Buses are boring. There is nothing wrong with being a boring bus. In fact, I prefer boring to say… life threatening. Talking about buses is also pretty boring. However I have somethings I think you should know about Chuo Bus in Hokkaido.
Chuo bus is very convenient (kind of).
I took 4 trips (2 round trips) on a Chuo bus. We took the bus from Tomakomai ferry port to JR Sapporo Station. Then I also took the Chuo bus from JR Sapporo to Niseko Hirafu and back. Two very different trips but essentially the same things to say. To get from the ferry terminal to JR Sapporo there are four bus pick up times posted outside at the stop. You can take an express train that goes from JR Tomakomai to Sapporo but its nearly double the price of the bus and you have to transfer from the bus to the train anyway. Might as well stay on the bus. In this respect the bus was very convenient.
Riding to Niseko was also very convenient. The bus leaves from JR Sapporo twice in the morning 7:55AM and 8:55AM and arrives at Hirafu just before lunch. The price is very reasonable at 3100円 round trip. There is a large customer service desk that opens at 7:30AM in Sapporo Station to pay for tickets and book numerous other excursions offered by Chuo bus. They also offer services that leave direct from the airport to Hirafu but I did’t explore that option because we took the ferry.
Now the inconvenient elements. Their website is terrible and almost 100% in Japanese. There is an English site seeing page but the ski link goes back to the Japanese page. The bus to Niseko requires a reservation and during peak season you may need one as it might sell out. However, my bus was mostly empty and I left on a Friday morning in peak season. Like Keio bus terminal in Shinjuku there was a massive LED readout listing trips and availability on it. My guess is that even without a reservation if you got to the station at 7:30AM right when the ticket counter opens you could get a seat on the bus to Niseko. I didn’t try that because I had someone call for me and book it in Japanese. There are 3 other main bus services that all make trips to Niseko and when I was at Niseko I saw even more buses that I didn’t find online. White Liner has the best website and you can book in English. The other services are Donan (Japanese only) and Resort Liner (English). Chuo does NOT offer online reservations because, I have no idea.
Style, Comfort or Both?
I can assure you these busses were completely lacking in style, but were comfortable enough. I wouldn’t take Chuo overnight somewhere as they were pretty standard fare and didn’t have any of the extra sleeping “comforts” you get with a Willer bus. They did have regular sized cup holders which I thought was nice. The ride from Tomakomai to Sapporo and back was fraught with my largest complaint about buses in Japan, they are too warm. Inside the bus it was blistering and outside it was just normal cold weather for Hokkaido. The bus to Niseko didn’t seem to have this problem. Not sure why but I was wearing snowboard gear and it didn’t feel overly hot to me.
The buses we took were all about half full save the bus 3:30PM bus from Sapporo Station to Tomakomai. That bus was jam packed. They even had to bust out the jumper seats to fit everyone. It was a sardine can. Not surprisingly, a super crowded bus can result in a relatively uncomfortable ride. Was it worth paying double to take the train? Probably not, and there is no guarantee that the train would be any less crowded. Plus, once you get to Tomakomai, you still have to take the bus to the ferry terminal.
Something strange also happened at the bus terminal in Sapporo. The guy loading the luggage told me I couldn’t put my bag in the luggage compartment under the bus. His reason, “PASOCOM! PASOCOM.” For those of you not familiar with English words remade into Japanese words, this sounds just like the way it’s spelled: complete gibberish. After about three times of trying to hand the guy my bag we finally figured out that he was telling us laptops can’t go under the bus. Why? Who knows. After we informed him it was just clothes in my bag, he changed to normal polite Japanese, “ONEGAISHIMASU!” It was weird. The Japanese are incredibly paranoid about lithium-ion batteries but this was out of the ordinary. As if all the lithium ion batteries in cell phones, iPads, mp3 players, and laptops are some how less dangerous when raised more than a meter off the ground.
Chuo bus is very inexpensive to get around Hokkaido and it goes almost everywhere a gung-ho tourist would want to go. However, you may hit a language barrier here and there and if something requires reservations you may have to phone a friend. For skiing or boarding I thought the Chuo bus was by far the best option with the best available times. It leaves early enough to get in a solid half day when you arrive in Niseko and leaves late enough that you can have two solid days and only pay for one night in a hotel.