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From white sneakers to the Shinkansen, what Japan teaches us about mobility

From white sneakers to the Shinkansen, what Japan teaches us about mobility

Mikko David

The recently held Japan Mobility Show (JMS) 2023 is a watershed moment in the country’s role as a leading automotive manufacturer.

With the global rollout of electric vehicles, increasing year-on-year in sales and volume, and taking over markets once steadfastly held by Japanese automakers, Japan could be at a turning point regarding how it defines mobility.

For decades, Japanese cars have become the standard regarding reliability, innovation, and design. Generations of families benefited from Japanese cars’ practicality and ease of ownership. Japanese cars, trucks, and motorcycles have all contributed to global economies and improved lives.

Mobility has been defined in considerable measure by Japanese automakers. At one point, Honda even delved into research and development for its Asimo robot and made its jet. Personal mobility devices like e-scooters and quadracycles have been around for years. Showcased as concepts by various Japanese brands decades ago, they are not innovations. It’s just that they were never mass-produced for the rest of the world to benefit from.

And such is the irony of mobility in Japan. The country makes excellent cars, no doubt about it. And yet, it keeps some of its most well-thought-of solutions to mobility within its borders.

Of plains, trains, and automobiles

Getting around Japan is said to be easy. Mass transportation in the form of trains and buses is readily available. But what Japan gets, and perhaps a good part of the world doesn’t, is that the mobility journey starts and ends with walking.

During my personally-funded visit to Japan to attend the Japan Mobility Show, I was left to my own devices to figure out how to get to the Tokyo Big Sight event halls some 13 kilometers away to see the displays. From my hotel in Gotanda station, I was alone in figuring out the best way to get to the venue.

Taxis were out of the question. Frankly, they were expensive, with my airport to hotel ride costing me about P4,000 one way—not a sustainable option. So I had to learn the train system quickly. But to get to the train station, I had to walk across the street from my hotel first. And this is when having a pair of comfortable sneakers makes a difference.

Walking in Japan is not an option; it’s a necessity. You walk to a train station and out of it to your destination. While the working locals were comfortable in their leathers, I only had a pair of worn rubber shoes to make do with. That was my first mistake.

Donning a pair of sneakers that fit your feet well is essential when touring Japan. Because of all the walking I had to do (I recorded 17,000 steps on the first day of attending the show), my feet ached to hell after day one.

Seeing the need to alleviate the pain, I was forced to buy a new pair at a store quite a distance from my hotel. And since it was Japan, and every other casual guy had white sneakers on, I just had to choose white, too. And man, the comfort of having a fresh new pair was night and day.

Crossing the streets was hardly a “patintero” affair.
You could plan your trip around Tokyo to the minute.

Having a travel companion doesn’t hurt

Fortunately, Google Maps in Japan is updated with train  and bus schedules if you choose to take either, to be mobile. The app would even instruct you when and where to walk between rides. It showed the train line to take and the schedules of upcoming rides. Alas, after two failed train ride attempts, I was able to find my bearings and, soon enough, was getting around Tokyo effortlessly.

The cheapest train ticket between two stations costs around JPY 150 or a good P55. And that’s just around two kilometers away or so. And my one-way trip from Gotanda to Tokyo Big Sight was about JPY 500 or P184. But such is the price of convenience, especially if you demand that trains and train stations be kept clean, and that trains arrive on time. And so they did. With hardly any delay, you could plan your trip around Tokyo to the minute.

For obvious reasons, trains don’t stop at your destination’s doorstep. So that means more walking as you hop from one train line to another and walk the final mile to your stop. But even on the road, the Japanese have made it easy for people to know their place while walking.

Even persons with disabilities would find the crosswalks helpful to navigate. Audible beeps come together with the pedestrian walk and “don’t walk” signs to guide blind people. Smooth ramps lead up to sidewalks to facilitate ease of access. The sidewalks were wide and well-maintained, accommodating the masses as they moved about.

Made for the people

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Despite the crowds of people walking about, crossing streets was hardly a patintero affair. Cars would leave pedestrian crosswalks unblocked. Drivers would stop for people crossing, even if they had the right of way to turn into an intersection. Bicycles were also available for renting if you choose this mode of transportation. And indeed, many bicycle-riding Japanese do share the sidewalks with pedestrians. Their rides looked just as casual and relaxed even though many were likely for necessity.

And if you choose to do some sightseeing, like visiting Tokyo DisneySea on a Sunday day trip (where you are guaranteed to do more walking), there are buses from the city that would take you directly to the theme park.

Riding the train to the Shinjuku bus station was pretty straightforward. Buying tickets for the bus to DisneySea was also easy. And the bus station itself was well-equipped and well-laid out, like an airport terminal. Obviously, convenience and comfort rank high in how various mass transport systems are designed and implemented.

Finally, if your flight out of Tokyo happens to take off from Narita airport, there is a high-speed train that can get you there in less than an hour from Shinagawa train station. And for trips further out into the countryside, the Shinkansen would be the way to go if you want to see more of Japan.

Again, the high-speed train is not cheap. A one-and-a-halfhour ride from Ueno in Tokyo to Sendai, for example, cost me around P5,500 one way before. But again, you’re paying for comfortable, reserved seats and a smooth train ride with a view at 300km/h.

A new outlook

Seeing how transportation, particularly cars, is just a means to mobility, the Japan Mobility Show 2023 successfully rebranded itself from the Tokyo Motor Show (TMS) it was known before. Thankfully, it has showcased concept cars and various personal mobility options for people to look forward to in the future. While TMS has showcased personal mobility products for years, they all lived under the shadow of the automobile, Japan’s primary manufacturing product. That is, until now.

While JMS made a good case for itself, it has to be said that Japanese mobility does more to make a lasting impression on tourists like me. At the end of the day, Japan just showed the world that the idea of getting around doesn’t have to rely only on fuel-driven, not even battery-electric, or flying cars. It’s about the people making it to their destination in comfort.

When will WE ever get it?