When you’re in Japan, you can rely on rail transit most of the time. But, there might be some places on your itinerary where catching the train isn’t an option.
If you are planning on going to places outside Japan’s major city hubs, learning how to travel by local bus is a must. Although Japan has trains connecting to almost anywhere, learning how to travel by bus can save you tons of time and money during your trip here. By riding the local bus, you unlock the ability to go almost anywhere in Japan. Even the attractions where rail doesn’t go.
When I first came to Japan, I was intimidated, overwhelmed, and outright refused to get on a local bus. However, after learning and fully understanding how the system works, riding a bus can be really simple. Below I will explain the key points and tips on riding the local bus in Japan.
Knowing Bus Fares
Before you consider taking the local bus, you should know the cost of each fare. Nothing is more awkward and embarrassing than getting on the bus and not being able to pay your fare while a line of people wait patiently behind you. Trust me, it happens to the best of us. In most city centers of Japan, bus fares are flat rate no matter where you get off. Below is a list of the most common city centers people visit and their fares:
- In Tokyo and Osaka, the flat-rate fare for adults is 210 yen (IC Card 206 yen), and for children 110 yen (IC Card 103 yen). If you have a prepaid IC Card, I strongly recommend using it for the tiny discount you get and the convenience of simply scanning to pay.
- In Kyoto, the flat-rate fare for adults is 230 yen, and for children 120 yen. Note that there is no IC Card discount in Kyoto.
- In Nagoya, city buses have a flat rate fare at 210 yen for adults, and for children 100 yen. Like Kyoto, there is no IC Card discount. If you are a tourist, you have the option of riding the Me-Guru (メーグル) bus. This bus loops around the city stopping at every tourist attraction and has the same flat rate fare as the city bus.
If you plan to spend a day in these cities, I suggest getting the awesome all-day visitor bus pass for only 500 yen (Tokyo & Nagoya), 550 yen (Osaka), or 600 yen (Kyoto). You can use this pass for the entire day by simply showing it to the driver. This is a great way to save money when traveling in Japan. I highly recommend this pass over all the other options if you are looking to stay within city limits, especially if you plan on taking the bus a lot.
If you are traveling outside of the major city centers, fares can vary based on the stop and distance traveled. Typically there is a sign above the driver that indicates the next stop and fare that needs to be paid when getting off. If you are on a tight budget, check each fare prior to getting on the bus. I strongly recommend getting the app ‘Japan Travel’ by NAVITIME which shows you the route and exact fare based on the starting point and desired destination you put in.
I typically don’t pay attention to the timetables for buses or stress about it. Not because it’s in Japanese and sometimes hard to understand, but because most buses in Japan arrive in 10-20 minute intervals with hardly any delays due to Japan’s impeccable punctuality. However, there are some exceptions to this. On weekdays, buses are more frequent than on weekends which could potentially make or break any plans you make if you have a tight schedule. It also doesn’t hurt to understand how to read these timetables in case of an emergency. Timetables can be found at any bus stop assuming that the stop is for the bus line you are looking to ride.
The chart will most likely be in Japanese only so I recommend studying up and remembering some Japanese kanji before attempting to decipher this riddle of a chart. Below are the characters I recommend you know:
- 平日 (Weekdays)
- 土曜日 (Saturday)
- 休日 – 祝日 (Holiday)
- 時 (Hour)
- 分 (Minute)
The first three characters are usually seen at the top of the chart. Underneath that, you will see the fourth and last character (時 and 分). Underneath 時 you will usually see numbers 6:00-20:00. These are the hours the bus will run for. Next to those hours are the minutes in which the bus will arrive for each hour. Now you know exactly when the bus will come and how to use a bus timetable anywhere in Japan. Awesome!
Getting On The Bus
Getting on the bus is pretty simple (duh!), however, it can vary depending on where you are at so please be aware. When I started to understand the busing system, I was met with completely opposite rules when getting on a bus outside of Tokyo, which can be very frustrating.
In Tokyo, buses have a pay first policy. When getting on the bus, you enter through the front door and pay your fare first before sitting down. When getting on the bus you are met with the driver who is sitting behind the wheel. Next to him is his box that accepts the fare. Simply drop the correct amount of coins into the machine and find a seat on the bus. If you are using an IC Card, simply scan it and find a seat after. You should note that buses provide change if you don’t have the exact amount. From what I’ve seen, older buses only accept coins, but there are newer buses now that can process paper money and give the exact change back.
If you are in Kyoto, Osaka, or Nagoya, getting on the bus is slightly different than getting on a bus in Tokyo. These cities have a pay last policy. Instead of entering through the front door, you enter through the large rear door on the side of the bus and pay when getting off at the front door. If you are in a town outside of these city hubs, it is typical to see a ticketing machine when getting on the bus. Simply take a ticket and find a seat. This ticket will later determine your fare when your stop is next. Match the ticket number up with the display board above the front window. Alternatively, you can use your IC Card to avoid this if you already know your stop.
Exiting The Bus
When you are nearing your stop, be sure to double-check that you have all of your belongings. If your stop has been announced, be sure to press one of the many red buttons on the bus. This indicates to the bus driver that you want to get off at the next stop. If nobody presses the button, the driver might skip your stop if there is nobody waiting at that stop to the board, so be sure to press it or you might miss your stop!
If you are in Tokyo, simply exit through the rear door on the left-hand side of the bus. Do not make your way to the front of the bus, otherwise, you will be walking into people trying to board the bus. I’ve seen this happen before and it was very embarrassing for that person, so don’t be that person! If you are in Kyoto, Osaka, or Nagoya, you will exit the bus through the front door and pay as you leave. The rear door will not open until everyone is off the bus for that stop, so if you are confused or unsure, do not wait for the side door to open to get off. Go to the front.
Etiquette For Riding The Bus
If you are familiar with Japan, you might be aware of the many unsaid rules of public transit. Like with trains, there is a basic form of etiquette based on common courtesy and respect for those around you that should be followed.
- Make sure that your phone is in silent mode and the volume turned down if you are using apps. If you are wearing headphones while listening to music, be sure to adjust the volume low enough so that you don’t disturb those around you. I’ve never seen so many glares directed toward a single person in my life when I see this happen.
- If you are with friends, be sure to speak quietly. Nothing is more grating than a group of loud buddies coming onto a normally quiet bus ride and announcing their future plans of the night to everyone on the bus.
- This applies to people traveling in Kyoto, Osaka, or Nagoya. Before your stop, be sure to have your coins already ready to pay your fare. More than likely there will be people getting off with you so don’t force them to wait while you dig through your bag for the exact amount of coins.
- Sometimes buses can get very crowded, especially during the morning and afternoon rush. If you are sitting, it is considerate and very polite to offer your seat to someone older than yourself or a woman who is pregnant.
- Seats that are located in front of the bus are typically reserved for the elderly. If there are seats available in the back of the bus, chose those over the seats in the front. This is often looked over if the bus isn’t busy or near empty.
You do not need to follow these rules religiously, but it’s good to be aware of these things to avoid any cultural misunderstandings, awkward situations, or the rare confrontation that might spoil your entire trip here.