In our recent travels around Japan, Shana and I have been going for bus travel to save money. It costs a fair bit to use shinkansen and flying low cost airlines isn’t a savings guarantee. From Sendai there several options for bus travel but Willer Express is the company that we have chosen now for three separate trips to Tokyo because of their English friendly booking system and their relatively low cost fares. Sadly, Willer does not operate everywhere in Japan. Certain destinations require using other bus companies or spending the money on shinkansen and regular train fare. We recently took a trip to Hakuba, which is a small town in the western mountains of the Nagano prefecture. Keio Dentetsu offers direct busses from Shinjuku station to Hakuba for around 4,700円
Keio operates a bus system that brings together highway buses from all around central and south central Japan, a bit like a bus cooperative. In Nagano, the buses that Keio uses are from Alpico Kotsu. I think it is important to understand that not all the buses that Keio uses will come from the same company, so your results maybe very different than my experience.
Keio has two websites (Japanese and English). The English page is watered down substantially and focuses solely on four tourist destinations because it is apparently unthinkable that anyone would want to travel anywhere else if they are not Japanese. When going through the reservation process there is an option to book one way tickets but only from Shinjuku or Nagoya. Despite all that, the English site is simple, and well laid out if you need to book a round trip ticket. A seat will be reserved for you and you show up and pay at the terminal the day of your departure. Be aware, the terminal is cash only. You can also purchase tickets without a reservation but during peak season you may not get a seat.The Japanese page (if you can read it) has some benefits. First off, there are special prices and promotions for certain routes offered on the Japanese website. Second, there are far more options for booking buses through the Japanese website, as well as one way options in any direction. Finally you can register an account on the Japanese page, to earn points towards future bus travel, get email reminders, special pricing, manage bookings and save favorite routes. The Japanese site also offers a smart phone version of the main site that would allow you to login and do any reservations adjustments, provided you can read Japanese or have someone who can read Japanese, do it for you. Below are all areas serviced by Keio bus listed on the Japanese version of the main website.
I booked roundtrip tickets through the English version of their page and did not receive and email confirmation. It may have ended up in my junk folder, but I couldn’t find it so be careful. A phone number is required to complete the reservation and they were able to look up my reservation using my Japanese phone number. When I finished my booking I was able to save a PDF of my booking confirmation.
The bus terminal in Shinjuku is very easy to get to from the West or the South exit of the JR lines. It is right across the street from the station and in front of Yodobashi Camera (ヨドバシカメラ). Despite the place being a little hectic (and what isn’t in downtown Tokyo) it was very well run. I was able to pay for my tickets very quickly and set my stuff down. The buses leaving the station are very punctual. I didn’t see a single bus leave more than a minute behind its scheduled departure time, I would not be late for these buses. Basically the opposite of everything in Greece.
Once on the bus to Hakuba, the Keio website explains that it takes about 4 hours and 40 minutes to get to Hakuba but based on weather and traffic may change. I would count on a 6 hour bus ride. Both ways we hit major delays and something else I was not expecting. The bus made regular stops like a city bus. The Willer buses are as advertised and ONLY stop at rest stops and their terminal destinations. The Keio bus we were on stopped several times along the freeway and in rural mountain towns in Japan to pick up and drop people off. On the English website it makes no mention of this and appears in every way to be a direct bus but it isn’t.
The seats themselves were reasonably comfortable but not as nice as Willer Express. The bus ride was calm and uneventful unlike our bus adventure on Jeju island. We ended up wanting to get off a stop earlier than what our tickets were printed for but the bus driver made no difficulty for us and helped us get our stuff off the bus. I’ll leave the issues of getting around Hakuba for a different post because they don’t have anything to do with the Keio bus lines. Keep your bus ticket handy. The bus driver for Keio will ask for your tickets when you exit the bus and I’m not sure what the repercussions would be if you didn’t have them.
Two major complaints that I have to register regarding Keio and Willer Express here in Japan. I didn’t mention this in my first review of Willer because I thought it was a fluke. Six bus trips later I want to bring up some issues with temperature control and lights.
The driver of the bus doesn’t seem to be aware of the climate of the rest of the bus. The ventilation was not being used on a relatively warm day which made the bus ride very uncomfortable from a temperature perspective. We had to switch seats several times so we could make use the cold window by pressing our faces and shoulders up against it, also this made us look like crazy people.
My second major complaint is that Japanese buses at night leave their boarding lights on. On both Willer and Keio they left main lights on the entire bus ride. After 5 hours of constant florescent lighting my eyes were really sore. It’s like being in an exam waiting room on wheels. Not to mention it is impossible to sleep in that much light. I also had a friend inform me that the bus lights are left on for the overnight buses as well but I have not personally experienced that.
Overall I have to give Keio a passing grade. For half the price of shinkansen I got where I wanted to go. The journey had its annoyances like the frequent stops, the temperature and the running lights but mostly was comfortable. We even got to hang out and look at Mt. Fuji for a few minutes in Futaba. The buses leaving the station were very efficient and the bus terminals were well organized and unlike many things in Japan, didn’t do their very best to confuse the hell out of me. I would still choose Willer Express over Keio however because of Willer’s much better English reservation page and seemingly lower all around prices.