Skytree proves boon to water buses

Tower's allure ups ridership; carriers planning more stations between Asakusa and Odaiba

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

It’s easy to make your way around Tokyo on the subways, buses and trains that cover the capital like a spider web.

But not many people know about another way to get around — water buses. Also known as water taxis, their popularity has grown thanks to the opening of Tokyo Skytree along the Sumida River.

While operators say they saw an increase in passengers last business year when the world’s tallest tower opened, they believe water buses have great potential to attract even more tourists in coming years.

“The opening of Tokyo Skytree has really helped boost the popularity of water buses,” said Koji Sudo, director of the department overseeing the Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association’s water bus business.

The association, affiliated with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, runs three midsize craft that can accommodate around 140 to 200 passengers each between Asakusa and Kasai Rinkai Park in Edogawa Ward, one of the biggest parks in Tokyo.

Cruising along the Sumida River and skirting Tokyo Bay, the association’s boats take people between Asakusa and Odaiba back and forth about seventimes a day and stop at several docks, including in Ryogoku and Hamarikyu.

A ride from the waterfront Odaiba district in Koto Ward to Asakusa in Taito Ward takes about 50 minutes and costs ¥1,100.

Tokyo Cruise Ship Co., a private firm that runs water buses on the Sumida River, said it also welcomed aboard more passengers during the last fiscal year.

The firm has 11 types of craft, some of which can accomodate more than 400 people, that take passengers between Odaiba and Asakusa for ¥1,520.

Tokyo Skytree is located in the Oshiage district near Asakusa.

Before the tower was built, the major destination for water buses was the Odaiba district, home to big shopping complexes and other entertainment facilities. But it was Skytree that really started the ball rolling, even before construction was finished, Sudo said.

When riding the water buses from Odaiba or Kasai Rinkai Park, passengers can see the tower growing bigger as they draw closer to Asakusa.

“A view of Tokyo Skytree from the river is a new tourism attraction,” said Makoto Nakayama, an associate director of Sumida Ward’s industry and tourism department.

Hoping to cash in on the tower’s popularity, Sumida Ward on July 17 opened a new station for water buses at the Azumabashi Bridge, about a 15-minute walk to Skytree.

The dock was originally built to transport people and supplies in case a disaster paralyzes roads in central Tokyo.

Sumida Ward rewrote an ordinance last year to allow commercial use of the dock. As the closest dock to Skytree, it’s conversion is expected to lure more tourists to the water buses.

Fiscal 2012, which ended in March, saw a record 230,000 passengers using the water buses owned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association due to many tourists visiting the Tokyo Skytree, which opened in May 2012.

The numbers for this April to July were down from last year, possibly because Skytree’s newness has warn off a little and because the cherry blossoms came out earlier than usual, but industry watchers still see big potential in the business.

One of the biggest attractions about water buses is the unique view they offer of the Tokyo landscape.

“It’s completely different from what people normally see,” said Sudo.

For locals, there is nothing new about skyscrapers or bridges, but seeing them from water level provides a fresh perspective.

For instance, there are about 10 bridges between Asakusa and Odaiba, each one built in a different style, Sudo said. Passengers can appreciate their architecture as well as the chance to see them from underneath, a view they normally don’t get.

However, increasing the number of passengers going forward won’t necessarily be easy.

First, aggressive marketing efforts are needed to expand the customer base, currently seniors and families, to reach younger people, Sudo said.

He is planning to increase cruise plans for young people and couples.

Increasing the number of passengers in the winter season and other down times will also be a challenge.

For instance, water buses are highly popular in spring when cherry trees along the rivers are in bloom.

He also said it will be important to seek collaboration with people at each dock station to see how they can tie in the water busses with local attractions.