To travel around Japan, other than the fast, clean but expensive Japanese Shinkansen, there is a slower and also a little uncomfortable but much cheaper alternative: night buses.
The Japanese night bus network is even more widespread than the high-speed train network, but it requires a bit of adaptability.
The Japan Rail Pass is a great solution for tourists (it’s not valid, alas, for those who are in Japan with a visa other than the tourist one) and although it is convenient compared to the individual routes in Shinkansen, it has an important cost. Actuallt, depending on the movements you plan and when you plan to do them, might be useful to know than other Japan Rail Pass for 7-14-21 days, there are also several regional passes that could be convenient especially if you plan to visit only a certain area (for example, the Tohoku).
If you want to save money, Japanese night buses are an excellent solution that will help you by cutting also the cost of accommodation, because you’ll spend the night sleeping on night buses!
Night buses in Japan – Routes, costs and duration
The bus network in Japan is very convenient, on some routes it is even better use the bus rather than the train, such as for visiting the Mount Fuji area.
Most of the medium-long distance routes are covered by the night bus service and the duration of the ride is adjusted so that the departure is around midnight and the arrival around 6 in the morning. It happens that there are multiple points for get-on and get-off, but they are always concentrated around the departure/arrival times from the destinations and there are no intermediate boards, so as not to interrupt the sleep of travelers.
The cost is generally much cheaper than Shinkansen, but it changes according to the season, the type of night bus and the available rides.
Generally the price range is 4,500-12,000 yen and the duration is about 7 hours.
I have used night buses in Japan 5 times and this is the information about prices and times.
-Tokyo – Kyoto: 4,800 yen, in 2018, lasting almost 8 hours, Heisei Vip Liner Bus
-Kyoto – Tokyo: 5,300 yen, in 2018, duration 6 and a half hours, Amy-go Bus
-Yokohama – Iga: 8,000 yen, in 2019, duration 6 and a half hours, Mie Kotsu Bus
-Tokyo – Kyoto: 4.200 yen, in 2021, lasting almost 8 hours, KiraKira Sakura Kotsu
-Nagoya – Tokyo: 2.00 yen, in 2021, duration 6 hours, MilkyWay Sakura Kotsu
Passes for night buses were also available, but they were all suspended due to Covid-19, I will integrate the article with the relative prices if they will be available again.
It’s important to show up at the departure station at least 15 minutes in advance, the buses are generally very punctual and don’t wait for latecomers, therefore consider the time necessary to allot your luggage before departure!
Also consider that sometimes the stop corresponding to your bus is not very easy to find, so plan to move in advance for this reason too. In any case, together with the ticket booking, you are also provided with directions to the designated bus stop.
Types and comfort of night buses
Especially the most popular routes such as Tokyo-Kyoto/Osaka, are served by many bus companies that offer different types of vehicles and services.
Generally, on all buses there have toilets and reclining seats (how much, it depends on the type of bus).
The number of seats per row is also variable: the classic two-seat columns or three separate seats. The width and space vary depending on the bus, there are also some buses offering extra space with a 155° reclining seat, where you are very comfortable in sleeping!
On almost all buses, a blanket is given but is needed to check the specifications when booking. If it’s not mentioned, I suggest you bring one, or equip yourself with a heavy sweatshirt: often the air conditioning is a bit too high…
On some buses you can also find USB sockets and wifi connection and some have a double driver, to ensure maximum safety. All specifications are explained during the booking time.
Luggage is placed in the trunk and a suitcase per passenger is usually allowed. It’s possible to bring a small suitcase on board that can be put in the overhead locker.
My experiences using night bus in Japan
To give you an idea, here is the summary of my three experiences on night buses in Japan. Keep in mind that I am a small girl and I sleep easily, I still tried to consider comfort in the most objective way possible!
- Vip Liner Tokyo-Kyoto: 4 seats per row divided with privacy curtain. Seats with “preformed” head restraint which prevents the head from hanging, cushion and blanket supplied and “backrest” which allows the seat to slide without annoying the person behind you. Tv screen with games and headphones provided, USB socket.
Moreover, upon arrival in Kyoto we were able to take advantage of the free lounge, with a free refreshment corner (coffee, tea, soup) and bathroom/dressing room with makeup station available for 30 minutes.
I don’t remember if there was a toilet on board, but I remember that we took a break in a service station, with the related announcement that woke up even those who were not interested in get off to take a break. Other than that, I found myself very well, adequate and comfortable space.
- Amy-go Kyoto-Tokyo: a normal 4-seater bus in a row, with narrow and slightly reclining seats. No dividing curtain between the seats. We only received a blanket and there were no other services than the bathroom on board. Not the best option…
- Mie Kotsu Tokyo-Iga: rows of three single seats, separated with curtains only for passengers on the sides (i.e. if you are in the central seat, you must ask the neighbors to close the curtain if you want your privacy!). Blanket provided and Wifi available, but no power outlet. Bathroom on board.
- KiraKira Sakura Kotsu Tokyo-Kyoto: the worst trip. Basically a normal bus (but at least the head of the seat with the “shape” that avoids making your head dangle), we were not provided with neither pillow nor blanket, the wifi did not work and also the socket was jerky. No bathroom on board and three stops were made in rest areas during the night… useful for those who had to use the bathroom, and annoying for those who were woken up by the comings and goings… Moreover, at every braking, you could hear the whistle a little of trains that when trying to sleep is not quite the best sound to help you sleep…
- MilkyWay Sakura Kotsu Nagoya-Tokyo: same company as the previous bus, but in this case, given the very low cost, I’m fine that there are no additional services. Also on this bus wifi and sockets worked well. The brakes were also good and no whistling could be heard. Let’s say that this company can only be chosen if you find bargain prices and you want to save as much as possible … otherwise, with a few buck more, other companies provide you more comfortable trips.
How to book night buses
Usually, at the major bus stations, you can buy tickets at the counter, both for the same day and for the following days, but in my opinion, the best solution is to buy the ticket for the night bus directly online.
The sites that I recommend to search in English and evaluate the available options are KosokuBus and the site of the most famous night bus company in Japan, Willer Express. Once you find the bus that covers the section of your interest, you can choose the point of embarkation and disembarkation and the number of passengers, specifying whether man or woman since usually when a woman travels alone she will be assigned a seat near another woman.
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