The sharp increase in tourists from China and other countries has brought fleets of large buses to Ginza, Akihabara and other popular shopping areas in Tokyo, causing traffic jams and testing the abilities of the Metropolitan Police Department and area authorities.
At peak pickup times buses are parked end-to-end like the beads of a rosary, gathering up tourists who just finished shopping for luxury brands and home electronics in bulk. As the congestion could increase the risk of accidents, the MPD is planning a meeting of interested parties to figure out how to address the situation.
Wall of buses
It's dusk in late October. Despite it being a weekday, Chuo-dori Street in the Ginza district of Tokyo, home to department stores and shops selling luxury brands, is lined with large buses. With one of the two lanes on each side of the road blocked, traffic slows to a crawl. From the sidewalks, pedestrians' view is obstructed by a wall of buses.
Soon enough, Chinese tourists loaded with shopping bags start to emerge from the department stores and duty-free shops, and are absorbed by the waiting buses.
Around 6 p.m., the area from Ginza 5-chome to 7-chome is crowded with about 10 hulking tourist buses.
"I'm happy there are more customers, but dealing with these big tourist buses is a major problem," an official of the Chuo City Commerce and Industry Association said. The association has about 250 member stores in the area.
The official said people started noticing the large buses carrying foreign tourists about two years ago. The buses begin arriving in the morning, discharging their passengers in five to 10 minutes, then driving off.
The problem is the peak evening pickup time.
If all the passengers showed up on time, the buses would only need to stop for a short while. But some passengers, perhaps unfamiliar with the area, are inevitably late, and the buses are forced to remain parked until they come, sometimes for more than 30 minutes.
"Sometimes two buses park side-by-side. When the police warn them, some take off in a hurry without even closing the door," an employee of a luxury brand store on Chuo-dori said.
"If the number of buses keeps increasing like this, it's going to be a mess. Something needs to be done," an assistant manager of a jewelry store said.
None of the buses has permission to park on the street, so parking in the same place for long periods or stopping near traffic lights are traffic violations. Yet whenever a police officer makes an appearance, the buses drive off in a hurry, making the situation difficult to control.
The MPD said that a major accident involving a tourist bus loading or unloading passengers has yet to occur. However, "If things keep going how they are, I wouldn't be surprised if an accident happened," a senior MPD officer said.
The problem is exacerbated by a chronic lack of parking space. There are about five parking lots for large buses in the Ginza area, which are able to hold at least 100 buses. However, most of these are for tourists going to the Imperial Palace, the Tsukiji Market and other places.
An official of a Kansai-based company that operates buses for Chinese tourists said, "If there were more parking lots for large buses in the area, we wouldn't have to stop for long periods on busy streets."
Tourist buses stopping on roads is also becoming increasingly common in other areas popular with foreign tourists, like Akihabara, Asakusa and the Kabukicho district in Shinjuku, according to the MPD. In Asakusa, where many of the streets are narrow, at least 10 parking tickets have been issued to tourist buses from January to September this year.
In addition to increasing their observation and management of Ginza and other areas, the MPD plans to hold planning meetings, search for open spaces that could accommodate large buses in downtown Tokyo, and call on the bus industry to study how it could operate more efficiently.
"We want to think of a comprehensive response that is compatible with the nation's tourism policy," a senior MPD officer said.
The Japanese government is making an effort to bring foreign tourists to Japan as part of its growth strategy. The weakening of the yen under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe helped raise the number of foreign tourists above 10 million for the first time in 2013. As of the end of September this year, 14.48 million tourists had come to Japan, already more than the 13.41 million who visited last year. Chinese tourists are the largest group, making up about 30 per cent of the total.