The Japan Rail Pass is a well-known travel hack, allowing virtually unlimited train rides across the nation for anyone visiting Japan on a short-term tourist visa. However, there’s another budget travel trick for those looking to soak up Japan at a more leisurely pace, at a fraction of the cost—and this one is available to foreign residents, too. Cheapos, meet the Japan Bus Pass.
What is the Japan Bus Pass?
This flexible, multi-option pass offers an affordable and convenient way to see the country, as long as you don’t mind foregoing a little sleep. It gives you access to highway buses, including night buses—but not local buses.
The Japan Bus Pass is available to anyone with a non-Japanese passport, regardless of whether you’re a short-term visitor or long-term resident.
The basic Japan Bus Pass comes in a three-day, three buses per day package for ¥10,200 for travel between a Monday and Thursday, or ¥12,800 for travel any day of the week (including weekends).
If you’re planning a longer road adventure, there are also five- and seven-day Japan Bus Pass options to choose from. You can buy a Japan Bus Pass online from Willer Express.
Top tip: Check out our full guide to Japan’s highway buses, which includes pros and cons, booking your spot and how to enjoy the ride.
Best Value Flights To Tokyo
Types of Japan Bus Pass
|Japan Bus Pass Mon to Thurs Option||3 days: ¥10,200||5 days: ¥12,800||7 days: ¥15,300|
|Japan Bus Pass Any Day Option||3 days: ¥12,800||5 days: ¥15,300|
Note: At the time of publication, sales of the Japan Bus Pass had been temporarily suspended due to COVID-19 countermeasures. However, the pass is expected to become available again later in 2020.
We decided to try out the Japan Bus Pass and see how much of Tohoku could be covered on a three-day adventure.
From snowy ski fields and coastal sushi markets to plentiful hot spring towns, this underrated corner of Japan has everything but still feels untouched by mainstream tourism. It’s also pretty far from Tokyo, and a bit expensive to reach via the Shinkansen, so it’s a great place to visit by discount bus rides.
Japan Bus Pass sample itinerary
Heading from Tokyo central to the snowy mountains of Zao Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture, the sushi center of Sakata, and finally the city of Akita—this is what we did with our three-day Japan Bus Pass.
Day 1: Tokyo to Mt. Zao
The most budget-friendly way to travel across Japan is definitely by overnight bus, especially because you save on hotel rooms. Departing Shinjuku Station at 11:30 pm will get you to Yamagata Station at around 6:30 am—possibly earlier, depending on how eager the driver is—making for a tidy, maybe even restorative seven-hour sleep for the entire journey.
Sure, it’s not as comfortable as a bed, and the stopping at highway rest stations (known in Japanese as michi no eki) every two hours can set off the lighter of sleepers, but sometimes saving money comes at a price.
Yamagata Station to Zao
The onsen-dotted, snow-dusted Mt. Zao (also known as Zao Onsen) in Yamagata Prefecture was the first stop on our itinerary. Unlike other ski resorts in Japan, this place seems to have flown under the radar of most international guests (for now, anyway).
From Yamagata Station, the bus trip to Mt. Zao—the only way to get there that isn’t by car—takes 30 minutes and costs ¥1,000 each way. You can buy your ticket on the bus itself (like all local buses, this isn’t included in the Japan Bus Pass).
Popular with domestic skiers and day-trippers alike, Mt. Zao is a destination for all types of travelers. If you like snow sports, this place—one of Japan’s oldest resorts—has over 30 ski lifts, gondolas and ropeways that’ll get you to even the most far-flung corners of the mountain.
See the snow monsters
The area’s most famous winter attraction is the eerily beautiful Zao snow monsters, known as juhyo in Japanese. These towering monsters are actually just trees which, sculpted by the snow, ice, and freezing wind, take on unique, almost enchanting postures.
Even if you don’t have ski gear—but it’s recommended you do rug up—you can take the gondola to the top of the mountain to see the trees from the viewing platform. They are typically at their peak in mid-February, while the mountain hosts a snow monster festival in late January.
The question is, if you went to Zao Onsen, and didn’t go to an actual onsen (hot spring), were you ever in Zao at all? The mountain is home to plenty of natural hot springs, each with its own appeal.
There are super-old, traditional-style baths that’ll not quite boil you alive, and more visitor-friendly choices too. If you’re not too sure where to begin, and you’re new to the onsen scene, try Shinzaemon no Yu—it’s a modern facility that also includes a restaurant.
Stay the night
Unlike some of the more internationally known areas like Niseko or Hakuba, Zao’s accommodations are far more humble. But that is a huge part of its appeal, especially for those who like to get a taste of “the real Japan”, and not just stay in some cookie-cutter resort.
Pension Bokunouchi is an affordable, central (less than a five-minute walk to the chairlifts) guesthouse that mixes traditional Japanese and European styles, with tatami bedrooms, futon bedding and après-ski style European breakfast sets.
Day 2: Zao to Sakata
From Zao, you can trek northwest to Sakata, a coastal city in Yamagata Prefecture. Best known for its Buddhist history, excellent rice and incredible sushi, it’s a far cry from the snow-capped sights of Mt. Zao, but by scenic local train, it takes less than three hours to get there.
From Yamagata Station, take the local JR train lines (usually, Yamagata, Rikuusai and Uetsu) to Sakata Station. It’s not the quickest way to get around, but it’s a great way to see the sights of Tohoku. This part of the trip costs ¥2,310.
One thing to be aware of on this journey is that some of the smaller train stations don’t take IC cards (like Pasmo and Suica), so to be safe, have a little extra cash on you. If you do end up trying to exit Sakata Station with an IC card, you’ll be asked to pay cash for the trip and will be given a credit note that you can show the train staff next time you visit a station that accepts IC.
The Sankyo Warehouses are Sakata’s most iconic attraction. Back during the Edo period, Sakata emerged as a major trade hub: it was a stop-off point between northern Japan and Osaka, running along the Sea of Japan and the Seto Inland Sea.
Yamagata as a whole is known for being a prefecture with a prime rice-growing climate, so this site became one of the key locations for storing and sorting rice before it was shipped across the nation.
Today, the warehouses are a tourist attraction and a popular photography spot. Pop into the Historical Museum of Shonai Rice, a museum—as you may have guessed from the name—dedicated to the area’s rice-cultivating history. There’s also Yume no Kura, a small shopping and restaurant complex, while the best spots for getting photos of the warehouses running along the zelkova tree-flanked path are out the back.
The freshest fish in town
While it’s only open during the day, Sakata Port’s Seafood Market is the perfect pitstop for those who want to dive deep into the city’s culinary scene.
On the first floor, the market sells seafood caught fresh from the Sea of Japan, while the second floor has a restaurant serving up daily specialties—think sushi, bento boxes and kaisen donburi (seafood bowls) sourced from the sellers downstairs.
Boozy Kitamae Yokocho
A humble city with a fondness for drinking and eating well, Sakata’s Kitamae Yokocho is a great place to end the day and make a few new local friends. Unlike most of the nation’s yokocho (drinking alleys), this is one of the newer areas of its type in Japan.
The yokocho was founded and is run by a community of local chefs, who offer a variety of different Japanese dishes, including gyoza, ramen and yakitori (grilled, skewered chicken).
Stay the night at Wakaba Ryokan
For somewhere that’s budget-friendly but still rich in Japanese charm, try Wakaba Ryokan. This is a well-kept, renovated ryokan with compact but nicely laid out tatami rooms, a modern public bath, and a spacious lobby area, complete with a resident cat.
The room windows look out onto the ryokan’s meticulously maintained interior garden, making for a tranquil retreat after a long day of traveling. They serve a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner at the on-site restaurant, which is open to non-staying guests, too.
Day 3: Sakata to Maruike Pond
Back on the local JR train, the first stop of the last day is Fukura Station in the small town of Yuza.
This stop is a 45-minute trip from Sakata, and after alighting it’s a 20-minute walk to one of Tohoku’s most underrated and enchanting sights—the 3-meter deep, 20-meter long Maruike Pond.
This pond is a site of spiritual significance: it’s said that trees which fall in the water here don’t decompose, but rather are enshrined.
Maruike Pond is located in the Mt. Chokai Geopark, right at the base of Mt. Chokai. Filled with water that comes from a spring deep underground, the pond is a rich emerald and vibrant blue; it’s so vivid that it looks nothing short of surreal. In the cooler months, it turns a deep blue, while under the direct sun it appears practically electric.
On the way back, be sure to pop by the ramen shop next to Fukura Station for a hearty—and very cheap—bowl of ramen or udon noodles.
Continue north from Fukura Station on the JR Line to Akita; this is your last city and the point of departure back to Tokyo. If you’ve never been to Akita, the Akita Museum of Art is a must-visit destination.
Designed by renowned architect Tadao Ando, this ultra-modern and minimalist gallery is home to a rotating roster of exhibits, as well as an extensive collection of pieces by Fujita Tsuguharu—also known as Leonard Foujita (1886-1968)—perhaps Japan’s most well-known Western-style painter.
Most of the traveling exhibits do cost entry, but if you’re just looking for a place to relax, head up to the second-floor café, and the small but well-curated museum shop.
You can grab a coffee and the local specialty, apple pie, and take in the views of Senshu Park (the former site of Akita Castle).
Akita is known for being one of Japan’s premier nabe, or hotpot, cities, and its local specialty is kiritanpo nabe, which is made with local mochi (known as kiritanpo). The Omachi district is the unofficial home of Akita’s kiritanpo nabe, and here you’ll find plenty of eateries offering their take on the specialty.
Some of the nabe restaurants offer half-price deals for those not from the area, so if you want to save money, do a little shopping around beforehand.
Akita to Tokyo
Back on the highway bus, it’s about a 10-hour journey from city to city, so get comfortable, grab a good book and relax.
Japan Bus Pass restrictions and conditions
In general, the Japan Bus Pass is an incredibly affordable way to get across the country. Even if you used it for one round-trip, say from Tokyo to Akita and back, that would work out to just ¥5,100 each way, which is very reasonable. But with the option of adding in-between trips, and having choices as to drop-off destinations, it’d be near impossible to find another transport option as flexible and economical as this.
However, before you plan your Japan trip in too much detail and go booking accommodation, check your routes on Willer first, because bus selections can be limited.
After first planning our journey offline, we only then looked at booking the buses—and at times the options turned out to be too time-consuming. For example, sticking to just buses, we would have had to get to Sakata from Mt. Zao via Sendai, so we had to replan the trip, and opt for some local train connections.
If you have the time and nothing super specific to see, making this journey is excellent. But if you have time restrictions and commitments, be sure to double-check what bus routes are available before you buy the pass.
You must also book your bus seats online prior to boarding—unlike with the Japan Rail Pass, there is no hop-on, hop-off option.
While the Japan Bus Pass allows you to catch up to three highway buses per day, given that most of the bus options available are long-distance journeys, you probably won’t have the time to catch that many.
Something handy, though, is that the bus pass doesn’t have to be used on consecutive days! It just must be used up within two months of purchase. With the Japan Rail Pass, once you activate it, your time starts.
What is the difference between the Japan Bus Pass and the Japan Rail Pass?
The Japan Bus Pass allows you to travel across Japan on highway buses. The Japan Rail Pass allows you to travel across Japan on any JR train lines, including the bullet train, as well as JR ferries (e.g. between Hiroshima and Miyajima) and JR buses (local city buses—these are not highway buses).
Pro tip: Those with sea legs might also consider the Japan Ferry Pass.
While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change.