Welcome to another instalment in my recent travels to Tokyo. On each of my three trips to Japan over the last three years I have been fascinated with the quality and capacity of the public transport systems employed especially in the greater cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. Moving millions of people every day – where public transport is the most preferred method – is astounding. In my past blogs about my travels to Japan I often have talked at length about the rail networks and their insane efficiency. I have not really gone into a lot of detail about the use of lesser transport systems such as taxis. And the taxi system should really not be underestimated. I really took a lot of notice when I was there in August this year and they are everywhere. Granted I was mostly smack in the middle of Tokyo, but the taxis dominated the roads.
I have nothing but respect for the Japanese taxis. I have used them numerous times over the past few years. Especially when I have become tired and foot sore and want to get back to my hotel quicker for a hot bath or a cold beer. But you know, they are just taxis. Right? Well yes they are. But as with almost everything you will experience in Japan, they are unique and have their own set of quirks that are very Japanese. In my blog, My Japan Travel Guide, I highlight a few important factors about travelling via Taxi in Japan. I also go into a lot of detail about a broad range of travel advice for the new and even intermediate tourist in this amazing country. So please be sure to check it out if you have not already seen it.
I live in Melbourne, Australia and Taxi’s, and their drivers, get a pretty bad review. Especially since the introduction of Uber a few years ago. Melbourne taxis, until recently, used to be all the same yellow with the same lit up sign on the roof. Customer service complaints against taxis were mounting, the condition of the vehicles and the drivers were evidently not a priority to the taxi companies and to be honest most people I know hated catching taxis. I remember one night years ago I caught a taxi very late and I was sure that the driver was around 14 years old. Certainly not the man in the image on the identity card on the dash. I think that is why Uber took off so well when it was launched here. I love Melbourne but personally I do no love the taxi service here. It has a lot of room to improve.
Then there are Japanese taxis – and in my most recent experience Tokyo taxis. The vehicles are painted and decorated based on the company that owns the taxi. But they are generally bright colours with nice contrasting markings. And every taxi company has their own special design of light that sits on the roof of the car. I remember seeing a book a while back where a photographer had taken photos of dozens of these lights as the designs are really unique. And there are hundreds of taxi companies right across Japan. You will never see a Tokyo taxi with rust, dented panels or even looking in the slightest bit dirty. They are immaculate. And the make and model seem to be mostly a Toyota vehicle that is not used for anything other than taxis. So that uniformity is nice.
My biggest surprise when I first hailed a cab in Japan was that the driver operates the two back doors remotely. I ran up to the taxi and the door swung open to meet me automatically. Getting out was no different. And having used taxis when hauling luggage, the driver has always hastened to get to the boot and get my case out so that I do not have to be inconvenienced. Now that is very Japanese. Also, the mirrors that the driver relies on are actually mounted at the very front of the vehicle and not on the doors. I believe this has something to do with past legislation in Japan but it is now relaxing.
The very first thing you will notice when you get into a Tokyo taxi is just how impeccably clean it is. It is so clean that the white lace edged seat covers on the driver and passenger seats, the headrests and the whole back seat are stark white. Yes, you heard correctly. All Japanese taxis have these white frilly seat covers. It is hilarious but once again so very Japanese. I remember getting in to a taxi one afternoon with a wet umbrella, to escape a downpour and I felt bad that I got the floor and the seat a little wet. I even offered an apology. And then, you will notice the driver. Commonly Tokyo taxi drivers are middle aged men. They always wear a suit when driving along with a white face mask and white gloves. So just like the taxis, they are impeccably groomed.
So why the inordinate amount of detail and effort for a taxi? Well I guess that like most things in Japan, they fascinate me. Especially when I compare the level of customer experience I get from taking a taxi in Japan versus the experience catching a taxi here in Melbourne. And if you, dear reader, have ever taken a taxi in Japan then I am sure you would agree with me that it is like taking a taxi no where else in the world. Or for those of you soon heading to Japan, something to keep an eye out for. And they are everywhere. There are over 300 taxi companies in Tokyo with tens of thousands of cars on the road.
I will share with you a little memory I have and cherish from my most recent trip to Tokyo in August this year. I had pre-booked tickets to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. Stay tuned for the blog about that day. And it was one of those really wet heavy rain days in Tokyo. It was a long walk, train ride and then a bus or long walk to get to the museum from my hotel. I was on holiday. It was just my birthday. So I took a taxi. We took a route that was mostly expressway and main roads. Which in itself was fantastic as I got to see and experience a part of Tokyo that I would have not seen.
It was the taxi trip home that was even more fascinating. My driver didn’t speak any English but he chose to drive home via a more suburban route. And this was so wonderful for me. We drove through tight suburban roads often only wide enough for one car. Places where housing towers were neatly built row after row after row. Places where double story residences sat so close to the road that they were the road boundary. Places where play grounds and school yards and temples and cemeteries were bordered by canals and rice fields. Granted it was just a taxi ride. But it allowed me to see parts of Tokyo a little more intimately. Just a little. All thanks to a Tokyo taxi.
So there you have it. An unnecessary amount of detail and emotion about a public transport system in the worlds largest city. But as I mentioned, there are these little ‘things’ in pretty much everything you will experience in a place like Tokyo that makes the mundane a little more interesting or even exciting. Don’t even get me started on the fact that all the garbage trucks played a little jingle as they roll through the streets….