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Tokyo aims to revive boat travel in preparation for 2020 Olympics

A "water taxi" that connects Tokyo Bay and the Sumida River is seen in this May 12, 2016 photo. (Mainichi)

With the increase in foreign tourists and the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics approaching, a joint initiative between the public and private sectors is underway to make boat traveling in Tokyo's waterways into a new tourism drawcard.

    After the establishment of the Edo Period shogunate, water transport in Tokyo flourished, especially in the Sumida River. As railways and roads were developed, however, boats lost their position as a primary form of transport.

    Tokyo Water Taxi, a Minato Ward-based company, was founded in March last year as Japan's first company specializing in water-based taxi services. Since it began operations in November last year, it has served some 200 customer groups. It takes around a mere 20 minutes for one of the company's boats to ferry passengers from Rainbow Bridge to the area under construction for the new Toyosu wholesalers' market, which is to be opened in November.

    The company's two boats are both 7 meters long and carry up to six passengers each. They can be boarded at 25 locations including the Sakura Bridge on the Sumida River and the piers near Haneda Airport, but currently most of the boat operations are done through chartering because reservations have to be made with the managers of docks before using them. The dock managers include the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Taito and Sumida Ward governments.

    The water taxi fare per boat is 5,400 yen for 30 minutes. So far, the company is not yet making a profit, but its president Hajime Tabata, 59, looks forward to growth. He says, "If we can operate without reservations at more piers, our passenger numbers would grow and we could make a profit."

    The public sector is also involved. New sightseeing attractions have been created along Tokyo's waters in recent years, like the Tokyo Skytree and Rainbow Bridge, which has led to more ferries on Tokyo waterways, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has formed a committee that for the past few years has been exploring the possibility of making increased use of boats for tourism and commuting.

    Tokyo's winning of the Olympic bid in 2013 helped accelerate such discussions. Since the main facilities of the Tokyo Olympics are to be located along Tokyo Bay, the committee set up a working group in August 2015 on expanding boat services, and within this year a test ferry route connecting Haneda Airport with central Tokyo is to begin. The committee and other related authorities are also considering making docks along the Sumida River and Tokyo Bay usable without making reservations.

    The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, meanwhile, has already been running similar tests since September 2015 between Haneda Airport, Tennozu and Akihabara. From May through June this year, it tested six routes, including between Haneda Airport and Yokohama, and by the end of November this year it plans to come out with an evaluation of the financial viability of these kinds of boat transport services.

    Among ward governments, the government of Taito Ward, which receives some 45 million tourists a year, is actively pursuing the idea of boat transport. On June 1 this year, it opened up for general use a dock constructed about five years ago and located some 400 meters to the east of Senso-ji temple that had been for use only in times of emergency. The goal of opening up the dock to common use is to attract tourists by boat from Haneda Airport, and the Taito Ward Government says it has already been contacted by boat operators about the newly-opened dock.

    Though the national, metropolitan and ward governments are all acting on the issue, the biggest challenge they face is a lack of cooperation between them. Tokyo Water Taxi wants to use over 100 docks that currently are only allowed to be used in emergencies like large-scale natural disasters, but the docks are managed separately by the national, metropolitan and ward governments. There is no organization coming up with one all-embracing design on how to make effective use of the docks.

    Tabata says, "I have asked the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (to fill that role) and I have high expectations, but talks are not moving forward."

    In response to the criticism that there is insufficient cooperation, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government says, "Our goal of boosting boat activity is the same (as the other levels of government), but what each of us is doing is different." The transport ministry says, "We are communicating with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government as we move forward, but we each have our own things we want to do."

    Iwao Takamatsu, 70, the head director of the Chuo Ward-based think tank "Machifune Mirai Juku," which researches waterway usage, says, "Compared to laying down new rail, boats are much cheaper. Considering that Tokyo will eventually enter an age of declining population, it would be worthwhile to consider boats as an alternative to trains and cars," adding, "If the different layers of government don't cooperate, the private sector cannot move toward more boat usage."

    Edo-era artist Utagawa Hiroshige depicted boats in about half of the 120 paintings in his "Meisho Edo Hyakkei" (one hundred views of Edo scenic spots) series, showing how much a part of daily life in Tokyo boats once were. Now, over 150 years later, the question is how Tokyo's waterways will change in the coming years.

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