Cross-Country Travelling: How to Survive Japan’s Highway Buses
When exploring greater Japan, there are a lot of options regarding public transport. You have the option to fly, catch a shinkansen or jump on a bus. Compared to the slick shinkansen, anything involving wheels is comparatively the slowest, most uncomfortable option. But hell is it the cheapest!
From Tokyo to Osaka, a bus will cost roughly ¥4,000 (55AUD), but with a Shinkansen it’ll cost ¥13,620 (188AUD). That’s a ¥9,620 (133AUD) saving — enough to buy you about 65 cans of Strong Zero for your next convenience store session. So, hopefully, this will serve as a guide on how to survive your next overnight bus journey.
1. Pack light
Suitcases don’t pair well with Japan’s overcrowded trains, so good luck getting anything around during peak hour. You’ll also arrive early morning at your destination, so check if your hostel will accept your luggage prior to check-in, otherwise put your luggage into one of the many lockers they have at train stations. They have different sizes ranging from small, medium and large. These cost ¥400 to ¥700 (5AUD to 10AUD) and are a flat rate fee for the day. Usually, this will expire at around 10:00 to 11:30pm.
2. Leave early
“It’s just a bus trip. It’s not like I have to go through security or customs!”
I’ve made this mistake a few times and got too confident with my exceptional direction skills. You’re meeting at a bus terminal which is most often at a train station. Train stations are surrounded by local bus stops and have underground systems with shopping malls and a number of exits. They supply you with a link to a dropped pin map of exactly where you’ll be picked up. Find a nearby store to the dropped pin and put that into your google maps rather than trying to follow the directions they wrote for you. Leave early, figure out where you’re meeting and then go exploring. Grab yourself a meal at the Standing Sushi Bar in Underground Tokyo Station. Cheap, quick and delicious! Sushi not for you? Try Okonomiyaki Kiji located in the Tokyo Building TOKIA. They serve cheap Yakisoba and even have an English menu.
3. Book right
There are a few different types of overnight buses, and these decide your fate. Keep an eye on how many seats are in a row. If it has four seats… run! Do not book that bus even if it’s an express. You want to go for a bus that has three seats separated by two aisles. This will allow you to enjoy the arm-rest to yourself and to stretch your legs out in the aisle.
Use Kosokubus to compare prices between different bus carriers. They have an English option on their website that makes the language barrier much easier.
WillerExpress mainly have a four-seater option, but they also have a ‘comodo’ bus that has three rows in the back of three-seater options. If you choose this, pick seat 9B. This one has the most leg room out of them all. The four seaters on this bus also have a hood for privacy.
JR Buses are the best choice. If you have the chance, book with them every god damn time. They’re your beautiful three seat rows and they provide you with a pillow, blanket and two different types of foot rests. They also have a toilet on board, which means you’re not relying on the rest stops to go.
Both carriers have power outlets and some buses advertise WIFI. There are also women only buses and/or rows available.
Raid a Konbini (7/11, Family Mart, Lawson). You’re on the bus for a long time. They usually have two to four rest stops throughout the journey, but they are filled with overpriced, touristy snacks that you definitely could’ve saved your money on if you bought it in the city. Stock up and pair them with all the Netflix binging you’re about to do. Pre-download your episodes/movies! The WIFI can be questionable! Stuck on what to watch? I highly recommend (re-)watching Breaking Bad. It’s gotten me through my trips throughout Japan over the last month.
5. You bought a bloody four-seater?!
While they don’t supply a pillow, these buses do have a small cushion on the head of the seat. These are removable, so take it off and use it as you please. Alternatively, I like to use one of my jumpers by folding it up and using that as a make-shift pillow. They do supply a blanket, but it’s more a rag for your legs. If you have valuable possessions, keep them out of grabbing reach of your row mate. In my case, mine got quite handsy and tried to take my Apple Airpods out of my cupholder. Definitely keep your valuables on you.
5. Save your arse
After the four-hour mark, usually your behind starts to go numb. There’s this amazing little platform alongside the windows on all buses in Japan. It’s ankle height, but by god does it make a difference in taking some weight off your cheeks. Lean on your side and stick both feet on this tiny platform. Yes, it’s ridiculous. But this tip may save you from hours of being uncomfortable. Then you’re on your side and can lay onto the head rest rather than the window.
Although bus travel is slow and uncomfortable, if you’re on a budget, I highly recommend taking this route. I saved myself hundreds of dollars with buses and could spend my savings where it mattered. When you’re in Japan, give the highway buses a go!
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