Highway buses shift into high gear
BY LOUIS TEMPLADO, STAFF WRITER
What form of transport comes to mind when you think about traveling in Japan? For most people the answer is the speedy Shinkansen, as much a symbol of Japan as sushi and Mount Fuji.
But for Tokyo resident Kazue Arai, the answer is the bus. Sitting in the heat of the JR Bus Kanto Terminal in Tokyo's Shinjuku area last week, Arai was charged with leading her family of eight--children and in-laws included--back to their rural hometown to spend the Bon holidays. After sizing up her travel options, she chose the highway.
"We've always taken the train," explains Arai, before stepping on board a bus bound for Takato, Nagano Prefecture. "But this time we're trying the bus. At the train station my parents have to climb up and down stairs, and they"re too old for that now. And once we get there we have to ride a taxi for 40 minutes. The bus drops us off near our house and we can walk.
"My son loves trains and he gets sick on buses," she adds. "But the bus is a lot cheaper, so we just make him put up with it."
It's a choice many are making. Once equated with morning red-eye and stiff necks, medium- and long-distance bus travel these days is on a roll. This summer, according to JR Bus Kanto Co., the largest of several regional bus firms belonging to the Japan Railways group, the number of passengers choosing buses is up 10 percent compared with last year.
Willer Travel, one of several new private bus firms on the scene, is doing even better, reporting a 150-percent rise in ridership during the same period.
To be sure, bus travel is still a tiny blip on Japan's travel infrastructure--moving less than 3 percent of the passenger traffic between Tokyo and Osaka. Yet it's twice what it was a decade ago, and there's still no sign of a slowdown.
Once crammed mostly with student types, buses are now attracting businessmen, families and senior travelers. The reasons vary: Many seniors don't drive; Japanese in their 20s and 30s are spending their money on mobile phones instead of automobiles; and companies are cutting back on travel expenses.
In an interesting development, says Hikoharu Konishi of JR Bus Kanto, families have started traveling separately. Mom and the kids ride the bus, while dad catches up later by train.
Behind it all is the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, which opened the industry to new competitors in 2002. Fares dropped when the new carriers entered the market.
A one-way trip from Tokyo to Osaka, for example, used to run 8,000 yen. Today it starts from 3,500 yen, while the Shinkansen fare remains at 13,240 yen. With competition stiff on main routes, the firms are creating new ones, heading to places hard to get to by train, like Takato.
"Until now, people rarely considered anything outside of the Shinkansen," explains Aiko Ike of Willer Travel, an Osaka-based firm that entered the field three years ago. "Now there's a new sensibility. For the same amount of money, you can travel three times instead of once.
"City people can take short trips to the countryside, while people in the country can hop on a bus to shop in the city."
Price isn't the only lure. Willer, which used to be a ski tour operator, entered the bus business with a most finicky and active demographic in mind: women.
The company's buses are pink, and its policy is to seat women travelers away from men whenever possible. Its budget-class "Relax" seats come with roll-down canopies above the headrests so that occupants can sleep, apply makeup in peace or avoid unwanted eye contact. For those willing to pay more, the company offers comfy Premium class seats--an option quickly copied by other new firms and JR Bus as well.
The rise of minnows like Willer, Rotary Air Service Co. and Orion Tour Co. has not gone unnoticed by JR Bus conglomerates.
Once part of the government-run Japan National Railway (now Japan Railways), JR Bus is talking of discounts, luxuries such as Premium Dream seats, and the creation of new "products"--such as bus-to-ferry-to-bus voyages to places as far away as Sapporo (from 9,900 yen) and Kagoshima (from 11,800 yen).
"To be honest, our fares never changed in the past--they were what they were no matter what," says JR Bus Kanto marketing division chief Yoshiaki Takahashi. "But we"ve borrowed a page from their book and learned to be flexible. We owe them a debt of gratitude because they brought new interest to buses, and a lot of our new efforts are a response to them."
That said, Takahashi makes the point that its new competitors aren't officially transport companies, per se, but charter tour firms operating under a different set of rules. Most passengers, he says, don't know the difference between the two, except for the fact that the charter buses can't build or use terminals. Instead, they load and offload on public streets.
"Because they are tour firms, they are not required to maintain an entire bus fleet; they can charter just the buses they need. It keeps their fares competitive, but because they use the lowest bidder, safety could be an issue."
Rising gas prices aren't reflected in the cheap fares, and likely won't be anytime soon. For each yen the price of gas increases operating costs rise by 15 million yen, explains Takahashi. Still, a bus filled with cheap tickets earns more than a bus half-filled with expensive ones.
"Now is a golden chance for us" to pull passengers away from trains and planes, Takahashi says.
Asian tourists are already on board. Visitors from Taiwan, South Korea and China are a regular sight at JR Bus terminals, queuing up to go to such destinations as Sano, Tochigi Prefecture, and Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture, and the outlet shopping malls found there.
"It's a good deal," says one Taiwanese tourist spotted earlier this week at the Shinjuku JR Bus terminal. "The seats are comfortable and you get slippers, blankets and a hot towel. But I am still planning to ride a Shinkansen later--it's one of the reasons I came to Japan."(IHT/Asahi: August 22,2008)