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Sure, a shinkansen may be faster, but if you’re pinching pennies, both daytime and overnight highway (long-distance) buses are ideal for travelling around Japan. Here are some of the best ones, all of which offer booking services and information in English.
One of the most popular low-cost bus companies out there, Willer Express do great deals on overnight buses. They’re also the purveyors of the Japan Bus Pass, a little beauty which lets you ride to your heart’s content for three, five or seven days. You can use it on non-consecutive days, meaning that you can get all the way from Tokyo to Hiroshima and back for a measly ¥10,000 (on weekdays) and still have an extra day or night on a bus to spare. A one-way shinkansen ticket would be double that.
There are some blackout dates (Golden Week and the Obon holidays in August), but other than that you can pretty much ride whenever you want within two months of your first journey. All you need to do is not be Japanese: the deal is only available to those with a foreign passport, including residents.
Yes, it may stand for Japan Railways, but JR has its own fleet of highway buses too. Split into regional companies (JR Kanto, JR Tohoku and so on), they offer services up, down and across the entire country. Although JR buses are a bit pricier than the other companies listed here, their ubiquitousness means that you’re very likely to find one that will get you to your final destination. Just note that you may need to change to a regional carrier halfway through if you’re trying to get to the furthest corner of Kyushu or Hokkaido from Tokyo.
If you want to take a bus to save time and avoid paying for a night’s accommodation but don’t want to sacrifice the creature comforts, Kanto Bus has an option for you. Their Tokyo-Osaka buses boast private cubicles, each including a seat that folds down to a flat bed, a large foldaway table and other essentials to get you through the night for ¥20,000 one way. There’s even a powder room in the back. We’re pretty sure you’d be able to get a hotel room for less than that, but not one that transports you across the country.
Kanto’s other routes are more reasonably priced (from around ¥6,000 one-way on weekdays) and can take you to to some gorgeous spots including Kyoto, Nara and Okayama – albeit without those luxurious little cubicles.
This Osaka-based company is great mainly for its discount service options between Kansai and Kanto, including trips from Osaka or Kyoto to Tokyo for a laughably cheap ¥4,000 one way (mainly on weekdays). Their other routes have similar prices to those of other operators, including Kanto Bus, but if you’ve ended up in Kansai and are looking to travel back to the capital or further afield, Kintetsu is a good option.
A website rather than a bus company, Japan Bus Online is an English-language hub for those looking to book bus rides regardless of operator. Simply search for your preferred route and the website will spit out the available options; you’ll then be able to pay for your chosen tickets by credit card. Note that they have a segregated gender policy: if you’re travelling in a mixed-gender group, this means you might not end up sitting right next to each other.