Ben Hills

After a while living in Japan, you drop your guard. You get used to leaving your front door open so the deliverymen can drop the groceries inside, to bicycles parked all day at the train stations without a padlock, to waiters chasing you with 10 yen of change you forgot to take.

The last thing you expect is to be conned by a large official-looking gent in a grey uniform standing in front of the booking office of the airport Skyliner express at Ueno station.

“You’ll never make it,” he said, sucking his teeth and looking at his watch. It was 10.20 am. The Korean Air flight to Seoul wasn’t due to take off until 12.30. Could he be right?

Sure, Narita Airport is a bitch, certainly the worst in Asia. It’s chronically congested, and 60 kilometres from downtown Tokyo.

You can get there by bus, car, train, or by any combination of the above, but it’s still quicker to fly the 1,500 kilometres from Tokyo to Seoul than it is to get to the airport. I was about to discover that it can also be cheaper.

After quite a few years riding cabs in various odd parts of the world, I don’t scare particularly easily. I have survived journeys with the worst purblind psychopaths ever to get behind a wheel in New York, in Egypt, in Brazil and running through gunfire across the Green Line in Beirut.

But the last place you would expect a wild ride is Tokyo, where pedestrians huddle late at night in completely deserted streets waiting for the lights to change to ‘walk’, and drivers have been known to alight from their cars to bow and apologise for splashing someone with a puddle.

But this guy was something else. Number 10017 was the taxi driver from hell. “Me Namba One,” he shouted, turning round to grin at me as we missed mowing down half the population of Ueno primary school by a hair’s breadth.

Thankfully, they were his only words of English. The Japanese imprecations he was hurling out of the window at the surrounding drivers sounded bloodcurdling.

When we got onto the highway to the airport, he really came into his own. The signs clearly warn that the speed limit is 80 km/h. The needle was flicking between 160 and 170.

We screeched to a halt at the terminal at 11.20 am, having covered 60 kilometres through one of the most densely populated cities in the world in just a hair-raising 50 minutes. The airport bus usually takes two hours.

Then came the second shock – the bill. There was 22,110 yen on the meter, plus another 4,000 yen for tolls – a total of $A307.17. For $A294, you can fly from Tokyo to Seoul and back. “Me Namba One,” he cried, as he pocketed the bundle of money.

It wasn’t until I got to the check-in that the penny dropped. They had only just begun taking baggage; the flight wasn’t due to board for 70 minutes. Even the train would have got me there with 50 minutes to spare. I had been had.

When I arrived back a few days later, I took the airport bus to town. It took nearly two hours. But it was $250 cheaper.

Last night I locked my door. Even in Tokyo, you never know.

Publishing Info

Pub date: Saturday 27 March 1993
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section:
Page: 23
Word count: 590
Keywords: Taxis Japan