The Japan Rail Pass is a well-known travel hack, allowing virtually unlimited train rides across Japan — for anyone visiting on a short-term tourist visa. However, there’s another budget travel trick out there, and this one is available to foreign residents, too. Cheapos, meet the Japan Bus Pass.
What is the Japan Bus Pass?
The Japan Bus Pass is a flexible, multi-option pass that offers an affordable and convenient way to see the country — as long as you don’t mind foregoing a little sleep. It covers travel on highway buses, including night buses, but not local buses. Overnight buses are the most budget-friendly way to travel across Japan, especially because you save on hotel rooms.
The pass gives you three, five, or seven days of bus travel, but you’re not limited to traveling on consecutive days. Just so long as you travel within two months. You’re also limited to three buses per day, which, considering these are long-distance buses, is probaby fine.
You can also choose between an “All Day Pass” (travel any day of the week) or the cheaper “Mon to Thu Pass” (travel days limited to Monday–Thursday).
How much does the Japan Bus Pass cost?
The cheapest three-day option is ¥10,200. Here’s a summary of the costs for all the different options:
|Japan Bus Pass Mon–Thu option
|Japan Bus Pass All days option
Who can purchase the Japan Bus Pass?
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.
How can I purchase the Japan Bus Pass?
You can buy a Japan Bus Pass online from Willer Express.
Check out our full guide to Japan’s highway buses, which includes pros and cons, tips for booking your spot, and how to enjoy the ride.
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.
Things to consider
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.
For example, we planned a journey (described below) offline. Only then did we start looking 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. Zaō via Sendai — totally out of the way. So we had to replan the trip, and opt for some local train connections instead of buses.
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 with the Japan Bus Pass.
While the 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 select JR ferries (e.g. between Hiroshima and Miyajima) and JR buses (local city buses — these are not highway buses).
Road tested: The Japan Bus Pass
We decided to try out the Japan Bus Pass and see how much of Tōhoku could be covered on a three-day adventure.
With snowy ski fields, coastal sushi markets, and plentiful hot spring towns, this underrated corner of Japan has a lot going for it, yet 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 bus.
Tokyo to Tōhoku: A sample 3-day itinerary
Heading from central Tokyo to the snowy mountains of Zaō 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. Zaō
The onsen-dotted, snow-dusted Mt. Zaō (also known as Zaō 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).
Departing Shinjuku Station at 11:30 p.m. will get you to Yamagata Station at around 6:30 a.m. Or possibly earlier, depending on how eager the driver is — but ideally making for a tidy, maybe-even-restorative 7-hour sleep during journey. Sure, it’s not as comfortable as a bed, and the stopping at highway rest stations every 2 hours can set off lighter sleepers, but sometimes saving money comes at a price.
From Yamagata Station, the bus trip to Mt. Zaō — the only way to get there by public transportation — 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).
Zaō’s famous snow monsters
Mt. Zaō is a destination for all types of travelers. If you like snow sports, this place — one of Japan’s oldest ski resorts — has over 30 ski lifts, gondolas, and ropeways.
However, the area’s most famous winter attraction is the eerily beautiful Zaō snow monsters. These towering “monsters,” called juhyō in Japanese, 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 — though it’s recommended you do dress warmly — you can take the gondola to the top of the mountain to see the snow monsters/trees from the viewing platform. They are typically at their peak in mid-February; the mountain hosts a snow monster festival in late January.
Another must-do in Zaō: Hot springs
The question is, if you went to Zaō Onsen, and didn’t go to an actual onsen (hot spring), were you ever in Zaō 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.
Overnighting at Zaō
Unlike some of the more internationally known snow resort areas, like Niseko or Hakuba, Zaō’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.”
Pension Bokunouchi is an affordable, central (less than a 5-minute walk to the chairlifts) guesthouse that mixes Japanese and Western styles, with tatami bedrooms, futon bedding, and European breakfast sets.
Day 2: Zaō to Sakata
From Zaō, you can head northwest to Sakata, a coastal city in Yamagata Prefecture. Best known for its Buddhist history, excellent rice, and incredible sushi, Sakata has a totally different appeal from Zaō. Fortunately, it takes less than 3 hours to get there by scenic local train.
To get to Zaō from Yamagata Station, take a local JR train — some combination of Oū, Rikūsai, and Uetsu line trains — to Sakata Station. It’s not the most straightforward root, but a great way to get a feel for rural Tōhoku. This part of the trip should cost ¥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.
Editor’s note: Yamagata Prefecture’s Shōnai Kōtsu does usually run buses between Yamagata City and Sakata but is too local to be covered by the Japan Bus Pass.
See Sakata’s historic warehouses
The Sankyo Warehouses are Sakata’s most iconic attraction. Back during the Edo period, Sakata emerged as a major hub in the domestic shipping trade: it was a stop-off point between northern Japan and Osaka, for commercial ships 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; Sakata, with its coastal location, became one of the key spots for storing and sorting rice before it was shipped across the nation.
Today, the warehouses are a tourist attraction and a popular photo 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. Meanwhile the best spots for getting photos of the warehouses with the picturesque zelkova tree-flanked path are out the back.
Sample the freshest fish in town
While it’s only open during the day, Sakata Port’s Seafood Market is the perfect pitstop for those wanting to dive deep into the city’s culinary scene.
On the first floor, the market sells seafood caught fresh from the Sea of Japan. The second floor has a restaurant serving up daily specialties — think sushi, bento boxes, and kaisen donburi (seafood bowls) sourced from the sellers downstairs.
Hang out in Kitamae Yokochō
Sakata is a humble city with a fondness for drinking and eating well. The city’s Kitamae Yokochō is a great place to end the day and make a few new local friends. It was established 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 Akita
On the last day, we traveled from Sakata via Maruike Pond to Akita; this was our last city and the point of departure back to Tokyo.
First stop: Maruike Pond
The first stop of the last day is Fukura Station in the small town of Yuza. Fukura is a 45-minute trip from Sakata on the local JR Uetsu Line. After alighting it’s a 20-minute walk to one of Tōhoku’s most underrated and enchanting sights — the 3-meter deep, 20-meter long Maruike Pond.
Maruike Pond is located inside Mt. Chōkai Geopark, right at the base of Mt. Chōkai. 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.
This pond is a site of spiritual significance: it’s said that trees that fall into the water here don’t decompose, but rather are enshrined.
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.
Sightseeing in Akita
Continue north from Fukura Station on the JR Uetsu Line to Akita. 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 Senshū Park (the former site of Akita Castle).
Eat in Nabe Alley
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 Ōmachi 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.
Final leg: Akita to Tokyo
Back on the highway bus, it’s about a 10-hour journey from Akita to Tokyo, so get comfortable, grab a good book and relax.
While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. Last updated in February 2023 by Maria Danuco.