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Cheap and Comfortable! A Guide to Using Japan’s Highway Buses

Did you know that highway buses are an extremely convenient way to get around Japan? This article will introduce some of the benefits of highway buses as well as how to use them.

Highway Buses (A Summary)

Highway buses that use the expressway to connect towns, cities, and sightseeing spots are the cheapest means of long distance travel within the country. They cover all of Japan with the exception of Okinawa, and you can get on and off not only at large stations but also at small roadside stops. There are lots of other benefits that you won’t get anywhere else so when you travel across Japan, be sure and put it to good use. These highway buses are divided into two large-scale systems. The first is the highway buses that are managed by railway and bus companies. The second one belongs to travel companies. They each have their own particular characteristics so pick one that works based on your travel goals and preferences.

*Photo is for illustration purposes.

Advantages of highway buses

Let’s have a look at the more tangible advantages of highway buses.

*Photo is for illustration purposes

1. Low prices

The biggest advantage is definitely the low price. If you compare the cost of a one-way trip from Tokyo to Osaka via airplane, it's usually around 25,000 JPY and upwards. Even an unreserved seat on the Shinkansen is 13,620 JPY. Compare that to a highway bus which normally costs about 5,000 JPY. Even if you’re riding during peak season or you pick a deluxe vehicle, the prices are still around 8,000 to 9,000 JPY.

2. Efficient use of time

For long-distance travel, there are many overnight bus services that depart late at night and arrive at your destination in the morning. If you travel via night bus, on top of saving on room fare for one night, you get to arrive at your destination early in the morning and have an entire day at your disposal.

3. Easy access to your destination

Some highway buses take you directly to tourist areas like Tokyo Disneyland and Mt. Fuji so when you’re visiting places like that, it’s incredibly convenient. In areas where trains are scarce, if you consider transferring to a bus you can arrive much faster.

4. You can travel in comfort

When you take a highway bus, you will definitely have a place to sit. Also unlike trains there are no transfers so you can arrive smoothly at your destination.

5. Advantage of choice

Buses operated by railroad companies or bus companies have the advantage of being easily accessible and can be boarded near the station. You can also purchase tickets at the station. Also, compared to those operated by travel agencies, they have a larger number of stops. On the other hand, buses operated by travel agencies can save you more money in many cases. The prices of some tickets are so low you will be shocked. Also they have many varieties of deluxe seating where you can stretch out your legs and push your seat all the way back. They are also inclined to provide services and amenities like earplugs, eye masks and the like.

*These features vary based on the company so they’re not standard.

How to book seats on a highway bus

Now that you’ve decided to book a seat on a highway bus, here is an explanation on choosing buses and buying tickets.

*Photo is for illustration purposes.

1. The many kinds of highway buses

There are over 150 companies that operate highway buses and various kinds of vehicles and courses available. The same area traveled by the same company might have different grades of buses which take different times and differ by price. The bus grade is usually determined based on the number of seats that it has, with the standard being a horizontal row of 3 or 4 seats. The fewer the number of horizontal seats are, the more space there is between you and your neighbor so you can sit comfortably. Similarly, the fewer the seats on the bus means the more the front to back seats are spaced out so you can push your seat all the way back. There are buses that offer alignment of seats are on par with business class in an airplane. The higher grade buses will naturally be more expensive so your selection will change based on your priority.

2. How to search for and purchase tickets

Firstly decide on your departure point and search for a route. Although the destination may be the same, the routes and travel time might differ so take note. You can conveniently search on the bus company sites or booking sites like JAPAN BUS LINES. Also, highway buses operated by train and bus companies have schedules so you can just go to your nearest bus terminal to check their schedule and purchase a ticket there. Apart from booking sites, you can also purchase at travel agency counters and convenience stores. It’s important to note that many highway buses have a cancellation fee and the cancelling method differs based on how you paid which can be quite complicated. When you buy your tickets, be sure to confirm then.

3. Buying cheap tickets

When you are searching for cheap tickets, you can check frequently on booking sites for the lowest prices. Travel agency operated highway buses also have frequent fluctuations in prices. There are options where, if you postpone your departure time, the price becomes cheaper so it’s good to try lots of different methods. Midday buses also tend to be generally cheaper than night buses.

Recommended highway bus companies

Finally, here are some recommended bus companies.

1. JR Bus

One of the biggest highway bus companies that covers the majority of Japan from Hokkaido to Kyushu. It started as JR Bus Kanto which covered the surrounding Tokyo area and has since become a group of 8 companies. The bus terminals are located right in front of the JR stations making them extremely accessible and it is a highly valued company in regards to its services and buses. You can conveniently purchase tickets at the green ticket counters (midori no madoguchi) at JR stations.

JR Bus Tohoku
JR Tokai Bus (English site available)
Nishinihon JR Bus
Chugoku JR Bus (English site available)
JR Hokkaido Bus
JR Kyushu Bus
JR Shikoku Bus (English & Chinese site available)

2. Willer Express

This industry leader of travel agency operated buses is popular for their abundance of seating variations. In particular, their two row “cocoon” seats are like having your own private room and comes with its own theater system so you can enjoy your travels. Also, their bus terminals in Shinjuku and Umeda offer powder rooms and internet service so before you depart and after you arrive you can pass the time in relative ease.

2. Willer Express

Although highway buses are extremely convenient and comfortable, there are times when it will be running late due to traffic jams and it’s easy to run over time so please take note. Also, it may not be the best choice for people who are not good with sitting for long periods of time or for those who can’t sleep on moving vehicles. If you make yourself aware of all the special qualities of highway buses, it will definitely become an indispensable support for your travels. Be sure to give it a try.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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