When you think of travel in Japan you may first think of trains and the bullet train or Shinkansen in particular. However, what you may not realise is that you’re missing out on a much cheaper, pretty comfortable alternative to this, the night bus. The night bus in Japan is often overlooked because the equivalents in your own country may not be quite the same and can be quite an uncomfortable way of travelling. But you’re missing out!

You may have already come across the highway bus in Japan generally known as the Kosoku bus. The networks are extensive and run across the country. Each bus will normally have 2 or 3 different stops in the city giving you a little more flexibility too. The night buses are numerous and if you’re looking to travel between the big cities it might be just what you need.

Interior of a night bus at night

Pricing

Obviously, the price is a big factor here. Shinkansen prices are often not the most affordable for longterm students who can’t get the JR pass. The night bus in Japan offers the perfect alternative. What’s more is that it essentially covers a nights accommodation too. Given that the expressways are all toll roads too, you’ll be covering the cost of these charges but at a much cheaper rate.

For example, a one-way Shinkansen ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto costs around Y14,110. The night bus will cost around Y3,800 for the cheapest bus and remember you’re essentially covering your accommodation for that night too.

Even much longer journeys such as Tokyo to Aomori can cost as little as Y7,600 whereas the Shinkansen costs around Y13,750.

It’s always worth checking the different options for the night bus as these options can be even cheaper but vary depending on time of week and time of year that you are travelling.

All the choices

In the USA or the UK you might get a power outlet and some free wifi, the busses as a whole are just your standard bus, there’s not a whole lot of choice. For the night bus in Japan, it’s different, there is a lot of choice. Not only are there a few different companies that operate across the country, but there are also different types of night bus. Ranging from the basic (which is still pretty fancy) to upmarket.

Firstly, there are the basics that come on most night buses. We say most as all the ones we’ve been on have had these but we’ve not been on every night bus in the country! Comfortable headrests with support cushions and blankets. They may be simple but these small extras make any overnight trip a lot more comfortable. You’ll also often be provided with a basic eye mask to aid your slumber.

Next, there’s the number of seats in a row. You can opt for 4 but a large number of night buses have three seats to a row, some grouped 2 and 1 and others with 2 aisles and 3 individual seats spaced apart.

Then there’s the type of comfort you’re looking for. Almost all have reclining seats but some will come with footrests as part of that. Some have hoods that pop over your head to block out the light if others want to stay awake, and the ones where the seats are individual, have curtains all the way round to give you your own small private space. These will often also have a pair of slippers for that extra bit of comfort.

Obviously, each extra feature comes at an extra cost but in comparison to the Shinkansen, it’s still very good value for money. Each company will have different things on offer so check out their websites to see what your choices are for each journey.

Making a booking

As we mentioned, there are a few companies that run night buses and one of the most well known and popular is Willer. They have an easy to use English website that you can book through. with relative ease too. As with most travel sites, it’s a matter of selecting your route and day you want to travel. You can then browse the options and select which is the best or cheapest for you. The booking portal is relatively standard to and you can pay by card, or like many things in Japan, later at a konbini. The ticket then gets emailed to you. Alternatively, there are other bus company sites but the most useful option may be sites like Kosoku Bus that cover several different bus companies and allow you to compare. They all seem to use the same booking portal so again, it’s nice and straight forward and you can pay by card.

interior of a willer night bus in Japan

Get moving but remember your bus etiquette

The night bus in Japan by its very nature, is quite Japanese, meaning that ease of use and importance of etiquette are just as important as they are everywhere else.

Once you’ve made your booking, it’s as simple as making sure you’re at the right location for pickup and joining the right queue. Then you simply need to give your name to the driver. They’ll either confirm your allocated seat or just let you on the bus. It’s important to take your ticket with you but in practice, I’ve only been asked once to show anything over the numerous times I’ve travelled by night bus. Once you’re on, get comfy, tuck yourself in and enjoy your sleep as you travel to your next destination and next adventure.

Remember though, keep things polite. The etiquette rules are pretty much the same as any other country but the difference is that in Japan you’re expected to follow them. Don’t have loud conversations with your travel buddy as most people will be wanting to sleep. This also means no phone calls, noisy games or loud music on your headphones, and no smelly, noisy food.

Once you’ve got your ticket, you’re good to go. It may not be for everyone and it helps if you’re a heavy sleeper but it’s certainly one of the cheapest, simplest ways to get around Japan and save a bit of money on accommodation too while you’re at it.

For more information about life in Japan keep following our Go! Go! Nihon blog.