Japan by Bus… why Willer Express looks more promising for English reservations

I’ve mentioned on this blog before about bus travel in Japan, including a sample fare breakdown on my (not sure why) popular post, Tokyo to Kyoto for 2,300 yen.

Lately, though, I’ve been noticing that the JR bus lines, whose main routes are prominently featured on a specific website (Japanese only), are offering different fares for different dates. To me, it’s a whole lot of confusion, especially when trying to plot trip budgets.

Perhaps this blog post is more of a vent, but here goes:

In the past, there used to be only one flat fare for certain buses, or two fares depending on the day of the week that the bus would depart. Now, many JR buses – in particular those traveling the heavy-trafficked route between Tokyo and Kansai – are offering…. ELEVEN different fare structures??

Case in point: Here is the web page for the Tokyo to Kansai bus route offerings. They used to list the fares prominently on this page… but this is no longer the case.

Clicking through to the standard overnight bus offering, the “Dream”, there is a section way at the bottom of the page where you click to see the fares… now listed in a PDF file.

A sample of the different fare structures for JR Bus' "Dream" taken from their website.
A sample of the different fare structures for JR Bus’ “Dream” taken from their website.

And there you see the calendar… with different colors for different days of the week. I’ve included a snapshot here to list an example. Upon looking below at the fare chart, there are ELEVEN different colors – that’s eleven different fare structures – ranging from red, the most expensive, all the way down to blue.

Red is reserved for high-demand travel days. In the example shown, there are some days in August marked in red that center around the Obon travel holiday. These have the most expensive fares – 8,800 yen from Tokyo to Osaka, for example – and they do NOT offer discounts for advanced purchases. Next on the scale is pink, which on the calendar is marked on the week falling between the two red weekends in August. Now the fare is slightly lower at 8,600 yen, with a discounted fare of 8,000 yen for a 5-day advanced purchase.

The lowest fare on the calendar is the cream color… which can only be had on most weekdays in July, and a few weekdays in the last week of September. Now it’s only 7,200 yen for a Tokyo-Osaka trip. A 5 day advanced purchase runs 6,000 yen, and a 3 day advance is also offered for 6,300 yen.

Those are the facts… but it’ll all be a moot point when I say that you can’t do an online booking for JR buses in English anyway.

You can book seats on buses when you get to Japan… Either at a bus station or even at a JR railway station (green reservation counter)… but if you want to book a trip on a bus before you get there, Willer Express is now turning out to be the clear-cut willer… er, winner.

Willer Express bus. Photo by Wiki user Tennen-Gas, CC BY-SA 3.0
Willer Express bus. Photo by Wiki user Tennen-Gas, CC BY-SA 3.0

Willer Express’ website for English bus reservations is extremely easy to use, and I believe they are making a special commitment to accommodate non-Japanese passengers – especially with their Japan Bus Pass option that allows 3 days worth of bus travel for 10,000 yen or 5 days for 15,000 yen. Willer Express also has a lot of different seating types to choose from, not just the three or four seating types found on the JR bus lines – but these seats are clearly described for you on the site.

Just one caveat with Willer is that you are not allowed to request a certain seat assignment… window, aisle, or anything of the sort. Willer will assign seats on the date of departure based on the number of passengers in your group, and believe it or not, the gender as well. Willer will not seat men together with women unless they are in the same party.

But of course, the main point…. prices are clearly listed on the site for your intended date of travel.

Willer Express comes out on top in these categories, and I recommend that you check them out when it comes to long-distance budget travel in the country.

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