Guide to Using Highway Buses in Japan (Willer Express + Bus Pass)

I think there are few proper full reviews about using highway buses in Japan. Most people use a JR Pass and shinkansen to move around and the people who do use buses don't seem to talk about it that much, so I thought I'd contribute my experience for those looking for a cheaper way to move around.
I used Willer's Bus Pass and did 5 overnight trips, so that's what I'll be talking about here.

Buying / Using the Bus Pass

There are many versions of the pass depending on dates used and amount of days the pass will be active. I bought the Mon-Thu 5 day pass for 12,500 yen. This is the best deal, even though the 3 day one is cheaper, since five nights at that price amounts to 2500 yen/night (the 3 day pass would be 3333 yen/night).

I was quite confused at the start about how the payment would be done, but the process is straightforward and easy once it is understood. The Bus Pass isn't a physical pass per se, they give you no tickets or papers, but rather more of an online reservation method. Clicking on the "Buy bus pass" link here will get you started. 

How to use the Bus Pass:

1- Become a Willer member (meaning, simply register to their website). Once you’ve registered you’ll be able to make bookings (and later check, edit and cancel them) via your ‘My Page’.

2- Buy the Bus Pass. You click on the button saying “Buy Bus Pass” and it’s pretty straightforward from there. Though their FAQ mentions various payment methods, these are only when buying tickets individually, and not when using a pass. When using a Bus Pass, they will charge you directly through your bank account.

3- Book the trips. Once you’ve bought the Bus Pass (and they’ve taken your money), you can start making the reservations for select journeys. There’s a convenient map of all the journeys the Bus Pass offers on their website, note that Willer has other buses that aren’t available to use with the pass (such as Tokyo - Mt.Fuji).
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Each journey has more than just one pick-up and drop-off place (see image above). For example, if going from Kansai —> Kanto, you can hop onto the bus at Osaka, Kyoto, Kusatsu or Hikone, and get off at either Kawasaki, Shinjuku or Disneyland. If you were to buy the tickets individually choosing one option or another would impact the price (going from Osaka to Disneyland would be more expensive than going from Osaka to Kawasaki), but with the Bus Pass you’ve already paid the fixed fee.
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After the confirmation page (see image above), the journey will be added to your cart. However, the process isn’t over yet. You can either go to the bottom of the page where there’ll be a button saying something like “Add another journey”, from which you can select another route to add to the cart if you wish, or you click “Reserve” once all the journeys are added and go through another confirmation screen. It’s similar to Amazon’s “Proceed to check-out” once you have all items in the cart. If using a Bus Pass make sure to select the “Use the Bus Pass” option (see image below) so you won’t have to pay the fee separately.
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Once finished, an email will be sent to the address given when you registered as a Willer member, with the mentioned maps of the boarding locations, your reservation number and details, etc. This email works as your bus ticket, you might have to show it when getting on the bus (although they never asked me to show it, they had my name written down and that was enough).

Journey Reviews

Now I'll talk about my own impressions and the trips I did using the buses!

TRIP 1- Hikone - Shinjuku (Kansai - Kanto)

Departure: 24:40 Hikone Station rotatory bus stop 2

: 07:25 Kawasaki station east exit, next to LA CITTADELLA

Hikone's bus stop is very easy to find as it's a small city and there isn't much room for confusion. The bus arrived a few minutes before departure time and the luggage in the boot was sorted by arrival location.

Because I had been told that the buses were very uncomfortable, I was expecting the worse, however I was quite surprised by how good it was. The bus had outlets for me to charge my tablet (although I didn't discover this until the end, they were on the wall but quite far down and hidden), because I was in last row the seat leaned backwards very far and I could stretch my legs in the isle. The bus was almost totally dark, save a line of blue futuristic lights on the floor, and each seat had a sort of cover/hat that could be pulled over one’s head to hide from any light or prying eyes.

It was, however, quite chilly (similar to airplanes) even with my jumper on so I used both my and my absent neighbour's blankets.

We did three rest stops; somewhere in Aichi (judging by the omiyage), Shizuoka (they sell Mt.Fuji shaped mochis for 1000 yen, but really nothing else you can't get at a regular konbini) and somewhere else.

I fell asleep before we'd even made it out of Hikone and slept almost through the entire ride, only waking up for the first two rest stops. Because of this, I was worried that I'd sleep past my stop too, but it was fine since the driver turns on the lights and announces the arrival through the mic.

I arrived fully rested at Kawasaki, but I did miss not being able to have a shower or wash up properly.

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TRIP 2- Shinjuku - Morioka (Kanto - Tohoku)

Departure: 21:40 Shinjuku Station Bus Centre (South Exit)

: 05:05 Morioka Station west exit, bus stop 27

The Shinjuku Bus Centre may seem hard to find but the signs in Seibu-Shinjuku station are quite clear if you pay attention. Coming from the Yamanote Line to Shinjuku Station, the signs are less clear, so it’s best to simply find the south exit first and go from there. There are apparently two bus terminals, you'll probably want the one on the south exit, check your details and only follow the signs for the South Exit Bus Terminal. My biggest complaint about the terminal is that the seats don't have a back, meaning I can't lean back and instead usually lean forward, constantly putting weight on my legs all day, and that they have no outlets. They do have good fast wifi though.

The Bus Terminal was quite crowded, while they do have lockers (small ones are 100 yen for 2h) they were usually all taken at all times. There's a door leading to the Sky Deck in case you want to eat your bento/snacks up there, the shopping mall next door has a robot and there are also nice views of the train tracks from the bus departure gates further away if you're doing a loop to stretch your legs. The announcements are only made in Japanese so pay attention to the time and the screens with your gate yourself.

This ride was less comfortable than the first, there were no plugs and I had a window seat in the middle of the bus so I had less space. However, I did fall asleep for longer and only woke up at one of the rest stops (Miyagi). After departure the driver kept talking through the mic for quite a while, which was slightly annoying.

Because it was my second night in a row on a bus, once in Morioka I realised that my feet were very swollen and had to spend most of the day sitting down. On future journeys I wore some of my looser socks that wouldn’t be tight around my legs, as well as putting my legs up while waiting for the bus, and that seemed to help.

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TRIP 3 - Fukushima - Shinjuku (Tohoku - Kanto)

Departure: 24:00 Fukushima Station West Exit (near Toho Bank)

: 04:40 Shinjuku Station Bus Centre (South Exit)

I really like Fukushima city, but as someone who isn't a night person, finding something to do until departure time was very difficult. I tried their local enban gyoza, but mostly just walked around the station and combini and sat around while I waited.

The bus arriving to Shinjuku left me on the 3rd floor of the Bus Centre (the departures are done on the 4th floor). This was a very short ride so even though it was nice enough, I was a bit tired when I arrived to Tokyo. Later in the day I stopped by an internet café to lie down and clean up. It was good to start the day so early though, I arrived to Kawagoe before opening time and so managed to fit in many things that day.

The bus arrived some 20 minutes early to Fukushima and even though I was the only person getting on we waited until the scheduled departure time before leaving. This one had outlets too and, though I didn’t wake up for it, according to the announcement we did a stop at a Tochigi rest stop.
This bus had a tv screen per seat with some entertainment. Because my earbuds were in my bag in the boot I couldn’t listen to any of the music or watch any of the movies, so I don’t really know what there was to offer, but the girl across the isle spent most of the trip looking at a series so I suspect there was something good.

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TRIP 4 - Shinjuku - Kanazawa (Kanto - Hokuriku/Chubu

Departure: 21:55 Shinjuku Station Bus Centre (South Exit)

: 05:35 Kanazawa Station West Exit Rotatory

I slept through the entire ride, so I don’t have much to say about it. There were outlets in this bus too. The driver’s announcements when departing kept going on and on and on, first in Japanese, then English, Chinese and Thai!

TRIP 5 - Toyama - Kyoto (Hokuriku/Chubu - Kansai)

Departure: 24:05 Toyama Station North Exit rotatory

: 05:05 Gion Shijo Station

I thought the west exit at Toyama Station would be the main exit, but it’s the other way around. The east exit has a combini, a really nice seating area on the second floor, the tram station, some bathrooms and souvenir shops. To get to the west exit you can go outside and to the left, there are some steps and a long underground passage leading to the west exit. There are three (or four) Willer bus stops all in this area and they don’t tell you which one yours is, but if you look at the details on each sign you’ll figure it out. This bus had outlets too, but only counted blankets for the people who'd reserved a seat on the bus and so, because I couldn't use my neighbour's blanket, I was colder than on the other journeys.

Because this was my third night in a row on a bus, I was quite tired and slept through most of it, only waking up when the bus started doing strange bumps and jumps. In my sleepy deluded state I thought the bus was flying too close to the floor and constantly bumping against the ground accidentally with the wheels. Either way, it moved a lot.
Would I travel with night buses again?

Almost definitely. On my first two trips I had avoided doing long distance travel because of the price, but I was glad to be able to move around more this time, plus add a last minute day trip to Kanazawa. I think it's a good deal for the price with the Bus Pass and it was surprisingly comfortable. I wouldn’t do three nights in a row again though.

The bad parts:
  • Not being able to lie down
  • Buses were chilly
  • Late night departure times
What I liked the most:
  • Souvenirs and looking around different rest stops
  • Cheap
  • Convenience / being able to get to my destination while asleep
  • Early start once at the destination
I'd recommend looking into highway buses for those who're travelling on a budget!

Sam Lesmana