This post is out of date. Please read the updated article from September 2014.
It’s becoming tough to plan a trip to Japan these days… the exchange rate between the US dollar and the Japanese yen has soured. At last check today, it was 83-84 yen to the dollar, a 15-year record rate. So a trip to Japan now is more expensive than it was two years ago – my last trip to Japan, when the yen averaged around 100 to the dollar.
Willer Express, which in the last few years has become one of Japan’s major highway bus operators, is now offering a new Japan Bus Pass, which caters towards the budget traveler. Is the new Bus Pass worth its cost, and how does it compare to the more frequently-used Japan Rail Pass?
First, here are the specifics of the Bus Pass: ANYONE can use it, even Japanese people, however it can only be purchased outside of Japan. Most of the highway buses on the Willer Express network can be used, which includes connections between Japan’s major cities. The cost of the pass is 8,000 yen for 3 days or 10,000 yen for 5 days. For each day that you use the pass, you are permitted to take the bus a maximum of two times, on two different routes (i.e. you cannot travel round-trip on the same travel day). The trips can be used on non-consecutive days, but all travel must be completed two months after the date of purchase. The Bus Pass is blacked out during Japan’s major holidays, and on other certain weekends. It is non-transferrable and you must show Photo ID (i.e. Passport) when boarding.
What do I think about the new Bus Pass? It is a tremendous deal, if you are willing to travel to several major cities in Japan, have time on your hands, and are willing to sleep on the bus during certain parts of your trip. The more times you use the Bus Pass, the more cost-effective it will be.
Let’s say that you plan on visiting Tokyo and Kyoto on your trip to Japan, and you want to use a Japan Bus Pass. With Willer Express you must make the trips overnight, which would involve sleeping on the bus. Each trip would then cost 4,000 yen based on the 3-day Bus Pass purchase. That isn’t too bad; many other bus operators in Japan operate the Tokyo-Kyoto route starting from more or less the same price. Willer, on the other hand, has the benefit of allowing reservations to be made in English.
But let’s say that you want to explore more of the country. Let’s say you wanted to add Hiroshima to the list of cities to visit. With a 3 day Bus Pass, you could, for example, travel overnight from Tokyo to Kyoto on Day 1 of the pass, stay in Kyoto, use Day 2 of the pass for a daytime OR nighttime trip to Hiroshima, stay there, and use your final day of the Pass for the overnight run from Hiroshima back to Tokyo. That’s three trips, which would reduce the cost of each trip to about 2700 yen. Even better! Remember, Bus Pass days do NOT have to be used consecutively.
But to squeeze every yen’s worth out of the Bus Pass, you must travel more. Remember that for each day of validity you can take up to TWO bus trips that are not on the same route. So in order to maximize the value of the Bus Pass, you must be willing to take SIX trips on a 3 Day pass, or TEN trips on a 10 Day pass.
So let’s try to build a sample itinerary using the three-day Bus Pass that would allow for some good coverage of major Japanese destinations.
3 DAY JAPAN BUS PASS SAMPLE ITINERARY
Bus Pass Day 1: Depart Tokyo’s Shinjuku Bus Terminal in the morning for the city of Sendai, a major city located within close vicinity of the Pacific Ocean. Spend the afternoon in Sendai, perhaps wandering over to Matsushima, one of Japan’s most important sites. In the evening, board an overnight bus bound for Osaka and spend a few nights there. Use Osaka as a base for visiting Kyoto.
Bus Pass Day 2: Take a bus back east from Osaka in the morning and spend the day in Nagoya, Japan’s third-largest city. In the evening, board a night bus to Hiroshima. Spend some time in the city where the first atomic bomb was dropped.
Bus Pass Day 3: Take a morning bus from Hiroshima to Kobe, in the region synonymous with beef. In the evening, return by night bus to Tokyo.
BUS PASS: 8000 yen / 6 trips = 1333 yen per trip
Wow. Now that’s a good deal.
My take on all of this… well, I’m not sure if I’d be the type of person who’d rush from one city to another in order to make the Bus Pass more valuable. I’d also need to have a lot of time on my hands, since a good portion of my trip time will be spent on a bus. If I wanted to cover a lot of ground, I’d rather try to save whatever time I have for the trip. So I would personally stick with a Japan Rail Pass. Besides obviously covering Japan’s entire network of bullet trains, there is the added benefit of NO blackout dates with the Rail Pass. You can travel on any date that you wish, as long as you are able to obtain a seat. But if I were to travel on the cheap and sacrifice time and comfort, and I had an idea of what major cities I’d want to visit in Japan, I would definitely give the Bus Pass serious consideration.