Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Road trip!

April 3, 2009

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Japanese tourists often get a lot of flak for going everywhere in packs. Last weekend, I became one of them.

As part of its efforts to stimulate the economy, the government last week kicked off a two-year discount on the country’s notoriously expensive highway tolls. The pricing system differs between rural and metropolitan areas, but what caught the nation’s attention was the all-you-can-drive toll of 1,000 yen ($10) on regional highways on weekends and holidays.

I took this as a chance to rent a Toyota Prius, and I told my mother to pick any place she wanted to go to celebrate her birthday that Sunday. She picked a spot on the tip of the Boso peninsula, east of Tokyo. The idea was to take the Aqualine, a 15 km pass across Tokyo Bay that combines a submarine tunnel and a bridge offering a scenic view. The 1,000 yen toll for that alone was a steal compared with the 2,320 yen on a regular day.

Our outing was relatively tame — 300 km (186 miles) there and back. The day before, I had seen one hard-core leisure-seeker interviewed on TV saying he was driving more than 600 km to the island of Shikoku in western Japan to enjoy the region’s famous “udon” noodles. (The Japanese will go to crazy lengths for good food, but that’s another story.) I reckon he saved close to $200 in tolls.

So the government’s plan, at least after the first weekend of the rollout, seems to be working. In addition to fanning tourism, the land, infrastructure and transport ministry hopes to alleviate congestion on regular, free roads as more people opt for the highways.

Of course, the maxim that you can’t please all of the people all of the time applies here, too: Ferry and railway operators are up in arms, and I’m sure those concerned about the environment aren’t exactly enthusiastic. Japan Railways is cranking up a “No traffic jam” slogan to promote rail travel these days.

That’s definitely something to consider.  On our way back, we had planned to dine at the recreational rest-stop in the middle of the Aqualine. But electronic signs along the way warned that parking lots were full as we inched along at a snail’s pace in the sea of cars. We gave up and carried on back into the city.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

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