More than fare trade: backstreet by taxi

by Kit Nagamura

Special To The Japan Times

A combination of rain showers and tax prep in March signal Tokyo’s segue into spring.

Cherry blossoms are nearly in bud, but cold, damp days of crunching fiscal figures can put people in dour moods. After wandering a wet backstreet, absorbing little more than precipitation, I throw in the towel and hail a green cab home.

The Tokyo Musen taxi driver zips with breathtaking alacrity to the curb to pick me up, and smiles charmingly as I climb in. I set about wiping rain off my cameras with a sigh, when suddenly the driver’s hand appears between the front seats, bearing two little candies in bright yellow wrappers. I hesitate. “Not your usual sweets,” the driver coaxes. “They’re sugar-free, vitamin-packed and taste great.”

In Japan, merchants, airlines and cabs sometimes offer baskets of free treats, but personally vetted health-conscious ones? That’s a first. I take one — a lemon-flavored “Nobel VC-3000” — and give it a try as the driver expertly slaloms through traffic. At the first red light, I catch his eyes in the rear-view mirror. “This candy’s not bad,” I say, “but your driving’s superb.”

“Actually, I’m No. 1 in Tokyo,” he replies, twisting in his seat to look back at me. “Perhaps even in Japan,” he adds, turning his attention back to the road.

Braggadocio or bona fide fact? Either way, Takehiko Kato now has my full attention. “I’m 58 years old, the same age as Tokyo Tower,” he says, “and I’ve only driven a cab for the past two years. I used to run my own company, but the stress gave me a neck hernia, so I changed jobs.”

From among the approximately 120,000 corporate cab drivers servicing Tokyo’s 23 wards, including Musashino and Mitaka, I ask Kato how he assesses himself as the top gun. “Well,” he says slowly, “the core point is that I am No. 1 in terms of kindness.” Oh, I think to myself. That’s nice, but hardly quantifiable.

“I’m proud to say,” he continues, “it’s because of my kindness that I average 50 customers a day, when most drivers take in 23.” I let out a little lemon-scented whistle because that is an impressive figure. Kato hauls out a personal ledger in which he tracks figures at the end of each day, both his and those of other top drivers. “You can see, there are days when I rank only second or third,” he shrugs, “but 50.4 percent of the time, I have the most riders.” Accordingly, his daily fares average ¥80,900, also about double the norm.

“But my primary goal is kindness,” Kato reiterates. “If I focus on making money or being the best, it makes for dangerous and selfish driving.”

Just like that, I’ve found a Backstreet Story in a Backseat Story. I arrange to taxi around Tokyo with Kato, King of the Road, as long as my wallet allows.

Kato obliges me with effortless banter. As we zoom through the neighborhoods of Ebisu and Hiroo, he sings out various sightseeing spots, because, I learn, he’s also a fully licensed tour guide. A three-hour tour with Kato guiding (in Japanese) runs about ¥15,000, including the cab fare.

So I don’t go broke before lunch, Kato parks at a Papa’s Cafe, and stops the meter while we grab almond lattes. Kato has memorized nearly every diner and coffee shop in Tokyo with outdoor terrace space. “You know those little green parking dudes?” he says scowling, referring to the people paid by the city to ticket parking infractions. “They can nab you in less than five minutes.”

After our short break, I learn that Kato has a passion for fashion. He’s a natty dresser, with a nice watch and Tom Ford eyeglasses. In fact, he has a collector’s case full of the iconic designer’s eyewear with him, in lenses and frames that range from professorial horn-rims to Gangnam Style sunglasses. I ask Kato if I can grab a photo of him outside of his cab, and he strolls over to a nearby replica of Michelangelo’s David, where he strikes a similar pose. When Kato confides that he has a Catholic name, Bartholomew, and has converted to the faith, his portrait with the biblical hero seems a little less random.

As we get set to resume our drive, Kato invites me to take the front seat, to keep his neck from cramping as he twists around to talk to me. Without passengers in the back, won’t that look strange, I ask. Kato shakes his head and laughs. “A little odd, but it happens,” he says. “Chinese customers, for instance, always seem to want to sit in the front, so I try to keep the chair clear of stuff.”

Riding shotgun, I learn about Kato’s workday, which begins and ends with a breathalyzer test. He taps the results stapled to his work chart. “Zero alcohol,” he says. Is the test really necessary? He side-eyes me, suggesting I ask myself why there is such a test in the first place.

Part of Kato’s success, I discover, comes from savvy compartmentalization of his 20-hour shifts. The morning hours, from 9 a.m. to noon, he fills with reserved rides. “That’s when people absolutely need to get somewhere exactly on time, so I focus on perfect arrival,” he says, tapping his watch. In the ensuing six hours, Kato targets businessmen and shoppers. “You cannot just float around Ginza,” he says, “but you have to study the season as well as the month, day and store sales, know the usual traffic patterns, and be up on the news of special events.

“Today, for example, we have the ‘Salman Shock,’ ” he quips, referring to the Saudi Arabian monarch’s tour of Tokyo. “All week, I’ve been routing around streets impacted by his visit.”

During the evening hours of his shift, from 6 p.m. until midnight, Kato seeks out businessmen and women eager to get home, and puts in extra effort for the latter. “Everybody knows career women really have it harder than men,” he says, shaking his head. “On top of work, they get saddled with house chores, and if they have children, they’re usually frantic to pick them up from child care on time. I can understand that, and I try to help.”

Finally, from midnight to 5 a.m., Kato picks up pleasure seekers who’ve missed the last train. Some are falling down drunk and, on rare occasions, can even become abusive. There’s no real guarantee of safety for cab drivers, even in Tokyo, Kato affirms. “Both men and women have kicked my seat,” he says, but confides that the driver’s area is reinforced with steel to protect against angry boots, or worse. Kato’s emergency measures include a surveillance camera and a discreet flip-switch that turns his taxi’s roof chochin (lantern) into a red distress signal. He also assiduously keeps enough change and spare bills to offer if a life-threatening situation should arise. “I’d trade ¥20,000 for my life, wouldn’t you?” he reasons.

As we head toward a lunch spot that Kato favors, across the Sumida River, he convinces me that he’s a natural-born strategist. “The drivers that sit and wait in lines, hoping to hit a big fare?” he says with disdain, “they’re passive, more like gamblers than businessmen.” For his part, Kato leaves nothing to chance. He always carries a wallet of bank-fresh crisp bills for making change. In an amenity box, he stores the highest quality pocket tissues available, wet towels and band-aids. He spritzes the cab’s interior regularly with Febreze deodorizer. “Natural Green Mist is the best-smelling one, and I’ve tried them all,” he says.

This reminds Kato of one of his favorite stories. “I picked up four supermodels in Ginza,” he says, grinning at the memory, “and they all piled in and started laughing. I didn’t understand what they found so funny, but here and there I could make out the word ‘Febreze.’ I finally found out that they were the European Proctor & Gamble models for Febreze, from Italy, Spain, France and Germany. They knew the scent well, and were thrilled I was using it.”

When we arrive in Sumida Ward’s Kinshicho area, Kato pulls into a parking lot. We stroll past several magnolias in bloom, and duck beneath the noren curtains at Tempura Tenshige.

Inside, the place has the seating capacity of about two taxis. We pull up stools at the counter, tidily managed by a sweet elderly couple, and order lunch sets from the basic menu painted on wooden slats and strips of paper. In a copper pot, shop master Shige-san prepares Shitamachi-style tempura — ingredients sizzled in sesame-flavored oil, then dipped in sauce — as I admire the nostalgic aqua-colored ceramic ashtray and toothpick holder, a book of matches bearing a seven-digit phone number and a fat goldfish navigating a glass bowl. Before my tempura arrives, Kato has folded my chopstick wrapper into a little holder for the sticks, and before we have finished the delicious meal, he has paid the bill.

How skillfully he trades in acts of kindness, I think, and in the bargain brightens my rainy day.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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