Buses

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Fumihiko Suzuki

    Main guest

    Fumihiko Suzuki is a journalist and advisor specializing in transportation-related issues. Considered one of Japan’s top experts on public transportation, he delivers frequent lectures on the topic. Has published a great deal about buses, of which he is particularly fond.

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June 27, 2017

Buses

*You will leave the NHK website.

Perhaps it’s because of the country’s world-famous bullet trains or its best-selling automobiles, but when you think of transportation in Japan, buses aren’t usually the first thing that comes to mind.

As it turns out, though, Japan boasts some of the world’s best bus systems—and these systems have some distinct advantages over the country’s other methods of transportation. In this edition of Japanology Plus, we explore Japan’s buses, which are, in many ways, just as advanced as its high-tech trains and cars.

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Host Peter Barakan lives out a childhood dream and hops in the driver’s seat.

As we learn in the program, city buses got their start in Japan in 1903—specifically, on September 20, a date that has, since 1987, been celebrated as “Bus Day.” Japan’s first buses, cars modified to haul six passengers, are an early example of modern Japan’s technological resourcefulness (not to mention its ability to cram things and people into tiny spaces).

Fast-forward to the present day, and while Japan’s latest and greatest buses have quite a bit more leg room than those original models, they do have one thing in common: what comes out of the tailpipe. Japan’s first buses emitted steam, and its newest, which we get a look at in the program, are powered by hydrogen fuel cells, meaning their by-product is H20, too. These hydrogen buses aren’t just green—in an emergency, they can be used as generators, providing enough power for an entire evacuation site.

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Buses have come a long way from the days when they were essentially modified cars.

Today’s edition focuses largely on Nagoya, in which about 15% of the population regularly rides buses. But in Tokyo, too, buses can be a huge help when it comes to getting around. Take a look at a map of Tokyo’s crisscrossing, tendril-like system of trains and subways, and this isn’t immediately apparent: it certainly seems as if there’s easy rail access anywhere in the city. But in this author’s experience, once you move away from Tokyo’s core and out to its suburbs, the gaps in train service become more apparent. That’s where buses come in, linking the gaps between lines.

Speaking of Tokyo, there are many reasons to hop on a bus even in areas with heavy rail service. Those with even a cursory interest in modern Japan have no doubt seen the famous photographs and videos of Tokyo commuters jamming themselves onto impossibly-packed rush-hour trains. One easy way to avoid being turned into a sardine on one’s daily commute is to find a bus going in the same direction. Though they might not be as quick, they’re usually far less crowded, and, as the program notes, the IC cards used to ride the train are interoperable with virtually all city buses.

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These cards, which work on trains, subways and buses, can even be used for shopping.

Another reason to choose travel by bus in Tokyo, especially if you’re sightseeing, is for a better view of the city itself. While Tokyo once had many street-level tram lines, they’ve all but disappeared over the years, and most trains now either travel significantly above or below ground. Buses, on the other hand, run on the street and, with their large windows, allow for an eye-level look at what Tokyo’s denizens are up to. Even those who have lived in Tokyo for years can get a whole new perspective on the city by grabbing a bus.

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Buses often provide a better view of one’s surroundings than trains or subways. 

Today’s program covered city buses, but there’s another type of fixed-route bus that gets a lot of use in Japan: highway buses. While high-speed rail might be the fastest way to get around the country, it can also be pricey, and young travelers looking to save some yen often opt for a bus instead. Many of these inter-city buses run at night, allowing travelers to hop on, catch some sleep and arrive at their destination in the morning to get in a full day of sightseeing. Some of these night buses even offer amenities like ultra-reclining seats, personal TV screens and female-only seating areas.

Japan may be most famous for its rail services, but those who hop off the beaten track and onto a bus may discover a whole new world of public transportation.

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In Plus One, Matt Alt discovers the hard work that goes into maintaining Tokyo’s buses.

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We also explore a new countryside trend: on-demand bus services.

*You will leave the NHK website.