As in many other countries in the world, taking the taxi in Japan can sometimes be helpful, for example:
- to go home late in the night, when there is no longer public transportation available;
- to transfer with heavy luggage, between airports or stations and your accommodation in the city;
- if you travel with elderly people, persons with reduced mobility (PRMs) or young children;
- to go to places poorly served by trains or buses;
- when you feel bad or have drunk too much.
Since Japanese taxis are secured, often very clean, with an impeccable quality of service, they are often ranked as the best taxis in the world. Companies are numerous; there are about sixty of them in Kyoto only.
As an anecdote, becoming a taxi driver in Japan can be very simple: just justify of three years of driving license, and obtaining the taxi license is free. Estimates are about 358,000 taxis circulating in 2015, including 50,000 only in Tokyo (according to the AFP – a global news agency), for a market valued at 25 billion dollars in total.
How to ride a Japanese taxi
You can call a taxi like anywhere else in the world, by raising your hand, but around train stations taxis will welcome you only at the reserved spots. It is therefore advised to go to the taxi station, usually well displayed, and then wait in the line for your vehicle.
In the street, a taxicab carries the mention:
- 空車 (kusha) for free
- or 賃走 (chinsô) for occupied
Be noticed: beyond the main arteries, there is usually no street name in Japan. It is therefore advised to note the building’s name or even better, to get in with a business card or a map of the place where you want to go. Without such information, the driver would not even be able to enter an address in its GPS. Moreover, since very few drivers speak another language than Japanese, a local phone number can help him/her in case of problem.
Big cities in Japan set initiatives for tourists:
- Since 2015, Osaka has been testing an English-speaking taxi service stamped with an "International Visitors Taxi" sticker. In 2016, English-speaking drivers were able to register with the city taxi office to get better visibility to inform and drive foreign tourists.
- Since mid 2016, the main taxi association of Tokyo has launched the "TSTiE" (Tokyo Sightseeing Taxi in English) initiative, with drivers who scored above 600 points on the TOEIC exam. They should be about 300 by 2020.
Moreover, with the Olympic Games of 2020, a company is currently developing "driverless robot taxis". This is DeNa with the help of ZMP, a robotic specialist. A first test was carried out in real situation, on a 5.3 km segment in Tokyo at the end of August 2018, and the experimental phase will last up to September 2019.
Inside the cab
Most drivers are men in their forties or older. They are almost always wearing suits with white gloves, sometimes even with a uniform cap. Lace is often found on seats and headrests.
Next to the driver’s seat, there is a remote that he will use to open and close the left rear door (sidewalk side) even if you do not carry anything of your arms. Of course, it is also possible to charge a luggage on the (quite small) car’s trunk; which does also open automatically. Most of Japanese cars used for taxi are Toyota Crown models.
At the end of 2014, Toyota and Nissan announced their will to put 5,000 mini-van taxis from mid 2015 on the service, forecasting Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Thanks to its experience in New York since 2013, Nissan will impose in Japan its NV200 model, which can carry up to 5 people and several big bags or large luggages, filling the gap of tourists’ complains for the lack of space in Japanese cars. Toyota also hopes that its own model will replace 30% of Tokyo taxis by 2020.
Taxi fares and payment methods
Taxi fares in Japan differ according to the company and region. In Tokyo, you often see rates including the first kilometer: count about ¥410 (~US$ 3.80). Then, the cost of a ride usually increases by ¥90 (~US$ 0.80), ie:
- by distance charge (applied every 280 meters)
- by time charge when the vehicle is not moving (applied every 105 seconds).
Also, fare calculation is raised by 20% during nightime, typically 10pm to 5am.
Most of the time you will pay in cash. Note that credit cards like Visa or Mastercard are becoming more accepted to a lesser extent; even IC cards such as Suica work. You have to look after to stickers on the door which indicate the accepted payment methods.
Avoid using taxi for long rides as the fare goes up very quickly. Finally, note that if you are more than one, you can divide the fees. For example, a four-passenger taxi ride in the city center can be faster and only slightly more expensive than a short trip by public transportation.