London has its black cabs, New York’s yellow taxis are famous… now Japan has its own iconic taxi
TOKYO, JAPAN — Kimonos, ramen, bullet trains… whatever springs to mind whenever you think of Japan, I’m willing to bet a mug of Asahi Super Dry that a taxi cab isn’t it.
But maybe this new taxi from Toyota will change that. The JPN Taxi (it’s pronounced “Japan taxi”) is Toyota’s replacement for the ancient Crown Comfort cabs that have been plying the streets for 22 years. Those old cars are pretty much obsolete, says Hiroshi Kayakawa, the chief engineer for the new cab.
This time instead of adapting a regular car for taxi companies to use, Toyota has come up with something that Kayakawa is hoping will be as iconic as London’s black cabs or the yellow taxis that terrorise New York City streets. It’s meant to be an ambassador for Japan, he says. And he wants it bring a smile to everyone’s face. He’s not kidding.
To be fair, it did make me crack a smaile, the first time I saw it. Japan has a way of taking stuff from the West and making it better, and this take on a city taxi a la London cabs is a quintessential example. It’s boxy and upright in a way that fits perfectly with the Tokyo cityscape, and it’s only 1.7m wide because the streets here are narrow.
The cabs are available in a number of colours but their signature one is a deep indigo blue called “koiai”. It’s a colour that’s been used for 1,300 years in textiles in Japan, as well as food and medicine colouring. It’s the colour of Japan’s national football team, and the logos for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo 2020 happen to use a similar shade of indigo.
Toyota booked one to take me from Shinjuku to Yokohama for an event, and it felt like the perfect taxi. You climb aboard through a huge sliding door and the perfectly flat floor makes it easy to turn and drop yourself into the seats.
There are handles everywhere — on the B-pillar, on the backs of the front seats, one more near the C-pillar — which I found pretty handy, because my legs had been left feeling pretty rubbery from a long day at the Tokyo Motor Show.
All those handles are there because Japan is becoming a society of elders. If, like me, you have parents who groan when they have to climb into a car, you’ll know how useful a big door and handholds everywhere can be.
A wheelchair will actually fit into the cabin through the sliding door, and there’s a portable ramp that drivers can deploy so users can be wheeled in.
Yuda, my driver, had been behind the wheel of a JPN Taxi for only two days, but told me he loved it already.
It’s comfortable and roomy, he said, gesturing at all the space above his head created by the JPN Taxi’s high roof, and he said it was easy to see out of, making his point by sweeping a hand across the large windscreen.
If the windscreen seems big, the passenger windows are positively enormous. They let you take in that much more of the surrounding sights, and what tourist doesn’t want that?
This being Japan, the taxi reflects the spirit of omotenashi, the country’s unique brand of hospitality. So there are rear air-con blowers with their own set of controls, to start with.
This is 2017, which means everyone has a smartphone glued to their hand, so you’ll find two USB chargers built into the driver’s seatback.
Even the seatbelt buckle is illuminated to help you find it in the dark, which ought to be a godsend to customers who end their day staggering out of Tokyo’s countless bars.
The boot is apparently as big as the Crown’s and will take two large suitcases, but you’re meant to be able to take luggage into the cabin with you.
From Yuda’s point of view, it’s a better car to drive than the old Crown, too. He says it’s more powerful, and I don’t care where you are in the world, taxi drivers like a car that surges forward when they step on it.
The JPN Taxi is actually a 1.5-litre hybrid — its engine is derived from the petrol-electric system that powered the second-generation Prius, only it runs on LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) because that’s what fuels taxis in Japan — so it’s quiet in town. It rides like a Lexus over bumps, too.
Yuda probably doesn’t know it yet, but the JPN Taxi is about to save him lots of money. It apparently costs just half as much to run as the Crown, thanks to the hybrid system.
Just as well, because that’ll balance out the higher purchase price of the car — a basic JPN Taxi costs 3,277,800 yen, or just under S$33,400.
It apparently doesn’t cost any more than the Crown for customers. A sign in Yuda’s cab put the price of a ride at 410 yen for the first 1,052 metres, and 80 yen for every 237 metres. It’s just as well that Toyota picked up the tab for my ride to Yokohama, because according to Yuda it would have cost more than 20,000 yen (S$240 in our money), which means not only would I have been one of the first people to ride in a JPN Taxi, I would have also been among the first to have a heart attack in one.
Chief engineer Kayakawa is hoping the JPN Taxi will become part of the Japanese landscape, especially since the 2020 games will bring a flood of tourists into the country. According to him there are roughly 240,000 taxis in Japan, 50,000 of which operate in Tokyo. Toyota is hoping to sell 1,000 JPN Taxis a month, so that’s enough of a lead time to make them a ubiquitous sight by the time the Olympics get underway.
Just in case you’re wondering if you’ll see one at home, though, the chances are slim. Toyota Crown taxis were ubiquitous in Singapore (until emissions regulations killed them), and though the JPN Taxi replaces them, Toyota says it has no plans to sell them abroad.
You can get iconic Japanese food in Singapore, but if you want a ride in what Toyota hopes will become an iconic cab, you’ll have to travel to the JPN Taxi’s home country.