Book more Japan buses in English!

During my random perusals of Japan travel on the Internet, I discovered for the first time that another of Japan’s highway bus companies has now opened its online reservations to the English language. This, in turn, might make bus bookings for foreign travelers much easier – and more competitive.

Two buses of the JR group JR Bus Kanto and JR Tokai Bus – have published English information about their bus services on their respective websites. Both companies link to their online bus reservation website, www.kousokubus.net, where you can look up bus availability, see what seats are available, and make a reservation request. It doesn’t go into how exactly you acquire your bus tickets, though…

Aside from this question, the JR buses can give you several seating and fare options depending on what route is selected. Some of the fares are what are called “hayatoku” fares, which are discounted fares for an advance purchase. Securing these types of tickets in advance could yield good savings on potential bus tickets!

A few other bus companies in Japan already offer English reservations for their buses. The biggest of these is Willer Express, the company known for its distinctive pink buses, which also offers online reservations in Chinese and Korean. Another bus company, Keio Bus, offers English reservations for their buses between Shinjuku and Mount Fuji.

One of the biggest routes that JR Bus offers online reservations for is the most important: the Tokyo-Kyoto/Osaka route. Here are some of my search results for a random weekday in May comparing JR Bus with Willer Express for a trip between Tokyo and Kyoto:

Day bus:
Willer Express
* 4 seats to a row, 4,320 yen

JR Bus
* 4 seats to a row, 3,900-4,300 yen
* 3 seats to a row, 4,700-5,700 yen
* “Gran Seat” (2 x 1 per row), 5,300-6,300 yen

Night bus:
Willer Express
* 4 seats to a row, 4,800-5,400 yen
* “New Premium” (2 x 1 per row), 7,000-8,600 yen

JR Bus
* 4 seats to a row, 4,500-5,400 yen
* Super Seat (3 seats to a row), 7,100-8,500 yen
* “Gran Seat” (2 x 1 per row), 7,500-8,900 yen
* Premium Seat, 11,500 yen

Have you relied on bus travel in Japan? Will you book your next Japan bus trip online?

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Tokyo to Kyoto for $21… and other cheap ways to transit Japan

Thanks to everyone for reading this hobby blog of mine for the last few years. For some reason or another, everyone keeps reading and commenting on my post about traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto for 2,300 yen (under September 2014 exchange rates, about $21)… So because so many people are interested, here is a list of some ways that you can travel around Japan on the cheap!

– Bring a few friends to Japan and travel with the Seishun 18 Ticket 

If you bring a few friends, or know a few friends willing to travel around with you, the Seishun 18 Ticket – a travel ticket offered at certain times of the year – could be your best friend. Literally translated “Youth 18” and initially targeted to those traveling on school breaks, the Seishun 18 is actually offered to everyone. The ticket has gone up in price slightly this year because of the national tax rate hike, but it’s still a value at 11,850 yen per ticket. The ticket is valid for unlimited travel on LOCAL trains all around the Japan Railways network – this means, you cannot use the bullet trains, you cannot use premium “limited express” services that run on conventional railways (with one exception), and you cannot use most overnight trains. You can also use the ticket for the JR Ferry that runs to the island of Miyajima (typically a 180 yen trip).

It’s important to note that the ticket can only be purchased and used during school holidays. There are three periods of the year when the ticket is offered:

Spring: Purchase between February 20 and March 31 for use between March 1 and April 10
Summer: Purchase between July 1 and August 31 for use between July 20 and September 10
Winter: Purchase between December 1 and December 31 for use between December 10 and January 10

There are five “spaces” that are stamped by manned station staff every time the pass is used, with one space representing one person traveling in a single day (midnight to midnight). By maximizing the spaces used, you can save a considerable amount of money. If you are a solo traveler and chose to make five long trips in five days (which don’t have to be consecutive), each trip would cost only 2,370 yen! If you have four friends and make a long trip over the course of a day – such as Tokyo to Kyoto – each person pays only 2,370 yen! There are many combinations possible as far as usage – a group of four, for example, can travel a long distance in one day on the pass for 2,960 yen.

It’s important to do some research to see if the Seishun 18 is best for you. Long-distance journeys such as Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka will pay off, but if you’re only doing a short trip from, say, Tokyo to Yokohama, it’s not worth it.

A few other notes: You are permitted unlimited stopovers on each day, and the price of the Seishun 18 is the same for children and adults – there are no discounts for kids.

– Buy a local ticket that allows stopovers

On any day of the year, buying a long-distance local ticket can save on per-day travel costs because under Japan Railways rules, the longer you travel from point-to-point, the longer you have to make the journey.

The rules are: Within a major Japanese city or for all journeys 100km or less, you have one day to make the trip, and in many cases stopovers are not allowed. From 101 to 200km, you have two days. From 201 to 400km, you have 3 days. For each additional 200km traveled you get one additional day.

To find out the distance of your trip, look it up on timetable search engines such as Hyperdia, being sure to clear the checkmarks on everything except “local train” and “Japan Railways” otherwise you will see a few bullet trains and airplanes!

A few examples:

Tokyo to Nagoya is 366km over the Tokaido Line at a cost of 6,260 yen. You can take the trip over a course of 3 days, so if you decide to stop and spend a night at two cities along the way you will be paying about 2,086 yen per day, and if you spend one night along the way it’s 3,130 yen per day.

Tokyo to Kyoto is 513km over the Tokaido Line at a cost of 8,210 yen. You can take the trip over 4 days! So, traveling over the course of 2 days splits the cost to 4,105 yen…. 3 days is 2,736 yen…. 4 days is 2,052 yen per day!

With this plan, you can direct the money saved on travel into reasonably-priced hotel accommodations along the way – many of which will be considerably cheaper compared to staying in larger cities. This will also allow you to enjoy more of Japan, including some areas that many foreign tourists will pass over.

You are allowed unlimited stopovers along the route that you are taking – it’s important not to stray from the route that you paid and are ticketed for, otherwise there may be a difference in fare. You’ll also want to know that since these are regular fares, there are discounts for children!

Also, major cities in Japan are designated into certain “zones”, and travel in between two major cities is sometimes designated as traveling from one zone to the other. For example, a trip from Tokyo to Osaka would be defined as the Tokyo ZONE to the Osaka ZONE. Stopovers are NOT allowed in zones of your origin or destination, but are permitted anywhere in between. Kyoto is close to Osaka, but since Kyoto has it’s own ZONE you could technically stop over in Kyoto on the trip from Tokyo to Osaka without any extra charge, as long as it’s within the days permitted to travel and, as mentioned earlier, you don’t stray away from the path ticketed. Once you stop anywhere in Osaka and get out of the system, the ticket is considered USED.

Please visit Takeshi’s JP Rail page which gives a lot of great information about this.

– Use the Japan Bus Pass for cheap trips on highway buses

The Willer Express Japan Bus Pass was introduced for foreign tourists in Japan a few years ago. At a cost of 10,000 yen for 3 days of bus travel and 15,000 yen for 5 days, you can make considerable savings over regular bus costs. There are many other bus operators in Japan, including those operated by branches of Japan railways, but the Willer web site allows reservations and bookings in English. Rather than go through a lot of the details, simply read my recent post about the Japan Bus Pass.

– Fly to Japan on a Star Alliance or oneworld airline and take advantage of domestic air passes for tourists

If you travel to Japan on a certain airline, you may qualify for an air pass for tourists. The Star Alliance Japan Airpass is valid for travel on All Nippon Airways (ANA) and can be used if you travel on Star Alliance airlines (including ANA, United, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa). The Oneworld Yokoso Japan pass is valid for travel on Japan Airlines (JAL) and can be used if you travel on oneworld airlines (including JAL, American, British Airways, Qantas).

For each pass, you can take between one and five trips by plane, with each trip costing just 10,000 yen plus tax. It’s a great and quick way to travel around several regions of Japan. You will always find flights from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Osaka’s Itami Airport as they continue to compete with the bullet train – but longer distance flights can pay off if you don’t have much time to spare – Tokyo to Fukuoka or Tokyo to Sapporo are great examples. Note though, that there ARE a number of blackout dates where these passes cannot be used.

If you do not qualify for these fares, i.e. by traveling on a different airline, both ANA and JAL offer regular tourist passes – up to 5 trips at a cost of 13-14,000 yen per trip. A minimum of two trips is required.

– Fly domestically on low cost airlines

Over the last few years, the low cost airline concept has boomed in Japan. A number of carriers are springing up offering tremendous fare discounts. Some of the top airlines that you can make reservations with in English include Skymark, Peach Aviation, Jetstar and Vanilla Air.

As these are low cost carriers, services and amenities are reduced compared to carriers JAL and ANA, and the airlines sometimes serve airports that are not close to the center of the city… but the airfares are sometimes hard to beat.

A random fare search for a weekday in November yielded these one-day fares:

Skymark: Tokyo Haneda to Sapporo for 8,500 yen
Peach Aviation: Tokyo Narita to Osaka Kansai for 3,390 yen … ?!?!
Jetstar Japan: Nagoya Centrair to Sapporo for 6,590 yen
Vanilla Air: Tokyo Narita to Okinawa for 8,200 yen

– Use a Japan Rail Pass

If you’ve got a limited amount of time and intend to visit a lot of places around the country, a Japan Rail Pass is still a great way to go around. You get unlimited travel on Japan Railways, and unlimited seat reservations on nearly ALL bullet trains and limited express services for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days. Prices start at 29,110 yen for seven consecutive days of travel, or about 4,160 yen per day. The 14-day pass starts at around 3,300 yen per day, and if you do the 21-day pass it’s about 2,800 yen per day. Green class (first class) passes are higher.

– Use a Japan Rail Pass and stay on the cheap

Utilizing a Japan Rail Pass when traveling between major cities, you can make an intermediate stop at a small city along the way and potentially save with hotel rates that are cheaper than in major cities. For example, if you travel from Tokyo to Osaka by bullet train, you could opt to begin your travel in the evening and stop at one of the intermediate bullet train stations such as Hamamatsu. In Hamamatsu there are hotels where you could spend as little as 4,800 single occupancy or 6,800 yen double occupancy, complete with your own bed, bathroom and shower – then just move on the following morning to Kyoto and Osaka. (The quote is from the Toyoko Inn, a national chain of business hotels)

– RESEARCH!

The best way to save on your trip is with research. I’ve presented you with a few options, but these just scratch the surface. There are so many deals out there that one can take advantage of in Japan. The key is to price what you want to do (transit, food, lodging), and do price comparisons to see what is best for you.

Of course, if you ever need advice about your next trip to Japan, leave a message and I’ll be happy to reply when I can.

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

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.