Archive for the ‘Travel & Transportation’ Category

Summer travel biz shows signs of recovery

Friday, July 12th, 2013

So close, and so far away

So close, and so far away

According to statistics released by Japan Travel Bureau on July 3, overseas travel this summer is projected to be up by 5.8 percent from last year, though continued sour relations with China and South Korea have seen fewer Japanese travelers this year to those two destinations. Another important consideration that doesn’t seem to have had a bad effect is the higher value of the dollar and other currencies against the yen. In terms of numbers, 2.6 million have reservations to travel overseas between July 15 and Aug. 31. The main bright spot is Europe, which will see a 15 percent boost in Japanese visitors as opposed to 2012. Also, Southeast Asia seems to be maintaining its popularity as a vacation spot. The average amount of money being spent per person on foreign travel this summer is ¥243,000, which is ¥11,800 more than was spent in 2012.

In addition, 76.2 million people have domestic travel plans this summer that involve more than one night away from home, which is the highest number since 2000. Even better, the average amount of money spent per person for these trips is ¥35,010, or ¥1,280 more than last summer. Several circumstances are credited with pushing up these numbers: the 30th anniversary of Tokyo Disney Resort; renovations to Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture and Izumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture; and Mount Fuji’s recent listing as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site and the intense media coverage that preceded it.

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You can’t get there from here (at the same price with an IC card)

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

Cash or over-charge?

Cash or overcharge?

This spring the big news for train lovers was the integration of almost all the regional IC card services, thus making it possible to travel from one region to another on lines operated by different companies using a single IC fare card. But while computer systems have been linked successfully to allow for such inter-line transfers, one element of the changeover that has bothered public officials remained problematic: the non-integration of fares.

In some instances it actually costs more to go from point A to point B using an IC card than it does with a ticket, though most patrons aren’t aware of the fact. It depends on which lines you are using. For instance, if you are going from JR Kameari Station on the Joban Line in eastern Tokyo to JR Yokohama station and buy a ticket for the whole trip, it costs you ¥780. However, if you take the same route and use an IC card, ¥910 will be subtracted from your card balance. That’s because the Joban line turns into the Chiyoda subway line, which is operated by Tokyo Metro, after it passes Kita Senju, and the passenger then leaves the Chiyoda Line at Nishi Nippori and transfers back to JR in order to proceed on to Yokohama.

The ticket you buy from a vending machine takes these transfers into consideration and simply charges the zone-related JR fare between Kameari and Yokohama plus the Metro fare. But the IC card system doesn’t make such a distinction and each of the three legs of the journey is charged separately, meaning you pay two JR fares, one from Kameari to Kita Senju and another from Nishi Nippori to Yokohama, plus the ¥160 for the Chiyoda line between Kita Senju and Nishi Nippori.

The sticking point is JR East, and in Diet discussions about the IC fare discrepancy representatives of the company have said it’s a computer-related problem that they have yet to figure out, claiming that any changes to rectify the problem would “place on the system more of a burden” that might cause even more issues.

At the urging of Your Party the company did say it would make more of an effort to inform patrons of price differences where they occur. The various JR companies offer the Suica card system, but the equally popular Pasmo card has the same problem. In the Tokyo Metropolitan Area 80 percent of riders use one card or the other.

The problem is limited to transfers between JR and other lines. Other inter-line transfers don’t have the same problem. In fact, discounts that are normally offered to ticketed riders between the two Tokyo subway lines are integrated into the IC card fare structure, even when passengers leave one line through a wicket and enter the other through a different wicket. A transportation expert, discussing the problem in Tokyo Shimbun, said that such a change shouldn’t require a major system overhaul, and, in fact, JR recently announced it would make it possible for IC cards to subtract amounts of less than factors of ¥10 in line with the consumption tax increase, which means amounts of factors of ¥1 can be charged, but only if the patron has an IC card. Fares for tickets will still be rounded up to a factor of 10.

The fact is, the ticketing system costs operators more than the IC card system, which is why in London you pay less if you use a card than if you buy a ticket. Ideally, all patrons should use cards, so JR’s intransigence on the matter is difficult to explain.

Court says railway can make patrons pay through the nose

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Inzai Makinohara Station

Inzai Makinohara Station

We live on the Hokuso Line, which connects Takasago in eastern Tokyo to the Nihon University Medical Center in northern Chiba, a distance of 32.3 kilometers. The Hokuso Line has been called the most expensive train line in Japan. From one end to the other it costs ¥780, and for us to get from our station, Inzai Makinohara, to its neighbor to the west, Chiba New Town Chuo, it costs ¥290. Many people who live on the line and use it have complained to the relevant authorities and demanded that fares be reduced. In fact, five local residents sued the central government, demanding that the court rescind the state’s approval of the Hokuso Railway’s plan to lease its tracks to another railway company and claiming that the plan did not benefit users. On Mar. 26 the Tokyo District Court rejected the suit, saying that the government authorization did not damage the welfare of the railway’s users in any way.

The plaintiffs said they didn’t understand the judge’s reasoning. One, a 19-year-old man, told an Asahi Shimbun reporter that when he was a high school student he spent ¥90,000 on a six-month pass, which, on average, is about four times what it costs for a comparable student pass on any other line. Now that he’s graduated and going to a prep school he no longer qualifies for the student discount, and has to pay ¥170,000 for half-a-year. Single-station fares on the Hokuso are about twice as much as they are on other lines. The Hokuso Line is part of the Keisei Dentetsu Group, whose average fare for 32 kilometers is about ¥470, so the Hokuso fares are 70 percent higher than fares on other lines even within the same railway group. The reason for the high fares has been explained in this blog before, but in a nutshell, the line was designed to serve the Chiba New Town development project, which began in 1969. Planners envisioned 340,000 people eventually moving into the New Town area, which encompasses portions of three cities, but in the end only about 93,000 actually did. The main problem for the Hokuso Railway Co. was the cost of construction, in particular the cost of land. Purchases were made at the height of the bubble era, when land prices were sky high and so were interest rates. The debt currently stands at ¥90 billion, and the railway pays ¥5 billion on the note every year. But the Chiba New Town authority, which the railway belongs to, also has to pay shareholders, many of whom are farmers who sold it the land in the first place. You can see their huge houses, built with the money they made and are still making, all over the region that lies alongside the Hokuso Line. Since opening for business in 1991, the railway has raised its fares nine times, though it also cut a few, but only by ¥10.

The kernel of the court case is a leasing deal that the Hokuso Line made with Keisei Dentetsu, which wanted to use the Hokuso tracks for its Skyliner and Sky Access express trains to Narita Airport. Regular users of the Hokuso Line were under the impression that (more…)

Auto sales driven by gas mileage

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Fit to be drived

Fit to be drived

Last week Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Japan would participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks, a prospect that worries American car makers since the trade agreement could remove any remaining tariffs from Japanese cars sold in the U.S., thus making them cheaper and even more attractive to American consumers. Apparently, carmakers in the U.S. don’t think the agreement will sufficiently remove what they deem barriers to American car sales in Japan. The fact that these barriers, which include, in the words of Reuters, “discriminatory taxes, onerous and costly certification procedures for foreign cars and [an] unwillingness by Japanese auto dealers to sell foreign cars,” have not prevented certain European automakers from doing well in Japan may, in fact, indicate that the problem is American products rather than Japanese protectionism. For instance, the U.S. claims that Japan’s preferential tax treatment for kei (light) cars — smaller automobiles whose engine displacement is 660cc — is a trade barrier, but since America doesn’t make kei cars it’s difficult to understand what it’s a barrier to. Kei cars account for about 30 percent of the Japanese car market, which means people like them, and the main reason they like them is their superior gas mileage.

It’s also the main reason for the popularity of hybrids. On March 3, the land ministry announced its most recent findings for the best gas mileage among cars sold in Japan. Toyota’s hybrid Aqua came out in first place with 35.4 km per liter (in JC08 mode). In second place was the first hybrid car sold in Japan, Toyota’s Prius with 32.6km/l. In third place was Toyota’s high-end hybrid Lexus at 30.4km/l, and fourth was Honda’s hybrid Insight. The highest non-hybrid on the list was the Mitsubishi Mirage, which gets 27.2km/l.

Aqua is also the best-selling model in Japan right now. In February, 24,526 Aquas were sold nationwide, with Prius in second place with 23,473. After that, it was Nissan’s Note with 16,497 followed by Honda’s Fit. However, overall kei cars still outsell regular cars and hybrids in terms of units, probably because in addition to good gas mileage they cost less to purchase. Suzuki’s Alto and Mazda’s Carol tied for first among kei cars in terms of fuel efficiency with 30.2km/l. American carmakers will probably not be happy to learn that the government has required all cars sold in Japan to meet stricter efficiency standards by 2015 in accordance with the revised Energy Conservation Law. As it stands, however, a fair number of domestic models already meet these standards.

Of course, the gas mileage figures offered by the government and the automakers themselves should be used purely for comparative purposes. One would probably have to drive straight on an expressway on perfectly balanced tires going downhill with the wind at one’s back to achieve 35km/l in an Aqua, but last week we decided to try one out for a day trip to Gunma. We picked up the car in Iwatsuki, Saitama Prefecture, at a branch of Toyota Rental & Leasing. The fee was ¥7,000 for the day, including the use of a car navigation system, plus ¥1,000 for insurance.

We drove about 250 km and ended up spending ¥1,372 for gasoline, which worked out to about 9 liters or a little less than 25km/l. That’s much less than the advertised rate, but better than we expected considering that more than a third of the drive was spent on surface roads rather than expressways. But we didn’t use the air conditioner, either. And when we checked several websites dedicated to jissai nenpi, or fuel efficiency under real driving conditions, the average gas mileage for the Aqua is around 21.5km/l.

For comparison’s sake, in January we rented Nissan’s compact (but not kei) March from Nikoniko rentals for ¥4,000 a day with insurance included but no car navigation system. We drove 140 km, none on expressways, and ended up using 8.37 liters, which means gas mileage was 17.9km/l (advertised: 24; real: 20). The advantage of the hybrid is obvious, and will likely become more so when Honda comes out with a new version of its hybrid Fit in August. The company is already boasting that gas mileage will exceed 36, thus topping Aqua. And it will be cheaper, too.

Gas station business losing to reality

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Tanks for the memories

According to the Petroleum Association of Japan, the demand for gasoline continues to decrease owing to the popularity of hybrids and mini-cars, the greater fuel efficiency of automobiles in general, and a trend that sees more and more young people foregoing the pleasures of motoring. In 1999, 250 million kiloliters of gasoline were sold in Japan. In 2011 the amount was about 200 million. Consequently, the country doesn’t need as many gas stations. There were 60,000 in 1994, only 38,000 in 2011.

The disappearance of gas stations will likely accelerate this year due to a revision to the Fire Prevention Law. Several years ago it was discovered that gasoline reservoirs — the tanks buried under gas stations to store fuel — were leaking at an alarming rate, so the government enacted a law to address the problem. If the tank is 40 years old or older, the owner of the gas station must replace it or repair it. If he doesn’t, his license to pump gas could be revoked. Either operation requires excavation and the use of heavy machinery, and costs between ¥1.5 and ¥2.5 million. Many gas stations, in fact, have at least three tanks underground: one for gasoline, one for diesel, and one for kerosene. Each would have to be replaced once it turns 40. The revision went into effect in February 2011, and all gas stations with tanks older than 40 years had two years to comply. At the same time, the government introduced a subsidy that would provide two-thirds of the cost of the replacement-repair if the application is made by the end of January 2013. According to an industry group survey cited in Tokyo Shimbun, as of the end of September only 30 percent of tanks that needed to be changed actually had been. Of the other respondents, 7.5 percent said they are considering closing their businesses due to the revision. Others said they will wait until the last minute to apply for the subsidy. An industry representative told the Tokyo Shimbun that the older the tank the older the gas station owner, so it is likely they will simply decide to retire if no one in the family wants to take over the business. Perhaps in light of these findings, the government has already decided to extend the subsidy period.

It may not make much of a difference. The projection for gasoline demand in 2020 is only 130 million kiloliters. The main problem with lack of demand is that it affects different regions differently. The loss of gas stations in major cities and densely populated suburban regions won’t cause major problems, but in outlying rural areas, where there is little public transportation and people rely on automobiles to get around, it could cause an increase in so-called gas refugees.

Among Japan’s prefectures, Yamaguchi pays the most for gasoline a year per household — ¥80,000 — while Osaka pays the least, about ¥14,000. If a gas station in Osaka closes, not many people will notice, but if one in Yamaguchi shuts down, the people who relied on it will have to drive even farther to fill up, thus consuming more gasoline just to buy gasoline.

As a side note, the development of electric cars doesn’t seem to be much of a factor in these projections. The magainze Toyo Keizai reports that despite government subsidies, the Nissan Leaf, which first went on sale in Nov. 2010, isn’t selling as well as expected (and Toyota, which just regained its position as No. 1 carmaker in the world, has cancelled its plans to make an electric).

As of last November, Nissan had sold 43,000 Leafs worldwide, including 19,000 in Japan and 17,000 in the U.S. Since manufacturing capacity is 50,000 cars a year, the model is only fulfilling 43 percent of its potential. Experts say the problem is still driving distance. Even with new improvements in battery storage and efficiency, a full charge for a Leaf will only get you 250 km, while the average compact with a full tank could get you up to 800 km.

The relative savings in gasoline costs enjoyed by the electric car driver doesn’t seem to be a major consideration for consumers at the moment. However, this may change as more gas stations disappear, since electric chargers can be installed anywhere without any expensive requirements: dealerships, service areas, even convenience stores.

Cleaning ‘angels’ reinforce positive image of Japanese workers

Friday, January 4th, 2013

Cleaning crew (in pink) waiting with the hordes at Tokyo Station for the train to arrive (photos: Jason Jenkins)

If, like thousands of others, you took the shinkansen (super express) during the recent New Year’s holiday break, when you arrived at a line terminal you likely saw uniformed cleaning crews waiting at attention for the train to stop. They would have bowed as you left the car and then scurried on board to clean it up before the passengers waiting on the platform were allowed to board. During this time of year, in particular, express trains are packed 24/7, and keeping arrivals and departures on time is the number one priority. These cleaners, on average, have only seven minutes to make the cars spic-and-span, and their methodical efficiency in getting that job done has made them heroes in the media, the newest symbols of Japan’s storied work ethic.

At least one book has been written about these train cleaners, CNN produced a special report on them and dozens of magazine articles have covered them in detail. A recent issue of Shukan Post concentrated on one of the companies, Techno Heart Tessei, which is a subsidiary of JR East. Right at the beginning of the article, the Post offers the opinion that these workers provide a positive example for any business in Japan. It then goes on to describe in detail the “shinkansen gekijo,” (bullet train theater): how the cleaners, both men and women, accomplish their “miraculous” task, which is methodical and reducible to the second. There is one cleaner per non-reserved car, two or three per reserved car.

Overhead racks are checked on the initial round while seats are reset to their original orientation and underfoot trash is quickly swept to the middle aisle. On the return round, window ledges, blinds and panes as well as folding tables are wiped; headrest covers are replaced if dirty. Then someone comes through with a broom to collect the trash. Separate staff handles toilets. All operations are checked by the supervising cleaner and cleared. Usually, these teams complete their jobs with more than a minute to spare. On the average, they clean 20 trains a shift.

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Theme parks make a comeback thanks to grandma and grandpa

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Ho-hum. Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea recorded another record season. Between April and September, Japan’s favorite theme parks were visited by 13.25 million people, a 23 percent increase over the same period last year, which is understandable given that “self-restraint” was the order of business in summer 2011 after the earthquake and tsunami. Still, that’s an impressive increase under any circumstances since it translates as an operating income of ¥39 billion — double last year’s — and a net profit of ¥25.5 billion — triple last year’s.

Yumiko Yamashita! You are the 100 millionth visitor to Universal Studios Japan!

But TDL isn’t the only theme park that did well this summer. According to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, attendance at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka was up 19.5 percent during the same period, Tokyo’s Toshimaen amusement park saw an 18.7 percent rise, Yomiuri Land in western Tokyo 30 percent, Nagashima Spa Land in Mie Prefecture 3 percent, Fujikyu Highland in Shizuoka Prefecture 4 percent, and even the Dutch theme park Huis Ten Bosch in Kyushu, which almost went bankrupt before being bought by travel agent H.I.S., enjoyed an 11 percent year-on-year boost in attendance from Jan. to June.

Could all this healthy leisure spending be explained by a post-disaster recovery bump, as theorized by Sankei Shimbun? A recent segment of the TBS noon-time wide show “Hiruobi” looked into the matter and found that there’s something else involved, namely a confluence of demographics that has resulted in wider-open wallets. The program sent a reporter to Universal Studios to cover the 100 millionth admission and found that a good portion of park attendance was made up of families of three generations, with the youngest layer comprised of very young children and the oldest of grandparents who are recently retired but still relatively young and, more importantly, have a lot of savings they’re only too happy to spend on their grandkids. “My grandma buys me anything I want,” said one little girl without shame.

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