Whether it's connecting small towns, big cities or airports, buses are an important mode of transportation in Japan.

In some parts of the country, such as Kyoto where rail transit is sparse, or Hakone where winding roads must be navigated to reach popular hotels and hot springs, local buses become indispensable.

When it comes to inexpensive rail alternatives, the most popular buses are the highway buses that streak along Japan's expressways by night. Several decades ago, the preferred mode of overnight transportation was on the country's network of sleeper trains. Over time, buses began to take center stage while overnight train service declined in both popularity and reliability. Today, fierce competition between bus operators results in better prices, and for those willing to pay a little extra, better amenities.

Local buses

Local buses make up most of Kyoto's public transit system.

You won't need to use local buses (路線バス rosen basu) much in the major cities, but they are common in smaller towns and the idiosyncratic payment system is worth a mention. It can be difficult to find useful bus routes, since the signage usually only lists obscure bus stop names in Japanese. However, both Google Maps and Apple Maps include excellent directions for public transit, including buses; so if you have a smartphone, it can help you discover buses you might otherwise not have been aware of, and help you board the right one.

The process of boarding, disembarking and paying your fare differs in each city. In most cities, you board at the rear of the bus and exit at the front of the bus, paying your fare as you leave. On some other bus routes (including in central Tokyo) you are expected to board the bus through the front door, pay as you get on (usually a flat fare), and exit through the rear door when it's time to get off. Signage at the bus stop may clue you in to this fact with something like 前のり 先払い mae nori sakibarai (front-boarding, prepaid), and a fixed price around ¥220 or so shown below. Buses with two doors are usually marked with the Japanese kanji for entrance (入口) and exit (出口); some buses have signs in English as well. The guides for the visually impaired on the ground may also clue you in where to board.

An electronic board almost always includes a display and recorded voice announcements of the next stop — usually only in Japanese, although some cities (like Kyoto) make a welcome exception. However, if asked most drivers will be glad to tell you when you have reached your destination.

Payment process


Regardless of fare system, more and more buses accept smart cards. Tap your card against the IC scanner when boarding; next to the driver if it's prepaid, or at the back entrance, usually above the ticket dispenser. If it's a metered system, then tap again using the IC scanner next to the driver when you exit the bus in front. If you fail to 'tap on' when boarding, you will be charged the maximum fare when alighting and tapping off. So, in this case it is better to pay in cash.

Without a smart card, you must take a smallish boarding ticket or seiriken (整理券) from a dispenser when entering the bus through the back door. The boarding ticket is a little numbered slip, with the number representing the number of the bus stop where you entered the bus. The number is stamped automatically by the dispenser. In the front of the bus, above the driver, there is an electronic board displaying all numbers (bus stops) and their prices below. The prices are higher for stops that are farther away. As the bus passes each stop, the price for that stops moves to the left on the screen.

When it is time to get off, press the stop button, have the exact change ready for the price that is displayed under your number, and deposit the slip and corresponding payment into the fare machine next to the driver. Then exit through the front door.

You must pay the exact fare. Next to the fare drop, there is nearly always a machine to exchange bills into coins, which will take a ¥1,000 bill and return ten ¥100 coins in exchange. If you are short on change, it's best to exchange before it's time to get off. Inserting the ¥1,000 bill does not pay for the ticket — this machine only provides change you can use to pay. Don't try to deposit all the exchanged coins into the fare machine either — pay only the exact fare.

In some buses the driver will print you a ticket with price depending on your numbered slip, and you will pay him directly instead of dropping the exact fare into the fare machine.

Also, if you missed taking the boarding ticket, just telling the driver where you boarded is sometimes sufficient. And mostly he will remember where you boarded the bus, since it was often at a central location or bus stop.

You can also ask the driver to charge your IC card if you're running low. Ask them for チャージ chāji and present some cash, and the driver will indicate to you when and where to tap and lift your card.



Buses operating within major cities, including Tokyo and Kyoto, typically charge flat fares for each trip. Some bus drivers can also sell bus passes (1日乗車券 ichi-nichi jōshaken), which can be used for unlimited rides with that bus company for the day, typically at ¥500-1000.

Local buses in regions frequented by tourists are generally quite expensive, charging ¥1,500 or more for a 1-hr ride, like around Fujikawaguchiko, or between Matsumoto and Takayama, especially when there are no train alternatives around.

Highway buses

Nishitetsu operates this double-decker on one of Japan's longest highway bus routes: the 1,150 km (715 mi) journey from Tokyo to Fukuoka.
Willer Express highway buses are known for their distinctive pink colors.

Long-distance highway buses (高速バス kōsoku basu; ハイウェイバス haiwei basu) serve many of the inter-city routes covered by trains at significantly lower prices, but take much longer than the Shinkansen. Major bus operators include Willer Express, companies of the JR group, Keio Bus and those that are affiliated with Japan Bus Lines.

An highway bus stop on Tōmei Expressway

Most highway bus terminals are well connected with the railway system, or using existing infrastructure in railway stations. Smaller highway bus stations may also be established near toll gates, in parking/service areas, or in the middle of the expressways. There should be route information posted on the front and near the entrance of the bus.

Many of these are overnight runs (夜行バス yakō basu), which allows you to save on a night's accommodation. It may be worth it to pay a premium to get a better seat; remember that it is less fun to sightsee after a sleepless night. Look out for 2列シート niretsu shīto or 3列シート sanretsu shīto, meaning there are only two or three seats per row instead of four. Intercity buses usually have significantly less legroom than intercity trains, so passengers over about 175 cm may be uncomfortable.

More buses are now offering more luxurious premium seating. These seats are bigger, offer more legroom, and are exclusive, with only a few seats allocated to an entire bus. Examples include JR Bus's Precious Seats, and Kanto Bus's Dream Sleeper which has eleven seats with sliding privacy doors.

Some overnight buses can only be used by women, while some companies will endeavor to make sure that solo women travelers are not seated next to solo men travelers.

For most long-distance journeys, buses will make stops of 15-20 min every 2 hr or so along the way at the Japan's Service Areas (abbreviated SA for short), even if your destination is just a bare 15 km away like in the case of Fukuoka. This quite adds to the travel time and can be a downer in case you want to travel fast. Service Areas offer vending machines, convenience stores, shops, and of course, toilets. Be sure to be back on time for the departure of your bus; this will usually be displayed at the door or on the front windshield. Stops are also sometimes made at Parking Areas (PA), which have fewer facilities compared to Service Areas.



Bus tickets can be purchased at the point of departure, at a convenience store kiosk or on the internet, but some command of Japanese may be necessary. Thankfully, more companies are offering online reservations in a language other than Japanese. For example, Willer Express, which also sells tickets for other bus operators, and Japan Bus Lines offer online bus reservations in English, Chinese and Korean. Keio Bus offers English reservations for their buses between Tokyo and the Mount Fuji area. A few members of the JR Group offer online reservations in English for their core routes.

Payment can be made directly with credit card or via post-pay in a Lawson or Family Mart convenience store. For the latter you will receive a code that you need to use in a specific machine in the shops, either paying directly or at the counter. The advantage of the latter is that bus companies, at least Willer, will give you until the very moment the bus is supposed to leave to make the payment. So, you could actually lock in a certain price and decide to cancel it later. Or when you are unsure about your travel plans, paying as late as possible may give a certain flexibility and may reduce the risk that you cannot use the ticket even though you paid for it. The question remains how often the bus company is willing to accept such a behaviour.

The amount of present competition between bus operators - in particular buses between Tokyo and Kansai - has led to the adoption of dynamic pricing on many routes. This means that the price of a ticket will vary based on several factors, including:

  • When the ticket is purchased: Discounts are sometimes offered for tickets bought several days in advance.
  • The date of travel: A regular weekday trip will be among the lowest priced. Weekend travel is typically priced slightly higher, and trips during peak periods (e.g. Golden Week, New Year's) will be the most expensive.
  • The time of day: Day trips by bus are less expensive than overnight trips.
  • The type of seating on the bus: High density buses designed to carry more passengers are cheaper. Buses with fewer seats per row - and fewer seats on the bus in total - are priced higher.

A few highway bus routes still operate on fixed fare structures, where the fare is the same regardless of the date of travel.

Bus passes


Two national bus passes are available for foreign visitors: the Japan Bus Pass and the JBL Pass.

Japan Bus Pass


Bus operator Willer Express offers the Japan Bus Pass for travel on their network of highway buses. It is available to anyone with a foreign passport, including tourists and residents.

There are two versions: A weekday pass, or Monday-Thursday pass, costs ¥10,200 for 3 days, ¥12,800 for 5 days or ¥15,300 for 7 days. An All-Day pass costs ¥12,800 for 3 days or ¥15,300 for 5 days. Travel days are non-consecutive, but passes must be used up within two months. You are limited to a maximum of three bus trips per day. Passes are not transferable and photo identification is required when boarding the buses.

If you have a lot of time on your hands, want to visit several major cities in a single trip, and do not mind the time spent on buses (including sleeping), then the Bus Pass is worth considering. The more trips you take, the more cost-effective the pass will be.

There are a couple of small drawbacks to using the Bus Pass:

  • Bus Passes are blacked out during Japan's major holidays, such as New Year's, Golden Week and Obon. Otherwise, a Monday-Thursday pass can only be used for Monday-Thursday bus departures, while an All-Day pass can be used on any day.
  • You are restricted to using buses that seat four to a row.

JBL Pass


The Japan Bus Lines' JBL Pass is similar to the Japan Bus Pass, with a few notable differences:

  • It covers a greater number of routes from bus companies affiliated with the Japan Bus Lines network.
  • You can select from a larger number of bus and seating types.
  • Trips must be completed within one month after the bus pass is purchased.

Like the Japan Bus Pass, the JBL Pass comes in a Weekday Pass (¥13,500 for 3 days, ¥17,000 for 5 days, ¥22,000 for 7 days) and an All-Day Pass (¥20,000 for 3 days, ¥26,000 for 5 days, ¥30,500 for 7 days).

Airport buses

A Limousine Bus leaves Narita Airport for Haneda Airport.

Buses are also a method of traveling to and from Japan's airports. Major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka have an entire network of buses radiating out to major hotels, bus terminals and train stations, but even in smaller domestic airports you are likely to find buses operating to the city center — some will operate based on the arrival or departure of scheduled flights.

Some of the airport buses in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka are known as Limousine Buses (リムジンバス rimujin basu). Some limousine buses run to dedicated terminals in the city which are located to aim for consistent, on-time trips. Two such terminals around Tokyo, the 1 Tokyo City Air Terminal (T-CAT)   and 2 Yokohama City Air Terminal (Y-CAT), are right next to major highways.

Some companies offer discounts off of the normal bus fare to foreign tourists, or bundle bus tickets with other extras like a daily subway pass. Also look out for low-cost operators that simply offer cheap bus rates outright, such as the ¥1,000 Access Narita bus that operates between Tokyo and Narita Airport.

Airport buses have varying rules on the amount of luggage allowed in the hold per passenger (number of pieces and maximum weight), so you may wish to verify this information in advance.

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