If you don’t know the area you’re traveling buses can be difficult to use even when you speak the language. It’s easy to miss your stop or get mixed up. Plus local buses and various stops in Japan generally have less Romanized spelling (in Japanese, ‘romaji’) of location names than you’ll find on trains and subways. That being said, buses provide quick and convenient access to those areas that train or subway don’t go – if you’re outside the big cities the local bus is probably the best way to travel.

It’s also recommended to limit your jumping in the nearest taxi so you can mix it up with the local community and save some money for the convenience store.  And it must just be the best way to get to your tattoo appointment.

An abandoned bus sits amongst overgrown grass under power lines high in the air. The bus is well worn with a blue paint on the front and red sides.

This abandoned bus has seen better days. Relative to other countries it’s actually quite rare to see abandoned vehicles or machinery out in the open.

Getting Where You’re Going

There are a few simple ways to give yourself the best possible odds of having a successful trip around town. Number one being to memorize or write down the spelling and pronunciation of your desired stop. Once that’s taken care of it’s just a matter of getting on and paying your fare. But depending on where you’re from and how the transit system functions there that may be easier said than done… Here’s a quick step-by-step guide to riding the bus in Japan!

  1. Get on the bus at the back door. Yes, the back. Yes, I’m sure. No, I did not mean the front. That’s where people get off the bus. Okay, fine. If there’s only one door at the front, wait for people to exit and then enter.
  2. As you enter take a ticket from the ticket voucher or tap your IC card to the sensor.
  3. Find a seat or area where you have a clear view of the front of the bus.
  4. Look at the number on your ticket. This indicates where you got on the bus.
  5. The fares are displayed on the board towards the front of the bus. The price you pay will correspond to the number on your ticket. The further you go the higher the fare.
  6. The next stop is often displayed towards the front of the bus on a display. And it is often announced over speaker by an automated system or the drivers themselves. Listen for it!
  7. Press one of the red stop buttons when you’re approaching your stop.
  8. You need to provide exact change for your fare, so if you think you’ll need to make change use the machine at the front where the driver is located. You can do this during your trip – when the bus isn’t moving! – or as you leave.
  9. Go to the front of the bus and pay your fare. With a ticket you pay the price indicated for the number on your ticket. Put the exact fare AND the ticket into the fare box. If you’re using the IC card tap the sensor before exiting.

A picture of the fare board at the front of the bus. The fare board is a four by ten grid with each cell labelled. Inside each cell is a digital readout.

The Bus in the Big Cities

Keeping track of your changing fare isn’t always necessary. That’s because larger cities, like Tokyo and Kyoto, have flat fares for using the bus. Many of these larger areas also offer unlimited ride day passes. Whether or not these are worth purchasing largely depends on how much traveling you’ll be doing that day. If you plan on visiting two or more of the temples and shrines in Kyoto on a given day than it will almost certainly be worth the day pass. Some buses allow purchasing of day passes from the driver and some require purchasing the pass at the bus station.

Okay, you got on and off the bus at hopefully the right place. Or at least easy walking distance. If you plan on returning by bus, check the schedule for the stop heading in the opposite direction.