Cheap Rides

Cheap Rides

Introducing Tokyo’s first 100 yen car rental


Originally published on on February 2010

Photo by James Hadfield

It’s a question that has probably occurred to pedestrians, cyclists and dedicated users of the city’s public transport system, but it bears asking all the same: why would you want to own a car in Tokyo? Never mind that the roads are almost permanently heaving, or that there seem to be more traffic lights than parking spaces—it’s a hellishly expensive business to boot.

According to the website, the average parking space in Tokyo goes for ¥30,000 a month, and you’ll need to have one of these guaranteed before you can even buy an auto in the first place. That’s just the first financial drain, though. Shaken motor vehicle inspections, which are compulsory three years after first purchasing a new car and every two years after that, typically start at ¥60,000 and get a lot steeper. Insurance and taxes will likely add at least ¥10,000 per month on top of this, and that’s before you’ve even filled your tank. Which brings me back to the original question: why bother?

Well, okay: there’s just no getting around the fact that some Tokyoites do need their own set of wheels.

“There are times when it feels like a waste to get a taxi, but you still require a car,” says Isshin Yoshimoto, a spokesperson for auto finance and insurance company Car Bell. “For instance, you might need to take elderly relatives to hospital, cart shopping home from the hardware store, or pick someone up on a rainy day. Then there are the people who normally drive a compact car but need a minivan for a trip, or the ones who need to make deliveries at work but don’t have a company car.”

It’s people like these that Car Bell is targeting with its latest venture. In November, the company opened its first ¥100 Rentacar shop in Nihombashi, with plans to expand to 50 outlets around the country by next month. It’s the kind of business that could only have started in the middle of an economic downturn, a sort of micro-rental service aimed at the most casual end of the market.

While renting a car used to mean paying for at least six hours’ use, ¥100 Rentacar lets customers pay in much smaller increments: that headline-grabbing price will get you ten minutes behind the wheel of a compact car, six minutes for a people carrier, or five for a “premium” vehicle. Not a lot, in other words, but the rates stay competitive even for longer periods of time. A day’s rental clocks in at ¥4,200, nearly ¥3,000 less than what you’d pay with Nippon Rent-a-Car or Orix.

Yoshimoto is pretty upfront about how they manage this.

“We don’t rent out new cars,” he explains. “[Car Bell] started out as a car dealership, so our rental vehicles are trade-ins, display models or loaners. We’re basically able to keep costs down by taking advantage of resources—people, cars, shops and what-have-you—that were already in place.”
With car-sharing schemes also becoming increasingly popular (see box), it might be high time for Japan’s auto makers to start worrying.

“Owning a car used to be seen as a status symbol, but people’s values are changing,” says Yoshimoto. “I think we’re going to see a lot more people who are just interested in using a car, rather than owning one.”

For more information about ¥100 Rentacar, see Note that international driving permits aren’t valid.

Share, share, share

¥100 Rentacar is far from the only company offering a cut-price alternative to owning your own vehicle, even if it does have the catchiest name. A survey released at the end of last month by the Eco-Mo Foundation revealed that car-sharing initiatives are also rocketing at the moment: the numbers of sharers and shared vehicles nationwide both more than doubled over the past year. Admittedly, the figures involved are still small—16,000-odd members and 1,265 cars in the whole of Japan—but the trend is encouraging all the same.

Some of the most high-profile car-sharing services to date have been provided by car rental companies, including Orix’s Petit Renta and Mazda’s Car Share 24. Last month, convenience store chain Circle K Sunkus weighed in, announcing a car-sharing scheme of its own in which members can use communal vehicles for 15- or 30-minute periods (a 30-minute rental between 7am and 9pm costs ¥800, all-inclusive). The company plans to make the service available at 200 stores within the Tokyo metropolitan area by the end of the year, and Lawson, Ministop and Family Mart are experimenting with similar schemes.