Buses in Japan
While most visitors to Japan from the UK will have a JR Pass which allows unlimited travel on all but the fastest bullet trains, highway buses offer a great alternative means of medium- and long-distance travel in Japan for budget-conscious travellers.
While highway buses are inevitably much slower than domestic flights or high-speed trains such as the bullet train, they are nearly always vastly cheaper, in some cases, costing just half the price or less compared to making the same journey by train.
A mixture of competition and cooperation between different highway bus companies means that in many cases, fares are pushed down very low. For example, the 7-8 hour journey from Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka can costs from as little as 5000 Yen.
On longer distance journeys, such as from Tokyo to cities in the Kansai region such as Osaka, Kyoto or Kobe, many highway buses offer service which travel overnight (night buses), meaning that they also save money by doubling as a night’s accommodation.
Highway Bus Companies
A dense network of highway bus routes covers most of Japan from north to south, linking most major cities to other cities, regions, and tourist spots. Many highway bus companies unfortunately do not yet provide English-language websites, booking services and support, however a handful of excellent companies do.
JR runs eight regional JR Bus companies which together operate a nationwide network of highway buses. JR highway buses are particularly easy to use for foreign tourists, as ticket purchases and seat reservations can be made in person at ticket counters at JR railway stations across Japan. Some routes, reservations can also be made in English online using kousokubus.net website.
Japan Bus Online is an online service that allows users to make bookings for highway bus journeys with multiple highway bus companies in English. Willer Express is a leading discount bus operator which has a wide network coverage and accepts online reservations in English.
The following providers also have English-language websites. Nouhi Bus offers highway bus services to several traditional mountain destinations in Gifu prefecture such as Takayama, Matsumoto and Shirakawa.
Keio Bus offer reasonably-priced bus services to Takayama, Hakuba ski resort in Nagano, and popular tourist destinations in the Mount Fuji area such as Lake Kawaguchi and Fuji-Q Highland theme park.
Buying Bus Tickets
If you are coming back the same way, buying a return ticket is often cheaper than buying two single tickets. Discounts are often offered for early bird purchases, children, students and groups. It is recommended to book in advance for popular routes and in peak seasons.
In the case of major bus companies such as JR Bus and Willer, and popular routes such as Tokyo-Osaka, boarding points are usually at the major bus terminal, main station or the bus company’s own private lounge.
However, for less popular routes or with discount bus companies, the boarding point may not be at a bus station or clearly recognisable bus stop, so it is important to check where the boarding point is in advance and head there well in advance of the departure time.
You usually get a seat reservation as standard for no extra cost along with your ticket booking. You may be told your seat number when you make the reservation or by the driver as you board the bus.
Long-distance and overnight buses are typically equipped with comfortable reclining seats in rows of three or four, while some premium routes have introduced premium seats resembling business class seats on an airplane. At the other end of the spectrum, discount buses may simply use standard coaches which tend to be less comfortable and more cramped.
Travelling by long-distance bus in Japan is very civilized compared to many other countries. All highway buses either are equipped with an onboard toilet or stop frequently on route at motorway service stations to allow passengers to use the facilities there.
If you are travelling by night bus and decide to get off at a service station stop, make sure that you can find your way back to your bus, as the car park can often be crowded with multiple similar-looking highway buses and hard to navigate in the dark.
On most highway buses, there is not space to carry large-size luggage items such as suitcases on board with you, so you will need to check them into the trunk of the bus before you board. In exchange, you will often be given a small luggage ticket for collecting your items on arrival, so make sure to keep it safe. If the bus is stopping at multiple destinations, you may need to tell the luggage handler the name of the stop where you are getting off.Smaller items such as handbags and rucksacks can be taken on board and placed in the overhead luggage racks or at your feet, so it is a good idea to separate out items you may need while on the bus, such as water, snacks, toothbrush and music, before you board.