The JR Beetle is a hydrofoil service between Busan, Korea, and Fukuoka, Japan (and also Japan’s Tsushima Island), operated by the JR Kyushu company. For foot passengers, this is by far the fastest, most comfortable, and most convenient way to travel between Busan and Fukuoka (for the various car ferry routes between Japan and Korea, see here).
These boats are fast, and it can be a bit of a roller coaster when the sea’s rough; the cabin crew are pretty strict about making sure you keep your seat belts fastened. If you get seasick easily, you might want to take the Camellia Line car ferry instead.
The cabin crew on the boats (and the checkin staff at the terminals) are a mix of Korean and Japanese, all bilingual or at least competent in the other language, and most also speak some English (ranging from basic to excellent). You can buy food & drink on board if need be, though the food is limited to sandwiches & snacks (payable in yen or won), and they play a movie as you cross (sometimes English, but sometimes Japanese with Korean subtitles or vice versa). It’s a pleasant journey, and watch out for views of Tsushima to the west as you pass (some boats call in at Tsushima, adding 30 minutes to the journey but giving you a close-up look at the island)
It’s possible to make it all the way through from Seoul to Osaka (or even Tokyo) in one day using bullet trains and the Beetle; it’s a bit of a long slog to be honest, and in terms of time and cost this isn’t remotely competitive with flying (unless you’re already using (or planning to) a JR Pass, and make this the last (or first) day of usage), but if you want to avoid flying it can be done. See below for details.
(I take the Beetle several times per year, so all info here is kept up to date as of my most recent trip. Do keep in mind that port taxes etc may have changed slightly since my last run)
JR Beetle Schedule
The JR Beetle does 2 or 3 runs per day in each direction; there’s always a morning departure (usually at 8:30), plus one or two lunchtime/afternoon departures. The usual crossing time is 3 hours 5 minutes, though I’ve experienced boats getting across significantly faster or slower with favourable or unfavourable conditions.
My only real gripe about the Beetle is their weak online English efforts; they did use to have an English version of their site (which was at least semi-functional), but even that’s fallen by the wayside now leaving only the Japanese and Korean sites. For checking the schedule on the Japanese page, you really just need to know that Fukuoka (Hakata Port) is 福岡(博多港) & Busan (Busan Port) is 釜山(釜山港), and 出発地 is departure point & 到着地 is destination; aside from that, the required information is given visually so it’s easy enough to check what the sailing times are. As for making reservations, that’s a little more complicated! Update: they’ve just redone their site (summer 2018), and it now has an English option – this is actually an external link to Direct Ferries, which is how I recommend making your reservation. Update update: turns out it’s now sometimes cheaper on the Beetle site and sometimes cheaper on Direct Ferries, so read on…
Tickets and Reservations
The regular one-way fare at the ticket counter is 140000 won from Busan, 14000 yen from Fukuoka; buying a round-trip this way doesn’t actually save any money as you just pay the one-way fare twice, but you can get really good round-trip deals by booking online.
I’ve now taken the Beetle more than a dozen times, and there have always been plenty of seats available except when I travelled during Japan’s Golden Week holiday; holiday periods aside, you should usually have no trouble just rocking up and purchasing a ticket at the counter on the day. Of course this can never be 100% guaranteed, so you may prefer to book ahead anyway, and should definitely do so if travelling during holidays.
It’s better to book ahead anyway to get the discount online fares – you can get the one-way journey for as little as 5,900 yen on the official site, though only on some dates. At other times the cheapest fare is usually 8,900 yen, in which case it’s cheaper to book with Direct Ferries who usually have it for 65 USD (about 7,000 yen).
In any case, it’s definitely easier to use Direct Ferries as it’s all in English. Here’s a direct link to the Direct Ferries page – if you use this link to book, 4corners7seas gets commission from Direct Ferries (at no extra cost to you) and if they have the cheapest fare for your travel date it’s a win-win. Thanks in advance should you choose to support the site using this link (booking this way also removes the language barrier and avoids potential booking errors like the time I made a mess of reserving online in Japanese).
So, if you’re after the cheapest fare check the Beetle website first, and if they have it for under 65 dollars book it there; otherwise, Direct Ferries will probably be cheaper. However if you’re booking a round-trip you can get it for just 4,900 yen each way on the Beetle site, so that’s the way to go.
Here’s how to do it on the Beetle site:
Enter your trip details on the homepage and hit the red button, then on the next screen you’ll see the available times & fares:
If you search round-trip dates the fares can be significantly lower:
At this point, check the price on Direct Ferries; if the Beetle site’s at 7,900+ it’ll probably be cheaper to use Direct Ferries.
If you want to proceed on the Beetle site, click to accept the terms & conditions:
On the next screen simply click the red ゲストとして予約 button on the right (it’s just to book as a guest user rather than a member):
Now you’re on to the booking screen. Enter your details at the top:
Followed by the passenger details:
Hit the red button, and you’ll be taken to this screen showing your reservation number and the deadline by which you must complete the payment to confirm your reservation. Hit the red button to go to the payment screen:
Enter your card details and hit the red button, and your booking will be complete:
And if that’s too complicated or doesn’t work, here’s the Direct Ferries link one last time.
Busan Port Access and Information
The shiny new Busan International Passenger Terminal is located a short walk (10 minutes or so) from Busan Station, the southern terminus of the KTX (bullet train) line from Seoul. It’s on the east side of the station; leaving the station by exit 9, go down the stairs/elevator, turn left (north) on the main road and take the next right (cross over at the pedestrian crossing) and then go straight along that side road in front of you and follow it round to the terminal:
If it’s raining, just jump in a taxi and show him 부산국제여객터미널 or ask for “Busan Gugje Yeogaeg Teomineol”.
There are also shuttle buses between the terminal and the station:
If you’re coming from the Busan subway system, it’s actually closer to get off at Choryang Station rather than Busan Station. Coming out of exit 6 follow the signs to turn left and then through the tunnel under the railway tracks, then cross the main road and the terminal’s straight ahead:
The ferry terminal has good food and drink options available, as does Busan Station, so you can easily make a pit stop as you pass through. Checkin opens one hour before departure and closes 30 minutes before; you have to go through immigration so (if coming from Seoul) to avoid any stress I’d suggest timing your KTX to arrive at Busan Station around 90 minutes before departure, which leaves plenty of time to stroll over, perhaps grab a bite on the go, check in, and clear immigration; if you want to sit and eat some lunch, obviously allow longer accordingly.
Port tax from Busan is 4,300 won (approx $4 US) payable at checkin only, so make sure you keep enough won on hand, and there’s an oil surcharge of 14,000 won ($14 US) which is tacked on to the ticket fare if you buy at the terminal (but if you already have your reservation paid online, you’ll have to pay this at checkin too); also be aware that when you arrive at Hakata you may have cash issues (the terminal has no international ATM and is a bus ride from the downtown area), so it’s best to get hold of some Japanese yen before leaving Busan (there are money changers in the ferry terminal). Alternatively if you have at least a few thousand won to change to yen on arrival it’ll cover the bus fare to get downtown (see Hakata Port, below). The fuel surcharge changes frequently, between 5,000 won and 14,000 won in my experience; the rate given here is correct as of late 2018. If you keep 20,000 won per person that should cover the departure tax & fuel surcharge in Busan.
Hakata Port Access and Information
Access to Hakata Port from Fukuoka is well explained here; I’ve done both bus and taxi, the bus is straightforward enough but taxis are obviously easiest. The passenger terminal is a 20-minute or so bus ride from either Tenjin (central Fukuoka) or Hakata Station; the bus costs 230 yen, and you can take bus number 88 from Hakata Station (bus stand F, over the main road outside the west exit) or bus number 80 from the Tenjin area (bus stop 2A, located in front of the Solaria Stage department store on the west side of the main north/south road (Watanabe Dori, 渡辺通り) outside Tenjin station). Allow plenty of time if you need to locate these as you go, as it’s a pretty busy area and may take some working out / help from a friendly local. If you’re pressed for time, taxis are plentiful and should get you there in 10 minutes or so for around 1,500 yen – just show or tell the driver 博多港国際ターミナル “Hakata-ko Kokusai Taaminaru”. If you fancy it you can also walk it from Hakata Station in about 40 minutes, or from the nearest metro station (Gofukumachi) in about 20 minutes (just use Google Maps for the route).
The food and drink options at the terminal aren’t so great, so it’s advisable to get that sorted before taking the bus (or just make do with the snacks and drink available on the ferry, which are basic but reasonable).
Departure tax from Hakata is 500 yen (approx $5 US) payable in cash only from vending machines next to the checkin desk, and the oil surcharge is 1700 yen ($17 US, which is payable by cash or card) so make sure to keep enough cash in hand – especially given that the nearest international ATM is at the 7-Eleven store some 15 minutes away on foot. When arriving at Hakata, this can make things a little tricky – you’ll need 230 yen for the bus, but unless you have a Japanese account there’s no ATM you can use. Best solution is to get hold of some Japanese yen before boarding in Busan, or at least hang on to a few thousand Korean won which you can change at the money changer in the Hakata terminal (if you arrive in the evening the money changer will already be closed, but you can change it at the information desk); otherwise, you’ll have to walk to 7-Eleven, or take a taxi and have him stop at 7-Eleven on the way. Update: the information desk stopped changing money some time in early 2018, so if you’re arriving in the evening and don’t have Japanese cash or bank card you’ll have no option but to head to the 7-Eleven – ask the info desk for a map. If you have won to change there’s a money changer at Hakata Station (in the main concourse, terrible rates) once you manage to get there!
The bus numbers when going from the terminal to Hakata Station or Tenjin are different than when going the other way, for some reason; for Hakata Station you can take numbers 11, 19, and 50; for Tenjin you can take numbers 55, 151, 152, and 80. Of course, things can change so double check on the website and/or at the information counter.
Also, when arriving at Hakata Port be prepared for the likelihood of a tedious bag search and questioning session; they’ve searched me almost every single time, very thoroughly on a couple of occasions including swabs for ‘drug check’ (though they don’t actually appear to run those swabs through any machine, so I’m not convinced they’re genuine).
The fuel surcharge changes frequently; rate given above is correct as of late 2018.
Overland from Seoul to Osaka / Tokyo in one day via JR Beetle
Using the JR Beetle it’s possible to travel overland between Seoul and Osaka (or even Tokyo) in one day. I’ve done this between Seoul & Osaka several times; for the KTX from Seoul to Busan, JR Beetle to Fukuoka, and then Shinkansen to Osaka (or vice versa), the total time is 10 to 12 hours (depending on how you transfer to / from Hakata Port, and how long you allow for checkin & waiting times).
Checkin opens one hour before departure and closes for boarding 30 minutes before, at which point you go through immigration. Try timing your KTX to arrive at Busan Station around 90 minutes before departure (or an hour if you know exactly where you’re going – but not any less), which gives you time to stroll over, perhaps grab a bite on the go, check in, and clear immigration; if you want to sit and eat some lunch, obviously allow longer accordingly (if needed, the food and drink available on board the Beetle is sold at reasonable prices, payable in both Japanese yen and Korean won).
The journey works like this:
KTX: Seoul – Busan 2h30
Transfer: Busan Station – Busan Port (& checkin etc) approx. 1h30
JR Beetle: Busan – Hakata Port 3h05
Transfer: Hakata Port – Hakata Station 1h30 to 2h*
Shinkansen: Hakata – Shin Osaka 2h30
* I have done it in an hour, but that’s with everything being perfect – I was first off the boat, first through immigration, only got a quick bag search, had all my cash sorted in advance, already knew exactly where I was going, and jumped on a bus just as it was about to leave. Obviously don’t bank on the planets aligning perfectly like that! (if you take a taxi, planning on an hour or so is reasonable)
On one recent run I recorded my times:
12:10 depart Suseo Station (in Seoul) by SRT bullet train
14:50 arrive Busan
15:50 Beetle departure
18:55 arrive Hakata Port. Taxi to Hakata Station, arrived 19:45ish
20:01 depart Hakata by shinkansen
22:28 arrive Shin Osaka
The 15:50 Beetle is fine for reaching Osaka, and also for Kyoto if Kyoto Station is your destination. However if you also need to transfer to another line in Kyoto it makes it tight, as the 20:01 Nozomi train and 20:08 Sakura train are the last ones that make it in time (the latter also requiring a change at Shin-Osaka from shinkansen to a regular JR rapid train). In other words a midday Beetle is advisable if you need to make a transfer in Kyoto! (or you can risk it and be prepared to take a taxi)… also remember that if you’re going to be using a JR Pass, you’ll need extra time at Hakata Station’s ticket office, so even the 20:08 Sakura is very tight, and you can’t take the Nozomi anyway, so if you want to catch a direct Sakura or Hikari from Hakata to Kyoto you need to be on the morning or midday Beetle.
In the opposite direction, you need to allow longer for the transfer & checkin in Hakata; time your shinkansen to arrive at least 2 hours before your sailing time (90 minutes is fine if you take a taxi to the port), but then the transfer time in Busan should be really short (i.e. once you clear Busan immigration, which has always been a breeze in my experience, it’s just a 10-minute walk).
You could of course carry on right through to (or from) Tokyo this way; that would definitely make for a very long day, but the transportation is all comfortable and the day should be hassle free (other than the Hakata transfer) and it can certainly be done. Sailing out of Busan you definitely need to be on the morning or midday Beetle if you want to reach Tokyo the same day.
Of course, the Beetle is also a nice fast way just to go from Busan to Fukuoka – both cities are well worth visiting in their own right and staying for a few days.
Have you used the Beetle recently? Any changes or updates future overlanders should be aware of? Do you have any questions? Leave me a comment below and I’ll get back to you.