Highway buses are the unsung heroes of long-distance travel in Japan — as long as you don’t mind a night of seated semi-sleep, that is. Buses are hands down the cheapest way to get around (in almost all cases). Plus, overnight buses save you money on a night’s accommodation. Of course they’re not as comfortable or convenient as our favorite way of getting around — the Shinkansen. But sometimes going cheap is the only way.

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What’s a highway bus?

These are coaches that do long-distance and intercity routes. Highway bus travel around and between Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū and, whenever possible, make use of Japan’s toll expressways. Hokkaidō has highway bus services too, though it is not possible to take a bus to Hokkaido from elsewhere in Japan.

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There are many operators, both national and regional, but the two big names to know are Willer Express and JR Bus. Willer Express is a discount operator based in Osaka with a national network; they’re the ones who offer the excellent Japan Bus Pass. JR Bus has the most extensive network, which is divided into regional coverage (e.g. JR Hokkaidō Bus) much like JR trains.

japan highway buses
Photo by iStock.com/BbenPhotography

What are highway buses in Japan like?

All highway buses in Japan have reserved seating and air conditioning. Most buses have toilets; if there isn’t a toilet on board, the bus will make rest stops every few hours.

Some buses have a basic layout of two seats on either side of an aisle. Other buses — which are definitely going to cost more — are kitted out with roomier seats, ones that recline way back, and/or have privacy curtains. Other possible amenities: nice headrests and/or footrests, blankets, Wi-Fi, and charging ports.

There are both daytime and overnight services. Some services, especially night services, allow solo female travelers to book special seats to ensure they ride only next to other female travelers.

Why take the bus?

There are good reasons for using highway buses to travel around Japan.

  • Buses are cheaper than trains (usually).
  • You can book online.
  • You can score discounts by booking in advance or traveling off-season.
  • Many companies also offer rescheduling or cancellation with low charges.
  • Overnight buses save you a night’s accommodation.
  • You can save even more money with a Japan Bus Pass (more details below).
  • Traveling with luggage might be easier, considering the new Shinkansen luggage rules.

Now for the downsides…

Reasons to not take the bus

  • It can be a looong time seated on a bus. Not ideal if you’re looking to make the most of your time in a new country.
  • Tickets during peak times can be almost as expensive as trains, especially if you want top-tier comfort levels.
  • It’s almost impossible to get some actual sleep on a night bus: lights often come on at each stop, people shuffle/snore/sleep talk, and even the comfiest seats can’t compare to a bed.
  • Night buses can have very late departures (close to midnight) and/or very early arrivals (close to dawn).
  • Traffic and delays give you less control over your arrival time. If punctuality is important, it’s safer to splurge on the train.

How much do highway buses cost?

Highway bus prices are variable and depend on a number of factors. How far you travel, of course, but also: time of year, time of day, day of the week, popularity of the route, comfort level, and probably some other things. It’s a good idea to shop around to find the best deal.

That said, you can expect to pay less for the bus than the Shinkansen. And when highway bus prices are at their most discounted, you can save upwards of 60–70% over the cost of a bullet train ticket.

Sample highway bus fares from Tokyo

With sample bullet train fares for the same journeys, for comparison.

DestinationApprox. highway bus cost (travel time)Approx. Shinkansen cost (travel time)NotesBooking link
Kyoto¥3,800¥9,000 (7 hrs)¥13,650 (2 hrs 15 mins)Osaka-bound buses may stop at Kyoto en routeComing soon
Osaka¥3,200¥8,300 (8 hrs)¥14,200 (2.5 hours)Shinkansen stops at Shin-Osaka StationComing soon
Hiroshima¥4,300¥11,800 (13 hrs)¥19,760 (4 hrs)Shinkansen may require a transfer at Shin-OsakaComing soon
Fukuoka¥11,000¥16,500 (14.5 hrs)¥23,810 (5 hrs)Shinkansen may require a transfer at Shin-OsakaComing soon

What about local trains?

Local trains often cost more than highway buses and take about as long. One way to make local trains cheaper is to use the Seishun 18 Pass, which allows for unlimited local trains for as little as ¥2,410 per day; however, the pass is only offered a few times per year.

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Local trains may also cost less than highway buses during peak travel periods, when bus prices can surge.

Do keep in mind that you’ll have to transfer multiple times for long journeys on local trains. This can be pleasant — a chance to stretch your legs, use the toilet, and get some food — but does mean you’ll have to plot your journey and pay attention. You also don’t get a reserved seat and dedicated luggage storage space.

A Willer Express bus in the wild | Photo by Gregory Lane

Booking highway buses in Japan

Highway buses traverse this exceedingly long country with surprising frequency, and there are a few major companies running the same routes, including Willer, JBL and JR buses. Luckily, all the best options are gathered in one place if you use Kosoku Bus, which also offers decent cancellation/rescheduling policies.

Booking independently with each provider is also an option, especially with larger companies that offer English support (but not all do). They usually require you to make an account and will have slightly different rules on cancellations, refunds and the like, so be sure to read up on your specific company’s rules. Our easiest picks are Willer, who also include buses from other companies, and JR, who sell tickets at train stations as well as having the most payment options and English support.

Tickets

You can choose a one-way journey, a return journey or ticket booklets, depending on your travel plans. There are some minor discounts if you buy return or a booklet (usually about 10%), but it depends on the route and dates.

Ticket books (called kaisuken) are great if you’re looking to make frequent trips to the same destination. They vary from three to ten trips, often with a time limit of three to six months. Be sure to check travel restrictions for these passes; they may not be valid for peak times like holidays or weekends, for example.

Payment

Tickets can be paid for using credit cards on Kosoku or through convenience store payments if you book through JR Buses or Willer. This method is pretty handy: your seat is reserved and you have a window of time to pay for it (this varies between 12–48 hours depending on the season and company).

At the convenience store, use the in-store machine to print a booking receipt and pay in cash at the register. The company will usually provide a step-by-step guide to help you through the process.

Refunds

Depending on the company, refunds are often available as long as you cancel at least a day in advance. There are often small handling fees (¥100 with JR for example) for early cancellation or a percentage fee if it is closer to departure. The specific time limits vary depending on the route, season and operator, so make a note at the time of booking.

If you cannot cancel, you may be able to change the date of the journey, as long as you do so before the original bus has departed.

Things to consider

If you use a bus search tool like Kosoku Bus or Willer, you’ll find dozens of options for popular routes like Tokyo to Osaka — but which to choose? It’s a real balancing act, with four main elements to keep in mind: times, departure/arrival stops, price, and on-bus benefits.

It’s up to you which you prioritize, but we recommend checking the arrival and departure stops on any bus you choose. Some buses don’t actually go into the cities, and finding yourself on a rainy highway at 6 am is not the adventure anyone wants.

Save money with the Japan Bus Pass

The Japan Bus Pass covers travel on popular routes on the Willer Express highway bus network. You can travel between major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka; head up to mountain destinations like Nagano and Niigata; or travel to place the Shinkansen doesn’t go, like Shikoku.

You can buy passes that are good for 3, 5, or 7 days. Here’s the best part: travel dates do not have to be consecutive, and you have a full two months to use up your travel days.

The other best part? Unlike the JR Pass, any foreign passport can use the Japan Bus Pass — including foreign residents of Japan.

There are two version: a Mon–Thu option (good for travel on weekdays, except for Fridays) and an All Days option that is good for travel any day of the week. There are some blackout dates which apply to both versions of the pass, which excludes travel during Golden Week (late April to early May) and Obon (early August).

How much does the Japan Bus Pass cost?

Travel daysJapan Bus Pass Mon–Thu optionJapan Bus Pass All days option
3-day pass¥10,200¥12,800
5-day pass¥12,800¥15,300
7-day pass¥15,300

The pass (as well as bus tickets) can be bought online, so it’s a pretty simple process.

Please note: The Japan Bus Pass can only be paid for using a credit card. The convenience store payment option is not available.

Read our full guide to the Japan Bus Pass for more details.

Other discount bus passes

While the Japan Bus Pass is our top pick, there are other bus passes that you might want to consider. These include the Japan Bus Lines (JBL) Pass, which covers more routes than the Japan Bus Pass (but costs more) and various regional bus passes.

Japan Bus Lines (JBL) Pass

There is an alternative Japan Bus Lines (JBL) Pass which includes additional lines such as the Takayama line, but it is a little pricier, starting from ¥15,000 for the All Day version.

Regional highway bus passes

If you’re doing a deep dive of one area — rather then traveling all over the country — consider one of these regional highway bus passes.

Hokkaidō Budget Bus Pass

Hokkaido’s Budget Bus Pass has three- and five-day options (costing ¥11,000 and ¥17,000, respectively) offering a network of express and local buses. All foreign passport holders can buy and use this bus pass, including those with student or working visas in Japan.

Hokkaidō Inter City Bus Pass

A localized version of the pass above, Hokkaido’s Inter City Bus Pass covers Sapporo, New Chitose Airport, Niseko, Otaru, Furano, and the Blue Pond. It costs ¥6,000 for three days and ¥9,000 for five days. All foreign passport holders can buy and use this bus pass, including those with student or working visas in Japan.

Tōhoku Highway Bus Pass

Tohoku’s Highway Bus Pass offers two or three days of unlimited travel on 10 bus routes across six prefectures for ¥6,000 and ¥8,000, respectively. Visit Morioka, Yamagata, Akita, Aomori, Sendai and more! This pass is available only to temporary visitors to Japan with the purpose if sightseeing. It must be purchased outside of Japan using the link above.

Shikoku: Highway Bus Pass (Kosoku)

Shikoku’s Highway Bus Pass (Kosoku) offers longer versions of the above pass, Kosoku have a four-day version (¥8,000), a five-day version (¥8,500) and a seven-day version (¥9,000), which are all very reasonable. This pass is available to anyone.

Kyūshū: Sun Q Pass

With options for all of Kyūshū or just part (north or south), the Sun Q Pass has unlimited rides on highway and city buses as well as some ferries. This pass is available to anyone.

Catching a highway bus

japan highway buses
Photo by iStock.com/recep-bg

The main challenge in catching a highway bus is finding the often slightly obscure departure point using what appear to be maps drawn on Microsoft Paint. While the companies provide these in good faith, it can be a confusing nightmare of specific exits and unmarked roads, distant parking lots and underground bus stations. Throw in an 11:55 pm departure time and it can all be a bit stressful—but it’s all part of the fun!

Departure points fall into three main categories:

  • 1. The random bus stop: Simple, but not always clearly signposted. These can be confusing to find, however the increasing use of bus stewards is helping. Good examples are the Yaesu Street stops outside of Tokyo Station.
  • 2. The parking lots of chaos: Easier to find but a hellscape to enter (at night at least), these parking lots have a mix of companies and destinations all thrown in together, with an incredible amount of neon-clad guides shouting arrivals and departures.
  • 3. The dedicated departure zone: The preferred option, these are more common for larger companies like Willer (Osaka Umeda, for example) and JR (the Shinjuku spot) and often have waiting rooms, toilets and ticket booths.

Whichever you have, for your first journey we suggest you arrive early to scope out your bus stop. Then, head off to a cafe for dinner/a drink and make use of the establishment’s nice toilets before you head back to catch your bus.

Be sure to have your printed/online ticket ready to show as well as some ID in case they ask. Each company has different rules, but generally you need to be at the stop around 15 minutes before departure for boarding, especially if you have luggage to load.

Surviving (and even enjoying) the journey

Settling in for a good eight hours is daunting for some, but can be turned into manageable time, if not full-on enjoyable time. Bringing water and snacks is basic, so here are some extras if you want to up your bus game:

  • Have two bags: one to put above you on the rack and a smaller essentials one to keep beside you. If you end up with a window seat and are trapped in by a stranger, you may end up with limited access to the bag above you. Keeping things like chargers, water and contact-lens cases handy will save some awkward clambering and/or death stares at 2 am (believe you me).
  • For the night bus, we suggest changing into some comfy pants and having layers on hand. The aircon can get surprisingly chilly if you’re in direct airflow.
  • Bring some noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs and a eyemask if you want to try getting some sleep. Blocking out the ambient noise can really make an overnight trip more restful.
  • If you’re awake, try and get out and stretch at the rest stops. Your body will thank you for it with less stiffness than if you spend the entire trip in your seat.
  • Add some face wipes and moisturizer to your bag. It helps you avoid the drying effects of aircon and feel refreshed when you wake up. If you don’t mind scaring people, you can even go for a facemask!
  • Look up cafes and coffee shops before you arrive. Knowing where you’re heading can make a real difference when blundering around at 6 am in a new city.
  • Consider hitting up a sento or onsen when you arrive. They often open early and you can start your day feeling fresh as a daisy.
  • Download some Netflix options ahead of time, even if the bus says it will have wifi. It’s not always working or strong enough, or you might end up with a replacement bus—so better to be prepared.

While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. Last updated in May 2023 by Shyam Bhardwa.

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