When people talk about transportation in Japan, the object of everyone’s attention and adoration is always the railways. While it would be impossible to deny the efficiency and reliability of the greater Tokyo railway system, what many do not realize is that taking the train is not always an option.
Yes, even in the bustling metropolis of Tokyo, there are areas where the trains just don’t go. Walking might be an option, perhaps, but unless you’re training for an upcoming marathon or trying to shed those Christmas pounds, it can quickly become more trouble than it’s worth.
While taxis are generally plentiful in these areas, they tend to be disproportionately expensive when compared to their more public counterpart, the bus. Especially in the residential areas of Tokyo (and even more so in older cities like Kyoto), knowledge of how to go about taking the bus can be an invaluable skill.
General Bus Etiquette
Luckily for us, the general etiquette for bus passengers is largely the same as train etiquette. As on the trains, smoking, eating, and drinking are largely frowned upon. Additionally, talking on the phone on the bus is generally seen as rude.
Also like the trains, buses generally have a set of seats reserved for the pregnant, elderly, or those with disabilities, so it’s best to avoid sitting there if possible. This can be a difficult temptation to avoid, as those seats tend to have more leg room and bus seats tend to be much more cramped than train seats are, but for the sake of politeness, it’s a sacrifice that you’ll have to make.
Identify Bus Stops
The first hurdle is the ability to identify (and decipher) bus stops. The stops at stations tend to be large and easily identifiable, with canopies, benches, large signs, and, most tellingly, a few busses loitering around until the next departure time.
However, as you stray further and further from the beaten path, they can become much easier to miss. Typically, the bus stations on major streets will continue to have benches and canopies, but in places further from the city center, there may only be a single signpost indicating that you are currently standing at a bus stop.
However, the signs are standardized, so once you know what to look for, you’ll be able to sniff them out like a pro. On one side of the sign will generally be a time table, and on the other will be a map of the routes that make use of the stop.
These route lists can be as simple as a straight line or as complex as a Tokyo Subway map, so it’s important to locate which bus number visits the stops that best suit you. Even if you can’t read the station names on the signpost, you’re in luck: in Tokyo, Google Maps can pretty reliably help you pick out which bus numbers are best for you.
Read Time Table
Additionally, if you don’t know what you’re looking at beforehand, the timetables can seem like a confusing mess, so I’ll go over one of the most common arrangements here.
The first column, in black, is a list of operating hours, and the following columns are minute values, divided into weekday times (in blue), weekend times and Holiday times (in red/pink).
So, for example, if you are on the row where the first column says 6 and the second column says 30 and 48, the timetable is saying that the bus comes at 6:30 AM and 6:48 AM on weekdays.
While the schedule is generally accurate, it is important to note that due to a variety of factors, the buses in Tokyo aren’t quite as punctual as the trains, so you may end up waiting and catching a bus a few minutes later than the listed time.
Payment with PASMO/SUICA/Cash
Once your bus arrives, it gets a little bit more confusing; each bus has a different boarding door, though these should be clearly labeled.
Inside the bus’ entrance door will be a ticket dispenser and an IC card reader. If you have a PASMO or SUICA card, congratulations! Riding the bus will be a piece of cake.
All you have to do is tap it at the entrance when you board and then tap it on the terminal when you exit, and the fair will be automatically calculated and deducted, just like when taking the trains.
However, without a PASMO or SUICA card, the process gets a little bit trickier. At the back entrance of the bus, there will be a ticket dispenser. A ticket will be dispensed for you with a number that corresponds to the stop at which you were picked up. After you take your seat on the bus, you’ll notice a screen above the driver’s head; similarly to the screens on trains, this screen displays the name of the next stop, as well as further stops on the route.
On buses, this screen serves an additional purpose; whenever the bus is coming up on a new stop, the monitor’s display will switch; there will be two columns with different number values. In one of those columns, it should display the number value that you see printed on your ticket. On the same row in the next column, you will see the amount of money the fare from your starting point to the current stop would be.
When you come up on your stop, ready the amount of money you need to pay and proceed to the exit door; next to the PASMO/SUICA terminal will be a payment machine; these generally only accept coins, but most buses have a money changer built into them, either as part of the payment terminal or as a separate terminal right next to it.
Also, keep in mind that some buses in Tokyo have a flat fee; if you do not see a payment terminal near the exit door, you have more than likely stumbled on to one of those buses. In order to be absolutely sure what the payment situation is, it’s generally not a bad idea to check the other doors for payment terminals after boarding. Once you’ve dropped your fare into the designated opening, you’re good to go! To avoid slowing down the flow of passengers exiting the bus, it is best to have your fare out and ready to go long before you reach the front of the bus.
As I said before, most people in Tokyo won’t have to take the bus with any regularity; however, when one does need to take it, it’s best to know what you’re getting yourself into. But with an open mind and a guide in hand, anyone can become a public transport pro.
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Our apartments are located in Shinjuku, one of the most vibrant area of Tokyo. The nearest stations are Higashi-Shinjuku Station (Fukutoshin/ Toei Subway Oedo line), Shin-Okubo Station (JR Yamanote), and Okubo Station (JR Chuo-Sobu Line).
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