We’ve previously covered catching highway buses to distant destinations in Japan. In comparison, catching a local bus might not seem like a difficult task. But with a variety of payment systems, bus types, and even different companies running various routes, it’s handy to know the ins and outs of Japanese buses.

Types of buses

Hmm… never seen this one before…

The most popular types of buses for long distance travel, as we’ve discussed before, are highway buses. These are coaches that go between major cities and tourist destinations, offering an economical means of travel. There are also special limousine buses that are designed to carry passengers to airports.

The cute “Chii-bus” community bus in Minato Ward | Photo by Gregory Lane

Then, for smaller, municipal routes, most of Tokyo’s 23 wards will have their own buses that take circular routes through the ward. Some examples are as Shibuya’s Hachiko bus, or the Shinjuku WE bus. These are ideal if you want to see all the major spots in one location. Finally, Toei buses, which usually travel between stations that are poorly connected by rail or other means of transport. These are by far the most common buses you will see in Tokyo, and the ones you’ll be taking to travel between different wards in the city.

How to pay on a bus

a suica card
A traveller’s best friend | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

Paying for a bus in Tokyo can have two components – how you pay, and when you pay. For payment methods, most buses will usually accept cash and IC cards for one off trips. If you’re unfamiliar with them, IC cards are a type of prepaid card, and have a host of different uses. The most popular IC cards in Tokyo are the Suica and PASMO cards, but most IC cards are accepted. Most buses will have a reader where you can scan your card, as well as a slot for paying with coins or bills. However, some more rural buses may only accept cash, so it’s worth keeping in mind if you head towards the outskirts of Tokyo.

When to pay may also be cause for confusion. Most buses will have a flat fee regardless of how far you travel, usually around ¥200. For these buses, you will usually board at the front of the bus, pay, and then leave the bus at your destination.

Infrequently, though, you may encounter buses with a fare board displayed at the front of the bus. These buses you will usually board from the back of the bus, and either touch your IC card or receive a ticket upon boarding. When you arrive at your destination, you will touch your IC card to the reader at the front of the bus, or give your ticket to the driver, who will calculate your fare based on the distance you’ve travelled. These buses are also usually only found in the outskirts of Tokyo, where the distance between stops can be quite variable.

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Passes and Day Tickets

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
Not just for trains! | Photo by iStock.com/CHENG FENG CHIANG

If you think you might be taking a lot of bus trips on the same day, a bus pass can offer good value for money. With the average bus ride priced at around ¥220, you only need to be taking three or more trips for the Toei one-day pass to save you money. This pass gives you unlimited travel on Toei buses in Tokyo’s 23 wards for a day, and can be purchased on buses, at stations, and at JTB travel centers. There is also an expanded version that allows travel on the Toei subway lines – but make sure that your routes are entirely composed of Toei routes before buying. With the multitude of companies responsible for Tokyo’s metropolitan transport network, a journey can involve using several different transport companies, which the pass will not cover.

Some of the other companies that run buses in Tokyo are Odakyu (Link in Japanese), which operates in the south-west of Tokyo, and Keio (Link in Japanese) which operate in west and central Tokyo. You can confirm whether your buses are on the Toei network here. Before setting out, be sure to check if you can save money by sticking to one company’s bus routes and obtaining a day pass.

Bus tracking and route planning

Kanachu bus to Miyagase
Planning is key for less frequent buses! | Photo by Carey Finn

When planning your trip, it’s also important to make sure you’re on the correct route, and real-time updates can help ensure your trip runs smoothly. While google maps does offer an easy solution, most bus operators have timetables, notifications, and even real-time bus updates on their websites. You can find information on the status of Toei buses here, and similar information for Keio and Odakyu buses on their websites. Most of these sites also have a route planner, such as this one, which lets you plan your journey out before setting foot on a bus. With both sets of information handy, it shouldn’t be difficult to ensure a stress-free journey.

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