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Car-sharing catches on as a cheap and cheerful way to go

by Eriko Arita

Thinking of traveling from Tokyo to Osaka? Take a shinkansen bullet train or fly and it will set you back around ¥14,000. But if you share the costs of making the trip by car, you’ll likely pay half that or less.

Called “car-sharing,” the practice of hopping a lift by arrangement with a stranger is becoming increasingly popular these days, as more and more people warm to a way of getting from A to B that can be much more fun than public transport and, for drivers, a remunerative way to beat the boredom of making a long journey alone.

To make such arrangements, many are now consulting “notteco!” (“Let’s ride!”), a Web site at notteco.jp/ that lists hundreds of people offering or seeking ride-share mates through postings reading along the lines of, “On Sept. 25, from Tokyo to Fukuoka . . . “

To date, according to Turnturtle, the company that launched the site in 2007, 7,000 people have registered as users of its online ride-share matching service.

To truly road-test car-sharing, I decided to travel with a stranger and logged my request — “from Kanagawa to Osaka on Sept. 1, 2 or 3″ — on the Web site. It duly delivered a match.

The driver, who called himself Zen, planned to go to Nanko (South Port) in Osaka from Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Sept. 3. He estimated the cost of gas and highway tolls at ¥15,000, which would be divided by the number of people in the car.

Although I was glad to find him, I wondered whether he would be an OK companion, alone, for several hours. Then I read his profile on the site, in which he described himself as being in his 30s and a driver for 20 years. His car was a 1980s Citroen CX 25 GTi, which he said, “May be old, but I maintain it well.”

Most importantly, though, my anxieties were allayed by the fact that he’d submitted a photocopy of his driver’s license to the organizer. Although Turnturtle doesn’t require its users to submit ID, they recommend it for security reasons.

Reassured, I registered myself as a user and posted a message on the site: “Hi, Zen. Can I join your trip? I haven’t driven for years so I can’t drive your car. Is that OK?”

He wrote back; “No problem, as I was planning to drive by myself anyway. Please join me.”

I signed up.

To decide the meeting place, I sent him another message through the site, including my cell-phone number and e-mail address. Then Zen, whose real name turned out to be Zenji Nagano, mailed to say he would pick me up at JR Fujisawa Station.

To prepare for the reporting side of my ride, I interviewed the organizer of “notteco!” Kenjiro Umemoto, president of Kawasaki-based Turnturtle, said he established the Web site in May 2007 after he experienced car-sharing as a passenger from Munich to Stuttgart in Germany earlier that year.

He said he’d found his ride on the English-language page of a German Web site called Mitfahrzentrale.de, which boasts 700,000 users. That time, the driver was a student from Stuttgart, he said, adding she had never met a Japanese person before, so she wanted to car-share with someone from Japan.

“During the trip I asked her where I should go in Stuttgart, and she recommended the Porsche Museum,” he said. “It was helpful, and I found car-sharing to be fun and reasonable.”

Prior to launching the site, Umemoto said he’d asked the Transportation Ministry about the legality of car-sharing. Officials there told him it is legal if the drivers don’t make a profit from the facility they offer. That way, too, the driver’s insurance also covers any car-share passengers.

Although the company initially tried to charge users for the matching service, few were happy to pay and Umemoto made it a free service in April 2008. Since then the number of users has gradually increased, and in April this year “notteco!” had 4,000 registered users. However, that number hiked to 7,000 after the site was featured on Yahoo! in Japan later that month, according to Umemoto. And during the Bon holidays in August, 500 users posted their driving plans and 100 found cost-sharing riders.

While Turnturtle is not legally responsible for any trouble between users, Umemoto recommends all users submit some form of ID to help prevent any crimes or other problems. “Actually, we have only had two problems claimed by users,” he said, adding that one was because a driver forced his car-share passenger to pay most of the costs. But as the passenger reported the problem on the Web site, the driver has never again tried to use the service.

“Good luck and enjoy your trip!” Umemoto said.

So at 9 a.m. on Sept. 3, I was in Fujisawa — feeling a bit uneasy but also full of curiosity. Before long a a smart car bearing Citroen’s double-chevron emblem rolled up and I asked the driver if he was Mr. Nagano. “Yes I am,” he said with a smile. “Nice to meet you.”

Nagano was a gentleman, that much was obvious. As we headed for Atsugi to get on the Tomei Highway, I asked him how long he’d been driving this car. “Since eight years ago,” he said, adding he had owned another one before this.

“Why do you like this Citroen?” I asked

“I love its design, its comfortable seats, and its hydro-pneumatic suspension,” Nagano said, explaining that when the engine is turned on, the suspension adjusts to the right ride height for the load and ensures a smooth ride even on bad roads.

“This car is a very interesting machine,” he declared as we joined the highway at 9:50 a.m. and cruised along at over 100 kph.

Nagano — who told me he was a physics teacher at a cram school in Kanagawa Prefecture — said he’d found out about “notteco!” through a newspaper article.

“People who share the gas and highway tolls help drivers like me. It’s also good to talk while driving, so I don’t feel sleepy,” he smiled.

The highway was quiet and we arrived at Lake Hamanako in Shizuoka Prefecture around noon. Then, after lunch and another hour’s drive, we joined the Shin-Meishin Expressway at Yokkaichi in Mie Prefecture — where Nagano resumed his ode to Citroen.

“Once when I was driving to Osaka, this car’s engine overheated and I had to go to a Citroen dealer in Nagoya to get it fixed,” he said. “But I believe this car is a lady. Unless I take care of her, she gets in a bad mood,” he laughed.

Fortunately, “she” seemed to be in a good mood that day, and by 2:30 p.m. we were approaching Kyoto. Soon after, I began to feel sleepy and was just thinking about having 40 winks in my comfy seat when Nagano asked me to navigate as we reached the outskirts of Osaka because “she” came equipped with no in-car navigation system.

As I read maps, I’d call out instructions — “Make a left at the Toyonaka Interchange and join the Hanshin 11″ — and amazingly we were soon on the urban beltway of Osaka, as intended. There, signs to lots of unfamiliar towns competed with each other to confuse us, but, as I read the maps and issued instructions, Nagano coolly changed lanes on the busy road. Finally, just before 4 p.m., we got off the beltway and took local roads to the South Port of Osaka, from where my chauffeur would take a ferry to Kagoshima to visit his parents.

“You really helped me by navigating,” he said. “And I felt as if the whole trip was just a few hours because we were talking.”

I felt just the same — and at a cost of just ¥8,500 (half the total of ¥10,200 in road tolls and ¥6,800 for gas), it had truly been a Bon Vayage! In fact it got even better when Nagano said I need only pay ¥7,500, which was half of the total cost he’d proposed on the Web site.

With that first ride-share experience under my belt, I now really understand why thousands of people in Japan — and many, many more in Europe and North America — regularly opt for car-sharing. Certainly, next time I’m set to make a long trip I’ll be checking notteco.jp/ before I shell out for train or plane fares. And as Umemoto of Turnturtle also plans to start an English-language “notteco!” page, many more foreign residents and visitors will be able to save on their travel costs and maybe enjoy an exciting trip with new friends as well.