05 July 2006

The cabbie blood in me

I think it is the cabbie blood that I inherited from my father - I was really cheered by this story on Japanese cab drivers from the Terrie newsletter I received. Must be the image of them leaping out in the rain to open my taxi door! Of course, you may say that you pay a bomb for the taxi fare, but in this world, you can pay a bomb for many things and still get mediocre service...

Riding in one of Tokyo's ubiquitous cabs the other night, we had an interesting reminder of just how different Japan can be. This particular cab was participating in a product giveaway to salarymen returning home late at night. The product was a new energy health food bar from Otsuka Pharmaceutical. In handing over the bar, the cabbie apologized and said in Japanese, "Here have one of these -- it doesn't taste too good..." ??!!

Now, if you've been in Japan for a while, you'll know that this could either mean, "I'm being forced by the firm to give you this, but my advice is don't eat it," or "This is pretty good, but I'm being polite and am talking the product down. Now you just have to try it to find out for yourself, right?"

Receiving the bar, we did indeed try it out after alighting, and found that it actually wasn't too bad.

Munching away, we started thinking about Japanese taxi culture, especially here in Tokyo. Despite the low wages, long hours, difficult city lay-outs, and drunken, sometimes sex-crazed passengers, Japan's taxi drivers are the salt of the nation, and 99% of them are unfailingly polite. Indeed, one cab company, we forget which, even has its drivers leap across the passenger seat, race you for the door, and open it from the outside for you. This sudden series of movements by the cabbie can be a bit of a surprise when it first happens to you -- and even more so when it is pouring with rain. But it certainly does make you remember the extreme politeness of drivers from that particular firm.

There are apparently about 380,000 taxi drivers in Japan, most of whom seem to be servicing Shibuya-Roppongi and the other 5 major centers on the Yamanote line, after 23:00. They belong to 8,048 different companies, about 100 of which operate in Tokyo -- so competition is alive and well. Actually, the competition really took off after the government removed both price and licence-limiting controls in 2002, thus causing a surge of newcomers into the market.

There are cab companies of all types, including those with pet taxis, for taking your poodle or chihuahua to the vet -- or out on a date. One such company is Taikoh Taxi, which is located in Aichi, and charges JPY2,500 for the first 10km then JPY200/km after that. Although the initial cost is high, riding with your pet for any distance beyond 10km is actually about 2/3 cheaper than a regular cab. In addition to transporting pets, Taikoh also provides pet-sitting, pet-trimming, and pet-feeding services. www.taikoh-taxi.co.jp. Not yet in Tokyo, unfortunately.

Among the other types of services are bridal taxis, which have special cars with high roofs and wide doors to accomodate the bride in her full traditional wedding gown. If you've ever seen a bride with her oval headpiece, the tsuno-kakushi, you'll know what a pain it must be to get into a regular cab. See http://tinyurl.com/gc4ct for an image of the headgear. Other services include non-smoking cabs and welfare cabs -- i.e., those fitted out for disabled people.

Probably the best thing about Japanese cabbies is their integrity. Despite drivers traditionally saying, "please don't leave anything behind," we have personally forgotten bags, notebook PCs, company files, and books, realizing only later that we'd done so. In EVERY case, we've been able to call the cab company and the driver has either directly come back or has passed the package on to another driver to hand-deliver to our address. In other instances, and this happens regularly, if a cab driver picks the wrong route and as a result we get stuck in a traffic jam, he will refund some of the fare from his own pocket, all the while apologizing for not having known any better.

But this is not to say that every cab driver strives for excellence. With the economic setbacks of the 1990's and the traditional winter migration of workers from the frozen north, there is an increasing number of drivers who simply don't know where they are going -- or they are drunk. The Nikkei recently reported a new cell phone accessory by Tanita, which is an alcohol detector that attaches to any of DoCoMo's 3G FOMA handsets. Apparently the cab companies plan to make their drivers breathe into the thing at random intervals, and since the FOMA handsets have a camera, the dispatcher can see the person actually doing the breathing.

Although off-season country drivers who don't know Tokyo present no major challenge to those of us who have lived here for any period of time, it is disconcerting for foreign businesspeople who are new to the city. One way to cope with a lost (or drunk) cabbie this is to be forearmed. We suggest newcomers consider a rental phone from Go Mobile. For a very reasonable JPY150/minute, Go Mobile's Concierge service provides you with a help desk that will translate cabbie directions and complaints -- to/from English and Japanese. http://www.gomobile.co.jp/index_e.html.

1 comment:

  1. Laugh out loud!

    "Here have one of these -- it doesn't taste too good..." ??!!

    Love it!