The Story of Tokyo’s Popular “Pigeon” Tour Buses

Why more than 900,000 people a year make Hato Bus their guide to the Tokyo sights

by Mana Soda

Japanese people see pigeons — “hato” in the local language — as symbols of peace. Those calm, docile connotations, combined with the pigeon’s ability to fly fast and always find its way home, are what shape the name and the concept of the Hato Bus company: a provider with a fleet of buses that whisk us around to tourist spots and bring us back to where we started.

The Hato Bus story started 66 years ago, when the company’s predecessor — Shin-Nihon Kanko Co., Ltd. — began operations. Hato Bus has since grown into a provider with a staggering array of different tour plans that range from standard, time-tested packages to more innovative approaches, taking passengers to long-time Tokyo favorites like Tokyo Tower and Asakusa, brand-new landmarks, and suburban locations — and even on tours with overnight accommodations.

The company isn’t showing any signs of slowing down, either: the numbers of foreign tourists taking advantage of Hato Bus tour services continue to grow, boosting the company’s popularity even higher. While advances in air travel, improvements to the bullet train infrastructure, and other developments in the world of transportation make our mobility environment faster and more convenient than ever before, Hato Bus chooses to draw the line and stick to what’s made it a mainstay in the field. How, then, did Hato Bus get to where it is today?

Hato Bus Users

Hato Bus opened for business in the wake of World War II, operating on a vision of “rebuilding Japan through peace and tourism.” With the Japanese economy soaring in the 1950s and sparking ambitious construction projects across the country, the brand-new Tokyo Tower and a profusion of new sightseeing spots in the Tokyo area gave rise to a boom in the tourism industry — and helped give Hato Bus more than a million users per year. The company continued to thrive, with large-scale events like the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1970 EXPO Osaka driving business.

Although the opening of the shinkansen network and the jolts of the 1973 “oil shock” made for a bumpy ride in the 1970s, the company continued to bounce back and eventually topped 1.1 million users per year as the “bubble economy” hit its heyday in the 1980s.

Hato Bus did hit a slowdown in the 1990s, however: amidst the recession that set in after the “bubble economy” burst, long spells of rain, scorching heat waves, earthquakes, and other natural disasters brought the annual user count down to 500,000. True to form, though, the company has recovered to near-peak levels of 900,000 users per year. Bolstering the enduring reputation that Hato Bus has developed is a firm, unshakable foundation.

I decide to take a Hato Bus tour to get a better idea of what gives the company its unique appeal and how the company has designed its overall strategy. I wait for the bus at the pickup location, the Marunouchi South Exit at Tokyo Station. There’s none of the uncomfortable anxiety of not being able to figure out where I’m supposed to be: signs in the station direct me right to the Hato Bus loading area, adding to the rush of anticipation that comes with getting ready to embark on a trip. Even if it’s your first time in Tokyo Station, there’s no way you could get lost trying to find the Hato Bus area — you can always spot the rows of yellow buses with the bright-red “HATO BUS” lettering. That trademark look is a big part of the Hato Bus draw.

Hato Bus started out driving 35-seat “1948 Fuso Gasoline” buses. Since then, the company has made improvement upon improvement to amass a fleet that now includes 10 different “Hato Bus” types, each with its own designated routes. The diversity is astounding — high-decker hybrid buses, two-story, open-top “O Sola Mio” vehicles, and Hello Kitty-themed double-deckers round out a fleet that boasts quite the range. Even more new bus designs are in the pipeline, too.

Hato Bus types

Hato Bus also uses its network of company garages to ensure safe operations. The “safety evaluation certification system for charter bus operators,” a set of indicators for safer charter bus operations that went into effect in 2011, gives Hato Bus two stars — the highest ranking possible. It’s not uncommon to hear about safety issues with the low-cost bus tours that have been carving out an increasingly bigger piece of the market in recent years. Hato Bus’s pricing schemes might not be able to compete with those discount plans, but consumers know that the company’s operations are safe and reliable. That absolute confidence in the company’s reputation for safety is one of the reasons that foreign tourists and elderly travelers have no hesitation in making Hato Bus their operator of choice.

Our bus tour guide starts talking about our route almost as soon as we get moving. These tour guides are another key part of the Hato Bus appeal: not only do they highlight the places passengers can check out when they get off the bus, but they also provide timely information, historical anecdotes, and even the occasional joke about spots that riders can see out the bus windows. That makes the stop-to-stop travel time pass quickly — with the guides giving passengers a stream of interesting information, there’s no getting bored in transit. One of the unique advantages of sightseeing in a bus is that you can experience the hustle and bustle of the crowds coming and going from the comfort of your seat, getting a feel for the buzz on the street as you weave through the city from one famous place to another.

The tour that I’m on is a half-day jaunt to the Imperial Palace, Asakusa, and Tokyo Tower. Another nice thing about Hato Bus tours is that they cater to any kind of passenger, even solo riders. Standard tours like the one I’m on are just one variety of the approximately 900 packages that Hato Bus runs every year: in addition to sightseeing day trips, the company offers a unique mix of other tours that range from Tokyo Bay cruises and tours up to the Fifth Station of Mt. Fuji all the way to overnight stays at hot springs and trips to drag-queen revues in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s main entertainment districts.

The Imperial Palace


Tokyo Tower

The seasonal packages are also a big draw, especially the tours that showcase cherry blossoms in the spring and changing colors in the fall. One area that Hato Bus is currently concentrating on is its lineup of packages aimed at foreign tourists, who represent a growing segment of the company’s customer base. English guidance has been available on Hato Bus tours from early on, but increases in the number of tourists from Chinese-speaking countries led the company to start offering tours in Chinese in 2004. Hato Bus even has a division that focuses exclusively on tours for foreigners.

Hato Bus currently offers around 30 packages designed for foreign tourists. As of 2015, interpreter-guides are only available in English and Chinese — but the company’s automated audio-guide system provides commentary in Korean and Spanish, as well.

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics fast approaching, Hato Bus is planning to keep ramping up its language offerings. The company also began offering tours to mosques and other sites in 2010 as a way of connecting with Muslim tourists, highlighting an ongoing effort to develop plans that take religion and dietary habits into account.

What makes Hato Bus so special is how its approach to personnel training and multilingual support, all built around a commitment to passenger safety and comfort, continue to shape a unique form of hospitality. While changing times and evolving trends prompt the company to make the necessary adjustments, that core policy is something that’ll always remain the same — and the reason why the love and praise for Hato Bus just keep on coming.

(photo: Ryoichi Kawajiri translation: Tom Kain)

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