Deciphering the Japan Bus Pass (Updated)

Today I will be updating my original post from four years ago (to this date, believe it or not!) about Willer Express’ Japan Bus Pass that is offered to foreign tourists. Depending on where you go in Japan it can save you a good deal of money on travel, not to mention you can also cut down on your lodging expenses by taking an overnight bus journey.

Willer Express, one of Japan’s major highway bus operators, is distinguishable by their pink and white buses. They offer varying bus routes across Japan with fares depending on the day and the class of seating offered – by my count there are 17 different seating combinations, including options with and without toilets!

The Willer Express bus pass has gone up in price since its introduction a few years ago, from 8,000 and 10,000 yen for 3 and 5 day bus passes, respectively, to 10,000 yen for the 3 day version and 15,000 yen for the 5 day version.

There are a list of travel conditions to use the pass, the important ones being:

– You must be a foreigner visiting Japan with the “Temporary Visitor” stamp… every time you board a bus you will need to show your bus reservation, bus pass and passport.
– Once issued, you can take trips on Willer Express buses on any 3 or 5 days in a two month period. They do not need to be consecutive days.
– You are permitted to take a maximum of two daytime buses and one overnight bus every day. Overnight buses that leave after midnight count for the previous day.
– If making connections for same day travel you must allow at least one hour’s connection time.
– Passes are not valid for the more expensive seating options.
– You cannot use the bus pass for travel during the New Year’s holiday (December 26 – January 4)

It’s a good deal if you plan to hit a few major cities. The more trips you take on the pass on one travel day, the more cost-effective it will be. Technically speaking you can take a maximum of 9 trips on the 3 day pass, and 15 trips on the 5 day pass (3 trips per day in both instances) which could lower your per-trip cost to between 1,000 and 1,100 yen. Even if you end up taking two trips per day, you still stand to pay only 1,700 yen per trip with a 3 day pass or 1,500 yen per trip with a 5 day pass – what a bargain! If you take one trip per day, it’s 3,300 yen per trip on a 3 day pass or 3,000 yen per trip with a 5 day pass.

Willer’s web site has a page that lists off model itineraries. But you know me, I love experimenting the possibilities. Let’s see what we can do!

JOSE’S MODEL 3-DAY BUS PASS ITINERARY

We’ll start in Tokyo on Day 1 and depart from Willer’s own bus terminal located west of Shinjuku station. First stop: Niigata, on the northern coast of Japan, known for its rice and sake production. Savor the sights and taste some local flavor. When you’re finished, travel to Osaka or Kyoto using either the direct overnight bus, or by changing in Tokyo (which will count as your second daytime bus and your overnight bus).

After you’ve spent some time in the Kansai region, use Day 2 to take an early-morning bus from Kyoto or Osaka to Hiroshima. Spend the afternoon and evening in the city that unfortunately is known for its fate in the second World War. Return by overnight bus back to Tokyo.

On the final day of your pass travel, head for the city of Sendai, a major city located within close vicinity of the Pacific Ocean and a city of rejuvenation following the 2011 natural disaster. Spend the afternoon in Sendai, perhaps wandering over to tour Matsushima, one of Japan’s most important sites (which also largely survived). Return to Tokyo by overnight bus on your final journey, arriving early in the morning.

10,000 yen / 6 trips: just under 1,700 yen for each trip. If you end up taking three buses on Day 1 as in the example, the cost becomes slightly over 1,400 yen per trip.

If you are on a tight budget, and don’t mind spending lots of time on the bus, the Japan Bus Pass is for you. On the other hand, if you’re not in Japan for long, then you might want to spend more time sightseeing than traveling, in which case you’ll want to shoot for faster travel options such as the Japan Rail Pass, or perhaps one of the airplane passes offered by JAL or ANA (which I might write up about soon).

Buy your bus pass at willerexpress.com

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Tokyo to Kyoto for only 2,300 Yen!?

For more up-to-date information, please read the September 2014 post Tokyo to Kyoto for $21… and other cheap ways to transit Japan

I’d like to take an opportunity to thank those of you who are reading my blog. I’m happy to share my thoughts about Japan travel and assist people in any way that I can!

My most popular post on this blog is how to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto for just 2,300 yen. That post was written back in 2009, so I think it’s time for me to update this information to reflect current events.

Without question, Tokyo and Kyoto are THE two destinations that should be included if you are intent on visiting Japan for the very first time. Of course, Tokyo and Kyoto are separated by some 231 miles (372 km) if you were to draw a straight line.

Between Tokyo and Kyoto, the two major methods of public transportation are the train and the highway bus. (You might also add air, if continuing to Osaka, but this article will focus on the first two methods of transit.)

So how much will you pay for a ride between Tokyo and Kyoto? This article breaks down the various bus and train options by price.

Obviously if you have a Japan Rail Pass then this question is moot; simply use your rail pass (Hikari or Kodama only) to make the journey.

But if you do not have a Japan Rail Pass, then you’ll want to examine the prices carefully to see what fits your budget. Note that the prices listed here are rounded to the nearest 100 yen, and are subject to change, including a variance of a few hundred yen either way depending on the time of the year.

18,200 yen: For this price you will get a reserved first-class seat (called the “Green Car”) in the premium Nozomi service. You may expect to be personally greeted by a Green Car attendant as you enter the train, and the attendant will check your ticket. Hot towel service is provided and you can order food and drinks on board. The seats are wide and comfortable, and the lighting is noticeably softer than in the other seating areas.

13,300 yen: For this price you will get a reserved standard-class seat in the premium Nozomi service. You sit in the standard bullet train seats, and food and drinks are sold on board. In these first two instances the travel time from Tokyo to Kyoto is 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Running about 500 or 600 yen cheaper than the above prices are the respective surcharges for travel on the Hikari and Kodama services, which are slower than the premium Nozomi because they make more stops. In the Hikari service, hot towel service is provided in the Green Car, but you are not “greeted” as you board. There is no “greeting” or hot towel service in Kodama trains, and as of 2013, there is no food or drink service on board Kodamas either. Hikari trains make the run to Kyoto in 2 hours, 45 minutes; Kodamas, which stop at EVERY station, take 3 hours, 45 minutes.

My recommendation if you’re purchasing tickets “a la carte” is to spend the extra 500-600 yen and take the Nozomi. There are more Nozomi trains than the others and it is the fastest way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto. Fall back only to the Hikari (and worst case, Kodama) if the Nozomi sells out.

9,800 yen: You can make a cheap trip aboard the bullet train at this price, but it is strange why it’s only marketed to Japanese travelers. I haven’t tried this, but I have read reports of other foreign travelers that have used this method successfully. For 9,800 yen you can purchase a “Puratto Kodama Ticket”, which is a discounted one-way ticket on the Kodama (the slowest bullet train service). You must make a reservation at least one day in advance at a JR Tours office located at a station served by the Shinkansen, i.e. Tokyo or Shinagawa in Tokyo, or at Kyoto station. The JR Tours office is operated by JR Central, and is recognizable by their orange colors. As a bonus, when you purchase this ticket you are entitled to one free drink – since food and drinks are no longer sold on board Kodama services, you pick one up at the train station before getting on. The “Puratto Kodama Ticket” is also available in the Green Car for 11,300 yen. The prices go up during times of high demand. If you get stumped, you can visit the website for the Puratto Kodama Ticket (http://www.jrtours.co.jp/kodama/), print the page and show it when you want to purchase your ticket.

8,000 yen: At this price you can make a journey on local JR trains from Tokyo to Kyoto, via the Tokaido Main Line.  You will be sitting in regular commuter trains and will have to change trains frequently along the way. On the other hand you’ll be passing through the rural and urban Japanese landscape, getting a better and closer look at areas that the bullet train will just whiz through. Connection times can range anywhere from 2 to 20 minutes for each train that you take. The travel time is approximately nine hours – but that doesn’t figure in the time that you might need for pit stops or a meal.

Extra Tip (Added 6/9/13): As pointed out on the Rocketnews blog, regular tickets allow you to hop on and off as many times as you like within a certain time period, as long as your ticketed journey is at least 200 kilometers. If your journey is between 200 and 400 kilometers you can complete your trip in a two-day period. You gain an extra day of travel for every additional 200 kilometers. Since the route from Tokyo to Kyoto via the Tokaido Line is 513.6 kilometers, you have up to three days to make the journey… you’ll have to stop along the way once or twice to rest (Nagoya makes a nice destination for a few nights) but if you factor only the trains this will make the travel cost 2,660 yen per day.

7,000 yen: For this price you can travel overnight between Tokyo and Kyoto by bus. There are many bus operators between Tokyo and Kyoto, and JR is one of them – bus tickets can be reserved at several channels, including green ticket windows at major JR train stations. On their “Dream” service, which is their standard overnight bus service, you are entitled to a comfortable reclining seat with head and foot rests on a double-decker bus that is configured in a 1 x 1 x 1 configuration; in other words you will have no other passengers directly next to you – you’ll either have an aisle or window. There are also blankets and slippers at your seat, and a toilet is on the first floor of the bus. The price is valid for weekday travel; add about 1,000 yen or so for weekend or holiday travel. An advance purchase of 5 days lobs 1,000 yen OFF of the price. Travel time is 7 1/2 hours from Tokyo Station; buses also run from Shinjuku Station on a different route, taking eight hours. A bus also operates from Tokyo Station restricted to female travelers.

6,000 yen: At this price you can use the same buses described above for a DAYTIME journey between Tokyo and Kyoto. The trip takes eight hours and the bus makes several stops along the way, including a few stops at service areas. There is a discount of 1,000 yen for a 5-day advance purchase. The price does not change depending on the day of the week or whether or not it’s a holiday.

5,000 yen: This is the price for a bus trip from Tokyo to Kyoto on the “Seishun Dream”, translated as “Youth Dream”. It is discounted because it offers less amenities than the regular bus service. Seats are configured 2×2, just like you’d find on a North American Greyhound bus. Seats offer recline, and there is a toilet on board. Regardless of time of day or holiday, the price is 5,000 yen with a 500 yen discount for a 5-day advance purchase. Travel times are similar to the other bus services.

2,300 yen: At last, the price tag of 2,300 yen. Is it possible to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto at such a low price?? Indeed, it IS possible, but as the old saying goes, “Certain restrictions apply.”

The rules are as follows: First, you must travel to and within Japan during one of the country’s three designated school holiday periods: March 1 – April 10, July 20 – September 10, and December 10 – January 20.

Secondly, you must travel with four other people… either four of your friends who want to go to Japan, or four Japanese friends, etc… finding the four people to go with you is your choice, and of course, your responsibility.

Finally, one person must purchase a ticket sold DURING the school holiday periods, called the “Seishun 18 Ticket”. This ticket sells for 11,500 yen and allows for unlimited travel on JR’s LOCAL TRAINS only: NO BULLET TRAINS!

The Seishun 18 Ticket essentially has five “SPACES” that can be used. Each space is good for one person on one day. So one person could use it for five separate days within the validity of the ticket. Or two people could use it together for two days, etc.

Indeed, FIVE people can use the seishun 18 ticket on a single day, as long as travel is completed by 12 midnight. What a cheap way to travel! Simply purchase the ticket, and make sure everyone stays together. As you go into the system, your ticket is stamped five times. So all five of you are set for the journey.

As mentioned above, you will travel on local trains only – no bullet trains. The travel time is about 9 hours, not accounting for pit stops or meal stops. But here’s a good thing: with the Seishun 18 ticket, if you all stay together, you can exit the system at any station and return to the system on the same day – just show your stamped ticket. With this in mind, perhaps you can exit the system at a major train station – say for example, Odawara, Shizuoka, Hamamatsu, Toyohashi or Nagoya – and head into a restaurant within the station, or enjoy some treats within the floors of a Japanese department store.

This 2,300 yen plan also works for other long-haul trips such as Tokyo to Nagoya or Tokyo to Osaka. The ticket price of 11,500 yen, divided by five, equals 2,300 yen. Even if four or three were to take the trip, the trip breaks down to 2,875 yen or 3,830 yen per person respectively – which can very well be a TREMENDOUS savings compared to standard train prices, or even bus prices.

My motto when it comes to Japan travel: always research as much as possible about your trip. This way it will make your trip much more enjoyable when it happens – not to mention it MAY just be a little lighter on the wallet!

With that, here is an idea that someone could use to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto by local JR trains. This itinerary assumes a regular weekday in May of 2013, leaving at 6:30 in the morning – just as the morning rush begins to ramp up.

Train 1: Tokyo-Numazu
Leave Tokyo at 6:34 (Platform 8)
Leave Shinagawa at 6:43
Leave Yokohama at 7:00
Arrive Odawara at 7:57
Arrive Atami at 8:20
Arrive Numazu at 8:39

From other parts of Tokyo, you can take the JR Yamanote Line to Shinagawa and change to the above train. These Yamanote Line departures will give you about 10 minutes to transfer at Shinagawa:
Ikebukuro: 6:05
Shinjuku: 6:13
Shibuya: 6:20
Ueno: 6:12 (Keihin-Tohoku Line)

Train 2: Numazu-Shizuoka
Leave Numazu at 8:42
Arrive Fuji at 9:01
Arrive Shizuoka at 9:36

Stay in Shizuoka one hour for a bathroom and meal break.

Train 3: Shizuoka-Hamamatsu
Leave Shizuoka at 10:42
Arrive Hamamatsu at 11:51

Train 4: Hamamatsu-Toyohashi
Leave Hamamatsu at 12:02
Arrive Toyohashi at 12:36

Train 5: Toyohashi-Nagoya (Special Rapid Train)
Leave Toyohashi at 12:51
Arrive Nagoya at 13:41

Stay in Nagoya one hour for a bathroom and meal break.

Train 6: Nagoya-Ogaki (Special Rapid Train)
Leave Nagoya at 14:45
Arrive Ogaki at 15:16

Train 7: Ogaki-Maibara
Leave Ogaki at 15:37
Arrive Maibara at 16:12

Train 8: Maibara-Kyoto (Special Rapid Train)
Leave Maibara at 16:18
Arrive Kyoto at 17:12
(Train continues to Osaka at 17:43, Sannomiya/Kobe at 18:06, Himeji at 18:47)

The total travel time from Tokyo, including breaks, is approximately 10 1/2 hours. Of course, you can tailor the breaks/rests to suit your needs.