Tokyo is an amazing city and it’s huge. As you might imagine, there are many options to get around.
More unusual, unless you seek them out, are the fantastic last remaining streetcar or the monorail.
Dead last would probably be boats and buses. However, these are a fun way of seeing Tokyo. They can be slower but the view is less restricted or even completely different than expected!
Becoming a bus lover in Tokyo
Early in our relationship, Hitoshi professed to me his deep and sustained love for buses. I wasn’t convinced, seeing the crazy traffic in some parts of the mega city and unsure what the fuss was about.
As luck would have it for Hitoshi, we moved to Heart Island in Adachi Ward. And since two rivers give the island a big ol’ hug, there were and still are no subways. Trains are also absent.
What is left besides a little boat? Buses, of course! And a dedicated rider I became.
Buses in Tokyo tend to run frequently, follow a reasonable schedule given Tokyo’s sometimes horrendous traffic, and are priced well. (As an aside, none of this may apply for buses in rural areas!)
An anxious bus rider am I
I’m not an eager bus rider, even in places where I understand the language. Why? I’m afraid I’ll miss my stop.
If I’m somewhere new, I do as much as I can to scout out the route before, have a map ready and sitting in my lap, and even find out what the stop before mine will be. Better yet, I have every single stop listed on a piece of paper from the place I get on until my destination!
As you might imagine, I was a sweaty, nervous mess before taking a bus alone in Tokyo. On top of my nervousness, I was usually reluctant to ask for help. (Stubborn, first-born I suppose.)
But there really wasn’t much to worry about. In fact, I even enjoyed some features of the bus once I relaxed.
Favorite features of buses in Tokyo
The best feature has to be the raised, individual seats at the front of buses. One is behind the front door and provides the best view of the road. The other lets me watch over the driver’s shoulder. Hitoshi and I have different seat preferences so we don’t have to wrestle and can sit separately if we are needing alone time.
The announcements are interesting. They sometimes advertise community businesses and remind you to take your belongings. The next stop is announced as soon as you leave the previous one and again before you arrive. I appreciate this, especially if I am looking for a stop.
Many buses now have digital boards. The text is usually kanji (characters), followed by hiragana (rounded script) and then often romaji (Roman letters). Using Ueno Station as an example, the board would have 上野 駅, then うえの えき and finally Ueno Station. It is okay to ask the driver to tell you when your stop comes, even if it’s only your best attempt at Japanese. Give it a try!
Bus stop signs usually have large text that I can read from the bus. This helps me figure out where I am going. Schedules are usually posted on the stop pole and I really like this service, especially since it can be more difficult to find schedules online in English. Some stops in busier areas, like the East Ikebukuro bus stop zone, show estimated arrival times.
The best places to sit, besides those coveted front, single seats, are the single row of seats on the right side of the bus and the very back row that stretches the entire width of the bus. The only time I can sit in those single seast is when buses are not busy though as they are often designated for those with mobility challenges.
That last row of the bus is great to have a little more room side-to-side. There is also usually a shelf behind you where we’ve put bags. If your legs are sky high long though, you’ll be in for a tight squeeze. But this is normal for most seats on the bus.
Operators, Cost and Paying
Toei Bus is the main operator in Tokyo. Regular Toei buses cost Y210. Given fluctuating exchange rates, let’s say this is around $2.00 CDN or 1.50 Euros.
Transfers are not offered. In other words, you only get to ride on that one bus for one fare. If you switch buses, you pay again.
Other operators charge arond the same or more. Toei runs other buses but I have only used the regular ones.
If you don’t have exact change, get change from the box beside the driver. Insert a Y1,000 bill in the slot or coins into the chute below the bill slot and change will come out below that. Bigger bills are not usually accepted.
Pay by putting the fare in the opening that sometimes has a little moving conveyor belt at the bottom. The driver will put his or her hand over the slot where you are not supposed to put money and guide you to where your money goes. (I’ve been confused more than once so have plenty of experience with this gesture.)
You can also pay using a refillable fare card such as Suica or Pasmo. If you don’t have enough money on your card, you can charge the card on the bus only with a Y1,000 bill or coins. We found this out the hard way when we had a Y5,000 bill and nothing else. While we eventually scraped together enough change between the two of us for our fare, we held up the bus in the process.
Besides the obvious of giving up your seat to someone who needs it and not sitting in the zone reserved for people needing support (even though I often see people ignoring this), there were some things I learned.
Exact change before getting on the bus is appreciated because then you don’t impact the schedule.
If you get on a bus in the middle, get your fare ready before you get off. This is again so you don’t hold up the bus. You aren’t supposed to walk around the bus when it’s moving so wait until a red light and go to the driver to get change using the machine.
Eating on the bus is frowned upon, although I have eaten candies and had a drink from my water bottle without issue.
This is hard to do if you aren’t familiar with the route but make your way towards the front of the bus before your stop, especially if it’s crowded. Otherwise, you need to call out to the driver to wait. “Su-mi-ma-sen!” should do the trick.
Bringing luggage is not a good idea. There are usually no racks, seats are narrow, some seats are over the wheel so your knees are up at your chin (beware if you are tall!), and most buses have stairs to reach the back.
This is not to say that we have never taken large bags on the bus. We only had the bus where we lived so we took snowboards and bags for weekends away, but the routes were not busy. During rush hour, this would not have been possible.
If you’re taking more than two rides in a day, I love the Toei One-day Economy Pass. Ask the driver for i-chi-ni-chi jo-sha ke-n. It still costs Y500, despite fares going up Y10 with the tax increase in 2014.
We have never used it but the Tokyo One-Day Free Ticket (scroll down in the link) looks useful. Note! The ticket is not free but it allows you to travel freely within a zone. As an aside, this use of “free” is common. I asked my second employer if the workplace was “smoke free”, meaning there were no smokers. He thought I wanted to smoke anywhere!
If you’ve taken the bus in Tokyo as a tourist or resident, what have your experiences been? Are you a regular bus rider wherever you live?