FUKUOKA – Japan’s long-distance bus operators have improved the comfort level for passengers to the extent that they now offer individual compartments in coaches.
Despite fares more expensive than discount air tickets, the high-end service using luxury buses is gaining popularity among the youth and businesspeople who want to save time by traveling at night.
“I can sleep well and fully use the day when I arrive,” said a 54-year-old male company employee from Tokyo, who regularly uses the service.
Many overnight buses arrive at their destinations in the morning.
In one such case, a luxury coach operated by Nishi-Nippon Railroad Co., with four compartments in front and conventional seats behind them, left the city of Fukuoka at 7 p.m. for a 14-hour trip to Tokyo. Each compartment has a reclining seat that enables a passenger to lie almost flat. The leather seat, measuring 80 cm by 190 cm, is designed to give massages.
Curtained off from other passengers, the private space is also equipped with a tablet computer, electrical outlet and even an air purifier. The occupant can also adjust the lighting.
The special seat costs ¥17,000 to ¥20,000, depending on the day, which is pricier than normal seats by ¥5,000.
It is cheaper than the roughly ¥23,000 for a reserved shinkansen seat to travel between the two cities in about five hours, but more than the ¥15,000 or less fare for a discount flight.
Still, buses with compartments have become popular. According to Nishi-Nippon Railroad, which began the service in 2014, the enclosed seats are all booked quicker every day than the normal seats.
Luxury coaches have been on the rise since 2002, when the government eased regulations to encourage tour operators to enter the expressway bus business, said a Yokohama-based research institute of expressway bus marketing.
Combined with the popularization of seat reservations via the internet, which allows passengers to compare bus fares more easily, the boom in the industry led operators to engage in price wars and also compete in developing distinctive services, according to the institute.
Compartment seats were first introduced in 2006 in the Tokyo-Osaka route by JR Bus Kanto Co. and West JR Bus Co., while Willer Express Japan Inc. followed suit in 2008.
Now similar services also connect large cities and some regional areas.
Kaifu-Kankou Co. began operating buses in which all 12 seats are enclosed between Tokushima Prefecture and Tokyo in 2011. Ryobi Group of Okayama Prefecture has been running coaches equipped with 14 compartment seats between Hiroshima and Yokohama since 2012.
But at the same time, the costs for developing and manufacturing such high-end coaches have discouraged many small bus companies from entering the business.
Ryuichi Narisada, head of the marketing research institute, said such bus services could further grow with more luxury vehicles, but the expansion might be limited to profitable routes connecting Tokyo and such cities as Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe.
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