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.

japan highway buses
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If you’ve ever looked up the price of a bullet-train ticket and audibly gasped in horror, then highway buses are the paper bag needed to get your breath back. Given Japan’s disinclination for discounts and deals, you’ll probably have discovered that the standard fare of, say, ¥14,000 for a one-way shinkansen trip to Osaka is a little much for a weekend away. In comparison, a bus ticket at ¥2,500 is a hell of a lot more reasonable—and if the unseen extra charge is a night of lost sleep, then so be it. Of course overnight buses aren’t the only option, they run during the day too, but we’ll get to the benefits of both a little later on.

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1. Highway buses in Japan: The pros and cons

Japan highway buses
Photo by iStock.com/creativaimages

They’re not perfect, so there are some things to consider if you’re not used to taking highway buses. The first decision is if you prefer a night bus over a day bus. The main issue is time and the second is sleep.

If you wan’t to make the most of your time, a night bus will get you to a new city before daybreak and save you a night’s accommodation, but you will be pretty tired.



Day buses offer some potentially useful time (be it work, Netflix or some good ol’ window-gazing), esepcially if you get a bus with wifi. However, it also means spending most of your day staring at Japan’s infamous highway walls.

Pros

  • Buses are cheaper than trains (usually). Plus you can score further discounts if booking in advance.
  • Overnight buses save you a night’s accommodation.
  • It’s becoming standard practice to seat only women next to women on night buses.
  • Wifi and outlets mean you can use the time productively (if you want to).
  • Bus tickets are bookable online. Many companies also offer rescheduling or cancellation with low charges.
  • The Japan Bus Pass offers three, five or seven non-consecutive days of travel to foreign passport holders for far less than a rail pass.

Cons

  • 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 start going up in comfort levels.
  • Only certified monsters are actually able to sleep on a night bus. Lights often come on at each stop, people shuffle/snore/sleep talk, and your body is contorted into a cube (but maybe that’s just me).
  • If catching a night bus, you may have to wait up until pretty late and arrive at ungodly hours too.
  • 2. Example journeys: Osaka, Kyoto and beyond

    For comparison, we have some of the average prices for top destinations by bus, bullet train and local or express trains. It all boils down to what’s more important: your time or your money.

    Unfortunately, for longer distances, local trains don’t offer the “time versus money” compromise you might expect, making buses or bullet trains the best options.

    Highway busRegular trainsBullet train
    Tokyo ↔ Osaka8 hours, from ¥1,3509 hours, from ¥11,2302.5 hours, ¥14,720 (reserved)
    Tokyo ↔ Kyoto7 hours, from ¥1,350 8.5 hours, from ¥8,360 2.2 hours, ¥14,170 (reserved)
    Tokyo ↔ SapporoNot availableNot available8 hours, ¥27,760 (reserved)
    Osaka ↔ Fukuoka10 hours, from ¥5,700 12 hours, from ¥11,000 2.5 hours, ¥15,600 (reserved)
    Kyoto ↔ Hiroshima7 hours, from ¥5,700 6.5 hours, from ¥6,600 1.5 hours, ¥11,620 (reserved)

    3. The Japan Bus Pass: You heard us, it exists

    Offered by the Willer Network, the Japan Bus Pass covers travel from as far north as Akita all the way down to Fukuoka. There are two main options—an All Day Pass and a Monday to Thursday Pass—available for three, five or seven days.

    Japan Bus Pass – Mon to Thu option3 days: ¥10,2005 days: ¥12,8007 days: ¥15,300
    Japan Bus Pass – Any Day option3 days: ¥12,8005 days: ¥15,300

    Now the best part about this pass is that dates do not have to be consecutive(!), so you can choose three, five or seven different travel dates within a two-month period after purchase.

    The second best part? Unlike the rail pass, you can buy the bus version if you hold a foreign passport, even if you are a resident of Japan. The pass (as well as bus tickets) can be bought online, so it’s a pretty simple process. 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.

    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).

    If you’re looking for a route that isn’t included, consider the JBL Pass which had additional lines like Takayama.

    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.

    Bonus bus passes

    If you need a local bus pass option, then try one of these:

    • Kyushu’s Sun Q Pass: With options for North, South or the whole of Kyushu, the Sun Q Pass has unlimited rides on highway and city buses as well as some ferries. This pass is available to anyone.
    • Hokkaido’s Budget Bus Pass: This 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. (Note: Sales currently suspended due to COVID-19.)
    • Hokkaido’s Inter City Bus Pass: A localized version of the pass above, this one 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. (Note: Sales currently suspended due to COVID-19.)
    • Tohoku’s Highway Bus Pass: This 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’s Highway Bus Pass (Willer): This one comes as a three-day pass and costs ¥6,600. You can visit Takamatsu, Matsuyama, Kochi and Tokushima using seven bus lines covering the island. This pass is available only to foreign visitors holding foreign passports.
    • Shikoku’s Highway Bus Pass (Kosoku): Offering 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.

    4. Choosing the best bus

    highway bus japan
    Photo by iStock.com/Tony Studio

    Booking sites

    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.

    On-bus benefits

    These include onboard wifi, bus attendants, blankets, same-sex seating, and toilets, among others. These usually come in a pretty mix-and-match combination so you can pick your top choices and go from there. It’s worth noting that if there isn’t a toilet on board, the bus will make rest stops every few hours, so you won’t have to hold it in for the whole journey.

    The comfort level of buses

    Comfort levels range from a basic school bus–style coaches to curtained compartments with extra-wide seats. The latter is arguably only really important if you’re attempting to sleep, the impact on price is pretty substantial. The most common factors are seat width, curtains, same-sex seating, and head guards that allow you to nod off with a slight level of privacy.

    5. Booking your ticket

    FamilyMart payment screen
    Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

    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.

    6. 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.

    7. Surviving (and even enjoying) the journey

    passengers
    Photo by iStock.com/Maja-Mitrovic

    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.
    • 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.

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