When you think of Japan, and in particular of traveling around Japan, your thoughts might drift to the super efficient and reliant railways, the crushed yet speedy Tokyo Metro and of course the elder statesman of them all, the sleek, futuristic Shinkansen or bullet trains.
But increasing numbers of travelers to Japan are willing to trade off some of the advantages of the bullet train for a little extra money to put towards other aspects of a trip, like food, cultural experiences and souvenirs. This is where highway buses come in.
On a highway to cost saving
All across Japan there is a vast network of buses ferrying passengers between destinations. Highway buses offer a cheaper alternative to trains or flights for medium and long-distance travel around the country. The price varies between bus companies and routes but you’re almost always guaranteed to save money compared with other modes of transport.
The catch? Going by road does mean that your journey will take longer. However, many of these buses also travel overnight, allowing passengers to sleep on the way there and the way back, thereby maximizing the use of travel hours.
There is also the additional benefit that comes from the wider network of routes that these buses cover but which the faster trains do not. Bus lines crisscross the entire country, with all 47 prefectures accessible by one or more highway bus companies. Want to get down to Kansai? Hop on an overnight bus to Kyoto Station. Traveling to the tip of Tohoku? There’s a bus for that. Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku can all be explored with JR regional bus companies, as well as private railway affiliates like Keio Group, plus discount operators such as Willer Express.
Show me the money
Getting to Nagano by train required first getting to Shin Osaka Station, then a Shinkansen ride up to Nagoya and finally a three-hour slog through the mountains on the Shinano Limited Express Train. The whole journey took a little under five hours. The total cost: around 12,000 yen. So, we’re looking at a 24,000 yen round trip.
Going the same route by highway bus would take about seven hours, longer on the night bus. However, there isn’t the inconvenience of having to change trains twice or wait in Nagoya for 45 minutes. Also, if you can afford to give up those extra two hours each way, then the savings are significant too.
Depending on the day and time of travel the cost of the bus from Umeda, central Osaka, up to JR Nagano Station can be as low as 3,500 yen or as high as 8,500 yen. The most common standard fare is 7,000 yen or thereabouts. You’re then looking at a round trip of 14,000 yen. A saving of more than 40%. Not only this, but the timing of the buses actually allows you to extend your trip for longer. If you take the overnight bus on Friday at 9 p.m. from Osaka, even allowing for the longer travel time of the night bus, you will still arrive in Nagano well before 6 a.m. Saturday morning. If you took the first train on Saturday morning, getting up at 5 a.m. to do so, the earliest you could arrive in Nagano would be 10.30 a.m..
The way back from Nagano to Osaka is the same too. If we go with the train route, then the last train back leaves at 6.10 p.m.. However, taking the overnight bus allows you to stay on for that final dinner until 9 p.m., with you arriving back in Osaka the following morning feeling refreshed and ready for the day ahead.
It’s a similar story for travel between Osaka and Tokyo.
Again the cost of the bus varies slightly depending on the date and time of travel. It can be as low as 7400 yen or as high as 8,500. If the median figure is 8,000 yen, we’re looking at a round trip of 16,000 yen approximately. Currently, the cost of the Shinkansen from Osaka to Tokyo is 27,000 yen for the round trip. So again, savings are in the range of 40%. In this instance though there is a much greater difference in travel time. The bullet train from Osaka to Tokyo takes around three hours, whereas the bus journey takes eight.
On the bus
So how about the conditions on the buses themselves?
There are several different bus companies, all with varying degrees of comfort and value for money. A number of the buses now have in-seat mains power connectors, meaning that if you can’t sleep you can keep playing that phone game or watching those Netflix shows all the way to your destination.
You’ll also want to pay particular attention to the size, width and recline capacity of the seats too. Most bus companies offer different types of seats, from your standard upright to a plush cocoon seat complete with a space-age hood. Understandably, the more luxurious the more expensive but even at the top range, you’re still paying less money than you would for a Shinkansen ticket.
One of the fun parts of traveling by bus is taking a break at the amazing rest stops that line Japan’s highways. What you’d expect to be depressing service areas selling dodgy fast-food sourced from the boot of a car actually turns out to be a spectacular plaza, with gourmet food halls and souvenir shops chock-full of regional delights. Known as Michi-no-eki in Japanese, there are even themed rest stops based on films or anime, or inspired by famous international travel destinations.
Booking the bus
Willer Express is one of the most well-known bus operators for foreign travelers as their website has an easy online reservation page in English. Other operators are following suit; sites like VIP Liner, Highway Bus and Japan Bus Lines now also provide multi-lingual navigation. Alternatively you can head to the bus terminal, a travel agent like JTB or certain stations. I wouldn’t recommend calling the bus company unless you can speak very good Japanese.
Various types of tickets are available. Unsurprisingly, you’ll almost always save money by buying a round-trip ticket. Discounted multiple tickets are a good option if you’re traveling around the country. There are also bus passes like the Tohoku Highway Bus Ticket for discounted travel on many of the lines in the region, or the Willer Express Japan Bus Pass (only available to overseas residents).
With new routes and further innovations in comfort and convenience being added every year, it seems that even as a new Maglev line between Tokyo and Osaka begins construction, the highway buses are here to stay.