Recently Shana and I wanted to visit some friends in Tokyo but it was a bit last minute.
Round trip on Shinkansen for two people from Sendai to Tokyo is roughly $400 total. We probably could have found last minute tickets on AirDo, Peach or JetStar but airports are huge hassle and we would still be looking at $300 total for a round trip tickets and possibly more.
A friend of ours recommended a highway bus.
There are highway busses that are run by the rail companies and there are private companies that run their own bus lines.
We chose to take Willer Express. An interesting quirk in their scheduling if you take the over night bus (leaves at 9PM arrives around 4AM the following morning) it is roughly $75 each way per person ($150 for round trip from Sendai to Tokyo and back). However, if you take the evening bus (leaves at 5:3opm and arrives around 11:30pm) its about $65 dollars round trip per person. If you are budget traveling and would rather not spring for a hotel, you can roll that cost into the overnight bus and “sleep” on the bus. If you have accommodations already and would prefer to save some money on transportation the bus is probably the cheapest (and slowest) option.
However, growing up in California and making many drives from Sacramento to Los Angeles or San Diego I felt the bus ride from Sendai to Tokyo felt about the same. If you can handle a six hour ride and work it in to your travel plans you’ll be able to see a lot of Japan for much less than it would cost on Shinkansen
The Willer Express bus was comfortable although a little cramped. On the evening bus there were TV’s behind each seat. On the afternoon bus from Tokyo back to Sendai there was no in seat entertainment although the return tickets were the same price.
Paying for Willer Express was very convenient in that you don’t need a credit card to pay for it. You can go pay at convenience store. However, there are no English instructions that will walk you through the payment system. Hopefully you will find a patient combini clerk to help you finish your transaction.
The cancellation policy on the tickets I purchased allowed me cancel up to 24 hours prior to the bus trip without a penalty.
My only complaint about Willer Express is where they do their drop off and pick up. In Sendai it was hard to find and about 10 minute walk from the East exit of the station. To make matters more complicated none of the staff at the station had any idea what we were looking for. They all kept trying to point us to the JR bus terminal. Every time I tried to show an attendant my ticket (written IN JAPANESE) they would glance at it and point me to the same place that I had already confirmed was not where we needed to go. It was rather comical in a catch-22/kafka-esque kind of way. Finally we found the little sign and guy standing on the sidewalk next to the bus about 3 blocks from the station.
The drop off for Willer Express is about a 5 minute walk from Shinjuku station in Tokyo. Shinjuku station is also the biggest station in Tokyo so you have maybe a 20-30 minute walk from the train you want to take but for the most part the drop off was very close.
Leaving Tokyo there is a proper Willer Express terminal in one of the Sumitomo bank buildings about a 15 minute walk from Shinjuku station main West exit. There are actually very detailed directions on the Willer Express email confirmation to get from Shinjuku to the bus terminal. Just not from Sendai JR to Willer’s sandwich board on the sidewalk.
Overall for the price and the relative convenience of the bus (its easier than driving yourself for instance and not as big of a hassle as the airport) I think it maybe one of the best ways to get around Japan. If you can break a trip up into highway bus sized chunks you can save a lot of money bouncing around Japan.
Here are some links from JNTO about bus travel and here is the link for Willer Express. For the JR operated busses you can buy tickets at the terminal or attempt the all Japanese website. In Sendai the JR bus terminal ticket center is on the ground floor across from the bus pool outside the East exit. The prices on the board seemed a little higher than Willer Express but they may change depending on demand.