As much as we love the trains in Japan, sometimes the attraction you want to visit is closer to a bus stop. Moreover, when traveling in Japan’s rural areas, taking a bus is a must if you don’t want to drive. Although taking a bus in a foreign country might be daunting, taking a bus in Japan isn’t hard as soon as you have a brief understanding of how it generally works.
As more and more foreign tourists utilize Japan’s bus system, English signs, timetables, and announcements become more common in big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. But as soon as you travel outside the city center, be prepared to enter a pure Japanese environment. So, refer to the below for all you need to know about the bus system in Japan, with tips included!
Tip: Be the second or even the third person to board the bus. This way, you can observe what the person before you do and just follow suit.
Table of Contents
- Planning Your Bus Trip by Using Japan’s Transportation App
- Enter the Bus Through the Front Door or Rare Door
- How Do I Know My Stop Is Approaching?
- What to Do When You Want to Get Off the Bus in Japan
- How to Pay the Bus Fare in Japan
- Take Note of the Bus Timetable of the Returning Bus
- How to Take a Highway Bus, an Overnight Bus, or a Limousine Bus
Planning Your Bus Trip by Using Japan’s Transportation App
Like the trains, you can download one of Japan’s Transportation Apps to plan your trip. Note that the buses in Japan usually have three timetables: one for weekdays, one for Saturdays, and one for Sundays and public holidays.
Tip: If you are unsure whether you have got onto the right bus, ask the bus driver: “Kono bus wa 〇〇 ni ikimasu ka? (このバスは〇〇に行きますか？). The phrase means, does the bus go to 〇〇? You can also show him the name of the bus stop you want to get off in Japanese.
Enter the Bus Through the Front Door or Rare Door
Around 90% of the time, you should board a bus in Japan using the back door. This is because most buses in the country operate on a distance-based system. The longer the distance traveled, the more you need to pay.
Entering the Bus Using the Rare Door = You Pay Based on the Distance Traveled
In this case, you need to get a numbered ticket from the dispenser (the red machine in the photo). The number on the ticket is an indicator of where you boarded the bus. To know how much you need to pay when you get off the bus, check the indicator at the front of the bus.
For example, if the ticket has the number 1 printed and the screen has 250 underneath the number 1, it means you need to pay 250 if you want to get off at the next stop (refer to the 3rd photo in the IG post).
If you don’t have a ticket, the bus driver may ask you to pay the most expensive fare on the screen because he doesn’t know where you got on the bus.
Some buses have the words “無券” before the number 1 (refer to the last photo in the IG post). This indicates the bus fare for those who didn’t draw a numbered ticket.
If the bus accept transportation IC cards, such as Suica/ICOCA, there is a card reader at both the rear and the front door (the machine on the right in the photo). All you need to do is tap on and off to travel. The card reader will calculate the bus fare for you. There is no need to draw any tickets.
Sometimes, the indicator has two fares underneath a number. The cheaper fare is for children, usually up to and include 11 years old.
Boarding the Bus from the Front Door
Sometimes in the city center, the bus is operated on a flat-rate system. In this case, customers may need to board the bus using the front door and pay the bus fare before sitting down. The back door is for the customers to get off the bus in such buses.
How Do I Know My Stop Is Approaching?
As tourists, the most intimidating part of using a bus in Japan is probably getting off the bus. Here are a couple of ways to ensure you get off at the correct stop.
- Google Maps is a great tool for you to know how far you are from the bus stop you need to get off the bus.
- You can also let the bus driver know your destination for him to let you know when you need to get off the bus. As not all bus drivers speak English, download one of the Translation Apps to assist with communication.
- Take a photo of the Japanese name of the bus stop you want to get off. This will make the communication more efficient.
- Other passengers on the bus can be your guide, too!
Reading the Information Screen on the Bus
The screen on the bus usually also shows the name of the next bus stop. If it is a bus in the city center in big cities, this information is most likely shown in English as well. However, if the bus travels in Japan’s rural areas, the name is only written in Japanese.
Thus, it is always handy to have a screenshot of the Japanese name of the bus stop you want to alight the bus. You can match the characters on your phone with what is shown on the screen.
What to Do When You Want to Get Off the Bus in Japan
Start packing up when your stop is approaching. Like many countries in the world, you only need to press the bell button on the wall or handrail to signal the driver your attention to get off at the next stop.
How to Pay the Bus Fare in Japan
In Japan, you have to pay the exact fare to get off the bus. The bus driver doesn’t have any changes for you. Use the money-changing machine next to the driver if you need to break your notes or coins of a larger denomination. All you need to do is insert your note or a coin.
If you have a numbered ticket, put the ticket with the exact bus fare into the opening on the money changing machine. That’s right, the machine can collect bus fares and has a money-changing function!
Take Note of the Bus Timetable of the Returning Bus
Often, the bus stop has the timetable of the bus routes that stop there. Take a photo of that timetable so you have an idea of when you need to start heading back. The photo will be extremely useful, especially when you travel outside the city center as the number of services won’t be as frequent.
Just to be clear, it is the return bus timetable you need to take. Thus, you need to find the returning bus’s bus stop first.
The bus stop for your returning bus is usually somewhere across the road. In rare cases, the returning bus route is different. If that is the case, check with the staff at the attraction you plan to visit for the best way to get back to your hotel.
How to Take a Highway Bus, an Overnight Bus, or a Limousine Bus
Unlike local buses, a ticket must be purchased before boarding if you want to use a highway bus to get to other cities/prefectures or a limousine bus to the airport. You can book your ticket online or from a ticket machine or counter at the bus stop. If you understand Japanese, you can call the bus company to reserve your ticket.
If you want to reserve your ticket online, the booking websites below are legit.
Note not all bus stops have a ticket counter or ticket machine.
Getting a Better Understanding of Tokyo’s Train System
If you had a chance to look at Tokyo’s train map, you might be startled at first glance. With so many train companies owning train lines and stations in Tokyo, the city’s train map may look too confusing to follow for many tourists.
So if you want to understand Tokyo’s train system better, refer to our Guide to Tokyo’s Transportation System and Train Routes!
The Most Useful Apps for Traveling in Japan
In this day and age, smartphones are our new maps, translators, and guides. It is the most useful tool that helps us navigate when traveling to a foreign country like Japan.
But for it to be useful for your Japan trip, there are a couple of apps that you need to download. For more information, refer to our article on the Most Useful Apps for Traveling in Japan!