I am lucky enough to live in Fukuoka City, the primary transportation hub for all of Kyushu: its central location in terms of air, rail, sea and road travel, as well as its excellent public transportation connecting all terminals, makes it and ideal base for traveling around the island. The recent opening of the Kyushu Shinkansen has made travel in Kyushu much more convenient, especially to destinations such as Kumamoto and Kagoshima, but for those who want to see places such as Beppu, Mount Aso, Miyazaki, Nagasaki, and the many other destinations available, “highway buses” are still the most economic (and sometimes the fastest) way to do so.
In case you hadn’t noticed, Kyushu is made almost entirely of mountains, even by Japanese standards. This means that, aside from the Kyushu Shinkansen, which ignores mountains and cuts a straight line through tunnels for most of its length, rail lines almost never take a direct path to their destination, following valleys and contours of the terrain at a crawling pace. Expressways, while expensive for drivers, are cheap if you are taking a highway bus, and they tend to cut through hills and mountains using tunnels, without stopping at every little town along the way as a train might. Furthermore, ridership is on the decline, meaning already cheap prices are becoming even cheaper as bus companies compete with each other and with other modes of transportation.
Here are some of the advantages and features of highway buses:
- There is something called the SUNQ Pass, which for a reasonable price gives you unlimited use of buses throughout all of Kyushu and even out to Shimonoseki. This pass costs 14,000 yen for 4 days, 10,000 yen for 3 days, and 8,000 yen for 3 days in popular northern Kyushu.
- Round trip tickets get you discount prices, and buying sets of four tickets (round trip tickets when you travel with a partner) reduces the price even more. These are significant reductions, too.
- While night buses can be a bit tedious, a few hours aboard a bus isn’t bad at all. From Fukuoka, for example, you can travel to pretty much anywhere on the island of Kyushu in a maximum of 5 hours time–less than 2 hours to Kumamoto, a little over 2 hours to Nagasaki or Beppu, or 4-5 hours to the far reaches of Kagoshima or Miyazaki, for example.
- When compared with faster modes of transport such as airplane and Shinkansen, the price is significantly lower, making it worth spending a little extra time.
- Some buses don’t require reservations, allowing riders to simply get on and pay the proper toll when getting off, based on the distance traveled. Reservations can be easily made for almost any bus, of course, via the Internet, telephone, or a reception window at one of the bus centers.
- Unlike buses in the country I come from (USA), long-distance buses in Japan are clean, relatively comfortable, and not full of creepy people, rude people, escaped convicts or rabid animals.
- For each destination, highway buses often stop at main rail stations as well as other central parts of town, offering an advantage over trains.
- Some of the most beautiful scenery in Kyushu can be had from the country’s expressways–the thrill of riding Fukuoka City’s stacked expressways over canals and ocean near the illuminated harbor area, the misty hills chiseled out of rock in rural Oita, and the secret valleys and scattered islands along the western coast of Nagasaki are just a few of the things can seen.
In other words, highway buses are probably the best way to travel around Kyushu, all considered. And for budget travelers, hostels and guest houses (or camping during the summer) combined with highway buses makes for an economical trip.
Here are some useful links to get you started:
- Nishitetsu, the leading highway bus operator in Kyushu
- Willer highway buses, probably the cheapest ones (although you get what you pay for…)
- Raku Bus route information and reservation site
- Information on the SUNQ Pass
- Useful highway bus route information from japan-guide.com