Since selling our car some years ago we’ve made do with public transportation, bicycles and our own four feet to get around, even after we moved out of the city. It hasn’t been as much of a hassle as you might think, but, then again, we’re easy about such things. Still, once in a while you need a car.
Several weeks ago we had to go to Ota in Gunma Prefecture to do some research. Ota is the home of the manufacturer Fuji Juko, whose most famous product is Subaru automobiles. Our mission in Ota would take us to two locations, and since we don’t have a car we had to play out our itinerary beforehand to make sure we would be able to get around. Getting to Ota from where we live wasn’t a problem at all. From Kita Senju in Tokyo, which is convenient from where we live, we caught the Tobu express train to Ota and got there in about an hour.
Our first destination in the city itself was on another local Tobu train line that connected to Ota Station, but there is only one train an hour. That station is 5 km from Ota Station, so walking was not a desirable option. The bus system also seemed dodgy, which is often the case in towns where large car makers are the main source of employment. Sometimes you can rent bicycles near a station, and they usually cost between ¥1,000 and ¥2,000 for two hours or so, but usually it’s a place that receives a lot of tourists, which doesn’t describe Ota at all.
We considered taking a taxi and estimated that the first leg of our trip would cost at least ¥3,000. When we were finished with our research at that location, we would have to call another taxi to take us to our second destination. Of course, when you order a taxi in Japan by phone they tack on an extra fare segment. We figured it might cost ¥5,000 to get to the next place, so that would already be ¥8,000 even before we found a way to get back to Ota Station for the return trip home.
So we decided to rent a choinori (short drive) car and almost accidently came across Eco Rent-a-car, which we’d never heard of but happened to have an office right at Ota Station. Much more interesting than the location, however, was the price: ¥980 for three hours. Was that right? There had to be some sort of catch, even if it was for the smallest model, a mini-car (k-car, in Japanese). You even got a 5 percent discount if you reserved online, so we did. Naturally, all the cars Eco provides, including an electric model, are made by Subaru.
The car was waiting for us when we arrived, all gassed up. We opted out of supplemental insurance, which means we rented the car for the minimum, but then we worried that it might take more than three hours to finish our work, so we signed up for six hours, the next choice on the fee menu, which is ¥1,880.
If you rent the smallest car, a Stella, for a full 24 hours it only costs ¥4,280, which is about what we paid last year when we rented a car for a few hours from Toyota Rent-a-car. A mini wagon is only ¥4,980 for 24 hours and a truck or van (mini, naturally) ¥5,200. Comparing Eco prices with other budget rent-a-car companies we found that, based on time, Nikoniko may be cheaper with its bottom offer of ¥2,525 for 12 hours, but you have to rent the vehicle for 12 hours. Eco is the only one where you can get that low a price for a very short-term rental.
As it turned out we estimated wrongly. The places where we did our research weren’t as far as we thought, and traffic was light, so we returned the car within three hours, and only paid ¥400 for the gas we used. When we parked the car next to the office, basically a prefab metal shed, we noticed that it was right next to the Ota Station taxi stand and wondered how the cabbies felt. There’s really no comparing price, when you think about it, and you don’t need a reservation, though you do have to be a member before you show up at the rental office, which means applying online first. And you don’t even need a credit card when you show up, just your drivers license. We asked the woman in the office if Eco was the cheapest rent-a-car service in Japan, and she smiled and said, with disarming honesty, “Actually, I don’t know.”
Unfortunately, Eco Rent-a-car isn’t nationwide. In fact, it only has two outlets in Gunma — Ota and Ashikaga. On the Internet it appears to have several outlets in the Kansai area, as well using the same logo and offering the same prices. But when we called one of the Kansai offices the person who answered vehemently denied any relationship, saying that they just happened to have the same name and logo, which is difficult to believe. Great— or desperate — minds think alike.