Saturday, August 30, 2014

Negotiating Tokyo Traffic - more art than science

Tokyo traffic is not the nightmare it used to be. In the last few years new cars are being registered at half the rate they were in the 1980's and early '90's as people keep their old one's longer and the youth have decided a trip to Hawaii is preferable to road tax. Indeed, crossing Tokyo during most times of the day is simple and quick and just requires a few dollars for highway toll fees.

That is except on a Saturday morning. Unusual characteristics come into play at this time. If it's a long weekend don't even try after 6.30am or before 12.00 noon. But if last week was a long weekend the roads will be more than likely clear as everyone wakes up remembering the nightmare of a few days before and decide to have a coffee and read the paper instead.

School holidays make a big difference. The final weekend before school starts can be horrendous whereas the first weekend after school starts can be a lonely affair. And then there's Golden Week in May and Obon in August. Only try to get out of Tokyo then if you really enjoy stationary traffic. But if you're OK with Japanese then you can help yourself a little. The Highway's Authority maintain an excellent real time website not only showing you current traffic but also forecast traffic for the next few days.

Enjoy your trip. Next article, the ever increasing tolls on Japan's highways...

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Farewell Citibank, it's been a good run

[Update] The letter has finally arrived. Apparently I'm a valued customer but not quite valued enough to stay around for. By October 2015 all assets and staff of Citibank's retail division will have been transferred to SMBC. I'm glad for the staff, it can't have been easy for the last few months. In theory nothing changes but lets wait and see if the international support remains the same. Anyway, as the phrase goes, "So long Citibank and thanks for all the fish".


Farewell Citibank, it's been a good run. Yesterday came the announcement that Citibank, after more than 100 years, is withdrawing from the Japanese retail market. Apparently there simply isn't money to be made and the business has been loss making for some years with little prospect of recovery. When interest rates have been effectively zero for over a decade it really was just a matter of time.

So why am I so concerned about this, it's just a bank after all. Well yes, and no. I first opened my Citi account in 1992 soon after arriving in Japan. The domestic banks, much to the surprise of my Japanese colleagues, had declined to engage my business as I was a foreigner, but Citi welcomed me in with open arms and English language application forms. It was also the only bank in town at the time that kept their cash machines open after 6.00PM on week days, opened at all on Saturdays and Sundays and also allowed international withdrawals.

And so they are leaving. At the moment there is little news on a potential buyer or whether the business will simply cease to exist. And then I'm back to banking in Japanese, writing forms in kanji and taking traveller's cheques when I go on vacation. It's really not the language though that concerns me though. It's the reason for the very comfortable chairs in every reception of every domestic bank in the country. My friends tell me they're pleasantly relaxing as you wait for over an hour to complete the forms for a simple international transfer. As I say, farewell Citibank, it's been a good run.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Narita - the painful way to start your journey

Narita is Japan's main international airport similar to JFK for New York, Heathrow in London or even Charles de Gaul to Paris. The main difference is that it's actually 80km's from central Tokyo and only has two runways, one of which requires a taxi time of some twenty five minutes (before queues). Having recently travelled again outside Japan I was reminded how painful it is to get there and back and am always left with a feeling that it should be closed and relocated somewhere passengers would actually like to fly from. 

There are various options for getting there. The Narita Express is a dedicated train however is limited to speeds so as not to compete with the bus service. It also starts late and finishes early so not the best option if you're taking a red eye flight. There are high speed trains but these depart from Nippori, an area of Tokyo that is almost as difficult to get to as the airport itself. There are also the limousine buses (a coach to you or I) that depart from most of the main hotels across the city however these run the risk of being caught in flight missing traffic jams.

And then there is Haneda in downtown Tokyo. For years this was limited to a single international flight to Hawaii but not anymore. A new international terminal and an expanding list of carriers and destinations is beginning to provide a real alternative to the ageing Narita. Even though many of the flights are early morning or late at night, it's easy. And a new line has just been announced that will cut the time from Tokyo station to a very amenable eighteen minutes. I like Haneda. I dread Narita.