Domestic travel in Japan has a reputation for being on the expensive side. Especially as a backpacker, it sometimes seems mind-boggling how everyone can afford it! The truth is the more well-known travel methods are actually not affordable for large swaths of the population. Luckily though that doesn’t mean that you can’t travel to many of the country’s sites on a budget (including those off the beaten path).
By far the cheapest way for most people to travel around the country is via highway buses. While they may take a little bit more planning than the Shinkansen, they make transportation possible at only a fraction of the cost. In fact during low seasons, it’s possible to get from Tokyo to Nagoya for only 1,500 yen, or to Osaka for only 2,000 yen. Buses from Tokyo to destinations in Northern Japan, Central Japan and others are also widely available.
Japan’s Highway Buses are Hard to Reserve
The benefits of highway buses are not without their hurdles for foreign travelers though. For starters, there are only a few bus companies with sites in English and they tend to be more expensive than those only in Japanese. While still significantly more affordable than using trains, options for destinations are usually also limited. Nevertheless, with a little bit of Japanese assistance, you can usually do far better for yourself.
Of course the easiest way to navigate Japanese-only sites is to recruit a native do it for you. Those of you with connections here would do well to coerce your acquaintances into helping. This will avoid what could otherwise turn into hours of frustration. If you’re traveling and don’t know anyone in Japan yet, another alternative is to ask the front desk at your hotel or hostel to give you a hand.
That said, these days services like Google Translate have made it somewhat possible to navigate sites entirely in Japanese by yourself. Despite the advances in machine translation, there are a few terms that it would be helpful for you to be able to recognize. The first of this is 往復 (read as “Ōfuku”) and means round trip. Another important one is 片道 (read as “Katamichi”) which means one-way. Being able to pick out these two words will help you greatly when trying to book.
Reserving Highway Buses in Japanese
There are several bus sites but the one I highly recommend that you use is Bushikaku.net. The reason for this is that it searches across a vast number of companies to generate a comparison of prices, amenities and departure times. Once you find a bus that suits your needs, clicking on the link will take you directly to that bus company’s page. Some popular ones to keep an eye out for are Sakura Kanko and Willer Express.
When booking buses to and from Tokyo or Osaka, be sure to check the map for where you will be let off. Several of the terminals are located ridiculously far from the nearest train station meaning that you’ll have a depressing hike ahead of you. Be especially careful with Willer Express from Umeda or Ikebukuro. The departure points are located so far from the train station that finding your way can be challenging for travelers.
Unfortunately, the real difficulties begin only after you’ve found a bus you want to book. If you thought this would be easy, you haven’t been paying attention! You see, most companies in Japan require that you register your full name, date of birth, gender and address (in Japan). While you can easily use where you’re staying for the address, you’ll also be required to give a Japanese phone number to complete the process. Some websites will not verify the numbers but others will require SMS confirmation.
If like most travelers you don’t have a Japanese phone number, the go-to option is to again convince a friend to help. Should this not be possible for whatever reason, you might need to revisit your choice of bus companies. For Sakura Kanko, you can get away with using a landline phone number so just enter your the phone number of your hotel or hostel. Be sure to enter it without any hyphens though to avoid getting an error.
If you’ve managed all this, the last step is to register your name and choose how to pay for your ticket. If you have the option of a printout available to you, the easiest way to do this is to pay by credit card and print out the ticket yourself. This will save you a whole lot of hassle so opt for this whenever possible. Oh and before you ask, no a digital copy won’t work. Japan is the land of hard copies after all…
Should you not have a printer available where you’re staying, paying at a convenience store is probably the best option. This will involve using a machine such as Lawson’s Loppi or other similar alternative. The basic process entails selecting the category under which your purchase falls then inputting the reservation number. After navigating this digital nightmare, you’ll get a receipt which you’ll need to take to the cashier register. Only then will they finally print your ticket.
As you can probably imagine, this can be really challenging for non-natives so act like a dumb tourists and punt the difficulties off on the staff instead. I’ve seen even Japanese have trouble using these machines before so don’t try to do it yourself. You’re just going to creature more problems and headaches for yourself!
Screw it, I’ll Pay for the Highway Bus!
If you’d like to preserve your sanity and not deal with booking in Japanese, the alternative is to go to one of the English sites. While these do not have the same deals that you’ll find on the Japanese-only websites like Bushikaku.net, they’ll keep you out of the mental ward.
The following list contains some of the bus companies that have at the very least an English language website. Note that some of them actually have a very limited offering compared to their Japanese counterparts.
One thing you may be wondering is why there’s such a huge discrepancy in price for the same routes. In addition to trying to cash in on the inbound tourism boom, pricing also has a lot to do with services and amenities. Some buses have power outlets so that you can charge your phone or laptop en route whereas others have extra wide seats so you’re not bumping elbows the whole way. If you don’t mind paying extra, you may even be able to find a bus with luxuries like blankets, neck pillows and onboard Wi-Fi.
Parting Advice on Japan’s Highway Buses
If it’s your first time riding highway bus in Japan, try to show up a little early. Some of the bus terminals can be tricky to find and you don’t want to risk missing your bus. I’d advise you screenshot or print out the location ahead of time and not be afraid to ask if need be. Most station attendants these days speak some level of English.
In regards to seating, the staff will usually try to seat you next to someone of the same gender (hence the importance of this question when registering). If you are traveling as a pair, it’s likely that you will be seated together except in some special circumstances like when the bus is extremely crowded due to high seasons.
In closing, while it’s not as convenient as the Shinkansen, highway buses are an easy way to keep travel costs down in Japan. Sure they come with their own set problems but these challenges are just a good excuse to strike up a conversation with the locals.