels and hot springs - the bus becomes indispensable.

Highway buses

Nishitetsu operates this double-decker on one of Japan's longest highway bus routes: the 1,150 km (715 mi) journey from Tokyo to Fukuoka.
Willer Express highway buses are known for their distinctive pink colors.

Long-distance highway buses (高速バス kōsoku basu; ハイウェイバス haiwei basu) serve many of the inter-city routes covered by trains at significantly lower prices, but take much longer than the Shinkansen. There is a multitude of operators, including Star Express and Willer Express, Kansai Bus, as well as companies of the JR group.

The amount of competition between bus operators in recent years - in particular buses between Tokyo and Kansai - has led to the adoption of dynamic pricing on many routes. This means that the price of a ticket will vary based on several factors, including:

A few highway bus routes still operate on fixed fare structures, where the fare is the same regardless of the date of travel.

Many of these are overnight runs (夜行バス yakō basu), which allows you to save on a night's accommodation. It may be worth it to pay a premium to get a better seat; remember that it is less fun to sightsee after a sleepless night. Look out for 2列シート niretsu shitto or 3列シート sanretsu shiito, meaning there are only two or three seats per row instead of four. Intercity buses usually have significantly less legroom than intercity trains, so passengers over about 175 cm may be uncomfortable.

More buses are now offering more luxurious Premium Seating. These seats are bigger, offer more legroom, and are exclusive, with only a few seats allocated to an entire bus. Examples include the first floor seating on JR Bus' Premium Dream service, and Cocoon seats on Willer Express services.

Some overnight buses can only be used by women, while some companies will endeavor to make sure that solo women travelers are not seated next to solo men travelers.

For most long-distance journeys, buses will make a few rest stops along the way at one of Japan's Service Areas (abbreviated SA for short). Service Areas offer vending machines, convenience stores, shops, and of course, toilets. Note that the rest stops are short, so be sure to be on time for the departure of your bus.

Japan Bus Pass

Bus operator Willer Express offers a Japan Bus Pass for travel on their network of highway buses. It is available to anyone with a foreign passport, including tourists and residents.

There are two versions: A weekday pass, or Monday-Thursday pass, costs ¥10000 for 3 days, ¥12500 for 5 days or ¥15000 for 7 days. An All-Day pass costs ¥12500 for 3 days or ¥15000 for 5 days. Travel days are non-consecutive, but passes must be used up within two months. You are limited to a maximum of three bus trips per day. Passes are not transferable and photo identification is required when boarding the buses.

If you have a lot of time on your hands, want to visit several major cities in a single trip, and do not mind the time spent on buses (including sleeping), then the Bus Pass is worth considering. The more trips you take, the more cost-effective the pass will be. You can potentially ride Willer Express buses for as little as ¥1000 per trip.

There are a couple of small drawbacks to using the Bus Pass:

Local buses

Local buses make up most of Kyoto's public transit system.

You won't need to use local buses (路線バス rosen basu) much in the major cities, but they're common in smaller towns and the idiosyncratic payment system is worth a mention. On most buses, you're expected to board from the back and grab a little numbered slip as you enter, often just a white piece of paper automatically stamped by the dispenser as you pull it. In the front of the bus, above the driver, is an electronic board displaying numbers and prices below, which march inexorably higher as the bus moves on. When it's time to get off, you press the stop button, match your numbered slip to the electronic board's current price, deposit the slip and corresponding payment in the fare machine next to the driver, then exit through the front door. Note that you must pay the exact fare: to facilitate this, the machine nearly always has bill exchanger built in, which will eat ¥1,000 bills and spew out ¥1,000 worth of coins in exchange. If you're short on change, it's best to exchange before it's time to get off.

Increasingly, buses accept smartcards such as PASMO and Suica - you will need to tap your card against a scanner by the entrance (usually above the ticket dispenser) and then again using the scanner next to the fare machine by the driver when you exit. If you fail to 'tap on' when boarding, you will be charged the maximum fare when alighting.

The electronic board almost always includes a display and recorded voice announcements of the next stop usually only in Japanese, although some cities (like Kyoto) make a welcome exception. However, if asked most drivers will be glad to tell you when you've reached your destination.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Friday, February 19, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.