Archive for the ‘Travel & Transportation’ Category

You can’t get there from here: Railway tries to bust “orikaeshi” riders

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Two years ago, this blog talked about the Hokuso Line, which has been called the most expensive train in Japan. It runs between Keisei Takasago Station in eastern Tokyo and Inba Nihon Idai Station in northern Chiba Prefecture. Since that article was posted the Sky Access Limited Express opened between Keisei Ueno Station and Narita Airport. In Chiba this train, like the Narita Skyliner, runs on the Hokuso tracks. Consequently, a lot of commuters living in eastern Chiba who use the Hokuso Line to get to work in Tokyo were happy, since the Access adds an extra express train, making it faster to get to their jobs.

Unhappy returns: Hokuso Line poster saying you need an extra ticket if you double back

In October, the Chiba New Town Railway, which operates the Hokuso Line, started a crackdown campaign against patrons who do what is called orikaeshi josha (“doubling back”). When we first saw the posters for the crackdown campaign in Inzai Makinohara Station, we misunderstood the reason for orikaeshi. Because Inzai Makinohara is not an Access stop, we assumed passengers returning home from Tokyo would take the express to Inba Nihon Idai Station, which is one station further than Makinohara, and then transfer to a local train going in the opposite direction. However, when we checked train schedules it didn’t make any sense. Most times of the day the local train going west from Inba Nihon Idai leaves one minute before any Access train going east arrives there; which means anyone doing orikaeshi would have to wait at least ten minutes for the next local going west.

What we learned is that people don’t do orikaeshi at Inzai Makinohara when they return home, but rather when they leave for work in the morning. To catch the Access, which cuts up to 20 minutes from their commute, passengers can transfer at the next station going west, Chiba New Town Chuo, but by that time all the seats have probably been filled by people who got on at the previous Access station, Inba Nihon Idai. So by “doubling back” to Inba Nihon Idai from Inzai Makinohara they can get a seat on the express.

However, passengers are supposed to pay to do that, and many don’t. Considering that the fare between Inzai and Inba — one station — is ¥290, the operators of the Hokuso Line obviously believe they’re losing a lot of money. Even for commuters with monthly passes, the difference is more than ¥2,000, which explains the crackdown.

Continue reading about orikaeshi josha →

Annals of cheap: Skymark Airlines

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Last spring, budget carrier Skymark Airlines announced new service from Narita airport to Hokkaido, Okinawa and Kyushu starting this fall, and as a special promotional incentive would offer one-way fares at only ¥980 for the first three months on each new route. The deal is limited to only 20 seats on each flight. These seats can only be booked through Skymark’s website and have to be reserved at least 28 days in advance. Service to Asahikawa (one round trip a day) and Shin Chitose (Sapporo, two round trips) in Hokkaido commenced Oct. 30. Flights to Naha in Okinawa will begin Dec. 8 (two round trips), and supposedly the Fukuoka route opens on Feb. 1 of next year, though it hasn’t been announced on the website yet. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, the ¥980 seats tend to be snatched up minutes after they’re made available.

Skymark Airlines website

Skymark, which opened for business in 1996, has established these routes to compete with ANA’s new special low-cost carrier Peach Airlines, which has begun service, but for the moment only flies out of Kansai International Airport in Osaka. The regular one-way fares for the new routes on Skymark are ¥12,800 for Shin Chitose, ¥13,800 for Asahikawa and Fukuoka and ¥16,800 for Naha, though there is also another limited deal for one-way flights as low as ¥3,800 for bookings made at least 21 days in advance. Regular one-way flights to all these destinations on JAL or ANA from Narita start at about ¥30,000. Basically, Skymark is be the first budget carrier to open a hub at Narita.

A Mainichi reporter took a flight to Shin Chitose the first day the ¥980 seats were available. He had been made aware that the flight offered “no service,” though it’s the same no matter which fare you pay. Consequently, he spent ¥120 for a bottle of tea in the airport and then discovered that Skymark only charged ¥100 for the same amount of tea on board. Having been conditioned to expect higher charges he was surprised (though not as surprised as we were that security allowed him to carry a liquid onto the plane). He also said the seats were not as cramped as he thought they’d be, comparing them to “non-reserved seats on the Shinkansen” in terms of roominess. He met a 31-year-old man on the flight who was going home to Sapporo “for the first time in 3 years” and felt it strange that the train from Shin Chitose Airport to the city proper was more (¥1,040) than the air fare from Tokyo.

The one demerit about the ¥980 flight is that Skymark has no arrangement with other airlines at Narita for backup flights to Hokkaido. That means if a Skymark flight is cancelled for any reason, the passenger either has to wait until the next available Skymark flight with empty seats, which might not be until the next day, or cancel the Skymark flight and buy a new ticket on another airline. The problem here is that most airlines that fly from Tokyo to Hokkaido — or anywhere in Japan — do so out of Haneda, including an increasing number of international carriers.

Car taxes could be cut next year

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Old or new, buy later and save!

When you buy an automobile in Japan you pay a bunch of taxes. And when you own an automobile in Japan, you pay a bunch even more taxes on a yearly or biannual basis. Since car sales are considered an engine of the economy second only to home purchases in terms of consumer spending, the government wants more people to buy cars and is thinking about slashing these related taxes.

A tax study group is now discussing the abolition of the jidosha shutokuzei (car purchase tax), which currently amounts to 5 percent of the price paid for a regular automobile and 3 percent for a “mini” (kei) car whose engine displacement is 660 cc or less. This tax is levied on all car sales, new or used, of over ¥500,000 and goes to local governments. Since it’s estimated that car purchase tax revenues for fiscal 2011 will amount to ¥200 billion, it’s quite a sacrifice, but the auto industry has taken a pounding since the March 11 disaster and taxes constitute a fairly large portion of the outlay for a car purchase.

However, there’s more. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, as well as the various related industry associations, are pushing for eliminating or reducing other auto-related taxes, in particular the annual automobile tax, which is ¥39,000 for passenger cars and ¥7,200 for kei cars. Then there’s the juryozei (weight tax), which is levied at the time of purchase and then every time the automobile is brought in for its mandatory vehicle inspection (shaken) and brings in about ¥700 billion for the central government. That’s ¥37,000 for a vehicle of less than one ton, ¥56,000 for vehicles between 1 and 1.5 tons, etc. Then there’s also a special tax just for kei cars, and, of course, don’t forget that consumption taxes apply to all purchases of cars and parts, not to mention gasoline taxes.

Local governments will probably have something to say about the reduction of all these taxes since they are the main beneficiary. The provisional tax reduction for automobiles designated as being environmentally friendly (eco cars) is scheduled to end on April 30 of next year, and the study group is thinking of eliminating or at least greatly reducing both the car purchase tax and the weight taxes for eco cars in order to promote their sale. In any event, if and when the reductions are approved, they won’t go into effect until fiscal 2012.

Will K-cars save the domestic automotive industry?

Monday, September 26th, 2011

Mira, Mira in the lot...

Two weeks ago, on the same day that it didn’t cover the huge anti-nuclear power demonstration in Tokyo, NHK’s 7 o’clock news bulletin had a feature about Daihatsu’s new small car, the Mira e:s (pronounced “ease”). Initially, we saw the report as further proof of the public broadcaster’s retreat from its traditional aversion to anything smacking of commercial promotion; but in the days since then we’ve come to realize that the announcement was newsworthy as more than just a financial story.

The e:s is the latest model in the Mira K-car series. K-car, as in kei (light), are automobiles made specifically for the Japanese market. The name refers to the engine displacement, which is only 660 cubic centimeters. Consequently, the weight and size are smaller than standard automobiles, which is why many people believe them to be unsafe. Because K-cars are very small and have to be lightweight, they tend to crumple easily in accidents. But they are also low-priced and get high gasoline mileage. What makes the e:s noteworthy is its even lower price–¥795,000–and even higher gas mileage–30 kilometers per liter based on JCO8 mode testing methodology. That’s almost a 40 percent improvement in mileage over previous Mira models owing to e:s’s lighter body structure and smoother transmission function. As a result, Daihatsu is marketing it as the “third eco car” after the all-electric vehicle and the hybrid. For comparison, Toyota’s best-selling Prius hybrid gets 32. 6 km/l and Honda’s Fit hybrid 26km/l.

Daihatsu hopes to sell 10,000 e:s per month, which seems quite feasible since Daihatsu is already the number one maker of K-cars in Japan (but not K-trucks). The company unloaded 341,000 during the first eight months of the year, though one of the main reasons for the robust sales was the March 11 disaster. K-cars are particularly popular in rural areas, where automobiles are a necessity and many families own more than two. Because people use them every day and for every sort of task, economy is the main consideration. Not only do they use less fuel, but the excise/weight taxes and insurance are much cheaper (though they are subject to a special Light Motor Vehicle Tax), maintenance costs are lower and owners in rural areas usually aren’t required to offer proof of a parking space for K-cars at the time of registration. According to the Japan Mini Vehicles Association, 43 percent of the automobiles registered in the Tohoku region before the March 11 disaster were K-cars. In the prefectures that align along the Japan Sea, the portion of K-cars often tops 50 percent, and in Okinawa it’s 53 percent. Many automobiles were destroyed in the earthquake and tsunami, and the demand for used cars, used K-cars in particular, soared as a result. A friend of ours who lives in Osaka just sold her 10-year-old K-car to a broker for ¥50,000. Usually with a car that old the owner has to pay the broker to haul it away.

In fact, K-cars have kept Japan’s domestic automotive industry stable in the past year. After the end of the government’s eco point system, sales of regular cars dropped, but K-car sales have been steady all along. And since they use less parts they were less adversely affected by the supply shortage caused by the March 11 disaster. Even Toyota is coming out with a K-car. Japan’s number one automaker never entered the field mainly because it has a 51 percent controlling interest in Daihatsu. But the market is too good to pass up right now, and the future holds at least some promise. Women are more likely to buy K-cars, and unlike the current demographic of over-70 women, who don’t drive at all, boomer women all drive and will likely continue to do so well into old age. The sunnier outlook for Daihatsu is exemplified by the company’s ad campaign for e:s, which features Bruce Willis making fun of himself as a celebrity shill. Only a company with supreme confidence would dare draw attention to how they draw attention.

After the death of analog, whither Tokyo Tower?

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

As everybody by now knows, Sunday, July 24 marked the end of analog TV broadcasts in Japan. However, the capital’s new broadcast tower, Tokyo Sky Tree, won’t begin sending out digital signals until May 12 next year, which means the iconic Tokyo Tower still has a reason to exist until then. The big question is: Will it have a reason afterwards?

Hey, don't forget me!

According to Tokyo Shimbun, the operators of Tokyo Tower lobbied the key broadcast companies to retain some of their business after Tokyo Sky Tree itself becomes operational. However, all six TV networks have decided to move their broadcast functions to TST. In terms of broadcasting, Tokyo Tower will remain a backup facility in the very unlikely event that TST is down. This will be a big blow to Tokyo Tower. Its revenues in 2010 amounted to ¥5.48 billion — ¥2.9 billion for tourism and ¥2.58 for renting out broadcast functions to TV and FM radio stations.

With the broadcast functions gone, Tokyo Tower will have to rely almost completely on tourism for its income; that and cutting expenses. And even there, TST had the advantage of being newer and taller. It opens to the public on May 22, and Tobu, the main investor, projects a whopping 25 million visitors in the first year. Tokyo Tower’s peak tourist year was 1989, when 3.8 million people visited. Afterwards, attendance dropped to a bit over 2 million by the turn of the century, and then the management implemented an image makeover that included live performances and special events. Attendance creeped up to about 3 million by 2006.

That, in fact, seems to be the strategy. Rather than compete with TST for out-of-towners, Tokyo Tower will makes its appeal to Tokyoites, whom the management hopes will look at the iconic structure with both nostalgia and a sense of permanence. Construction of Tokyo Tower started in 1956 from discarded armaments used in the Korean War, and represents to many Japan’s emergence from its darkest period. Another advantage Tokyo Tower will have over the younger upstart is pricing. Total costs of the Tokyo Sky Tree is estimated at ¥65 billion, and the price of a ticket to the main observatory will be ¥3,000 for adults. Tokyo Tower only charges ¥600 just to get to the top, and ¥1,420 to go to both observatory stations. Will that make a difference? Apparently, the insurance company Daiichi Seimei thinks so. According to a study the company carried out, it projects only 3 million visitors a year will come to TST, the same as Tokyo Tower now.

Hummer don’t hurt them: Are Japanese consumers allergic to big cars?

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

Problem solved!

This fall, General Motors plans to start selling a “small car” called the Aveo in Japan. Though the company only expects to sell a few hundred, its purpose is to make the Aveo a “feeder model” that will prepare Japanese consumers for more upmarket models down the line. It will be interesting to see the reaction, since American car companies have never been very successful selling large numbers of cars in Japan.

Apparently, GM is thinking along the lines of fighting fire with fire. Small Japanese cars have sold like hotcakes in the U.S. ever since they were first imported there in the early 1970s, so it follows that Japanese prefer small cars, and GM will give them what they want. But the major appeal of import cars in Japan is based on image, so GM’s competition is not Toyota-Nissan-Honda, but rather Mercedes-Volkswagen-Audi.

A Japanese person who wants to buy a small car is not going to buy one from GM, because the average Japanese doesn’t equate GM with small cars. If GM actually wants to compete in a realistic way then they have to compete with something that’s quantifiable, like gas mileage, regardless of the size of the car.

Continue reading about GM in Japan →

Joyful Honda and the rise of the car-centric ‘home center’

Friday, June 24th, 2011

What a gas: Joyful Honda in Inzai

People living in Tokyo, especially those who don’t own cars, can often be oblivious to the priorities of people living outside of Tokyo. So-called home centers have become a central facet of suburban people’s lives, and while you can find a few within the borders of the capital, the metro ones are by necessity much smaller. The whole point of a home center, which contains jumbo-sized retail sections dedicated to everything necessary for everyday living, from food to furniture to tools, is that you drive your car to it. A huge parking lot is part of the bargain, literally and figuratively.

One of the most successful home centers is Joyful Honda, which has no relation to Honda Motors, though it is conspicuously friendly to car culture. The company operates 15 outlets, the biggest of which is located in Hitachi, Ibaraki Prefecture, which is also the corporate headquarters. The Joyful Honda retail property in Hitachi covers, in the prosaic parlance of Japanese developers, the equivalent of 4.8 Tokyo Domes. Most of this real estate is taken up by parking lots, which can hold up to 6,800 vehicles. In land-scarce Japan, this is a huge investment and points to a sea change in the Japanese retail mindset. Traditionally, retail centers were built around train stations, even in suburban and rural areas. However, outside of large urban centers, retail complexes have become isolated, self-contained, destinations for motorists. Shoppers have to have parking; more importantly, free parking. At Joyful Honda, you don’t even have to have your parking validated the way you would at a store in Tokyo. The prices rival those you will find at the cheapest discount retailers, which means the cost of the parking fields they control (Inzai, Chiba Prefecture: 5,000 cars; Ota, Gunma Prefecture: 5,700 cars; Mizuo-cho, Tama: 3,200 cars) are somehow absorbed.

Continue reading about suburban home centers →

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