Whether you are hiking all the way through or jumping ahead from checkpoint to checkpoint, hiking any of the 3 major routes of the Kumano Kodo will require you to take a local Japanese bus at some point. It may seem confusing at first but after reading these basic directions you will have no trouble at all!
1: View the timetable
The first step is to understand where you are, where you are going, which bus company, and which bus number you should take. The best resource for all of these questions is this link from the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau. I highly recommend clicking through, downloading all of the bus maps and timetables and keeping digital copies on your phone. There are times along the trail where you will not have mobile cell service or wifi and it is always handy to have them digitally.
2. At the Bus stop
Bus stops vary between small signs along a non-shouldered road to small shelters with vending machines to just small shelters. The majority of the stops along the route do not have benches or places to sit. They are simply a sign (some with the stop name in English, and some without).
In some cases, the timetable is posted at the stop. In more of the remote areas they are not.
Important things to note:
A. Japanese busses (like Japanese trains) are like clockwork. If you are 10 seconds late, that bus is 10 seconds down the road. Plan accordingly.
B. Traffic drives on the left side of the road and busses always pick up with busses arriving from your right and driving to the left so at most bus stops along the road there are stops on either side of the road.
3. On the bus
There are 2 doors on the left side of the bus. Always enter from the back set of doors (in the middle of the bus). The flow of traffic has you exit and pay when you get off the bus.
There is a ticket machine by the door when you walk in. Push the button and take a ticket. This marks for the driver which stop you got on the bus at.
The ticket has a number on it. Each rider should have their own ticket. Don’t lose it.
The single seats on the left side of the bus are reserved for elderly (like my Dad) and the physically impaired.
As the bus progresses through your route you will match your number with the fare grid on the monitor at the front of the bus. In this example, if your ticket says #1 then if you get off at the next stop it will cost you 1,320 yen.
There are video monitor showing bus stop information and also voice announcements. Some provide this information in Japanese AND English. Again, in more remote areas, it is only in Japanese.
In a few instances we entered the bus and walked straight up to the bus driver and pointed on the timetable where we wished to get off. In every case the bus driver made sure we knew which stop was ours.
4. Getting off the bus
When the screen announces the next stop and it is the one you wish to get off at, click the stop button. These are found near every seat and/or near each window and are typically red or blue in color.
Important! Do not stand up until the bus comes to a complete stop. Even though this is stated basically in every bus in the world, it has only been in Japan where bus drivers AND fellow bus riders seems to be concerned about obeying this rule.
When the bus comes to a full stop walk towards the front of the bus. You will see a machine like this. The plastic slot on the top opens up to a conveyor belt where you drop in your paper numbered ticket and exact change in bills or coins.
If you do not have exact change there is a bill machine (in green). This is not a payment machine. If you put in a 1000 yen bill, it will spit back out 1000 yen in coins. It will not deduct the cost of your fare from the bill. You then take the changed bill and drop the exact amount in the plastic slot on the top.
Here’s what’s very interesting to me. For the most part the bus driver knows and remembers where you got on. But unlike in the United States, it is basically honor system as the bus driver doesn’t physically look and check each numbered ticket nor is there any type of checks and balances around whether someone short changed the bus or not. This system exists on honor. Isn’t that awesome? (and sobering considering how my country tends to default to mistrust).
5. On your way!
You’ve done it! Thank your bus driver with a simple “Arigato” and get ready to jump on the trail!