Business / Economy

Highway rest areas get retail-centric makeover

by Asako Takaguchi

Kyodo

Operators of expressway rest areas are refurbishing their sites in often unusual and creative ways to draw customers and increase their earnings.

One operator, East Nippon Expressway Co., redesigned a rest area off the Kanetsu Expressway based on “The Little Prince,” a novella by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery, in 2010.

With its white-walled restaurants, cafes and other shops, and walking path and rose garden, visitors can enjoy an atmosphere reminiscent of Provence, a region in southern France loved by the French aviator/author, at the refurbished parking area.

Various events are held at the Le Petit Prince Parking Area at Yorii in Fukaya, Saitama Prefecture. A 54-year-old woman from Iruma, Saitama, enjoyed touring the rest area with her husband. “It was an experience unavailable at other parking areas,” she said.

While drivers and passengers usually spend about 20 minutes at a service area off an expressway, “many people stay here for two to three hours,” said Akiko Torii, president of the firm operating the Yorii rest stop on behalf of East Nippon Expressway.

“We are happy if visitors can relax here and feel the fairy story’s message, i.e., what is essential is invisible to the eye,” Torii added.

Annual sales at the Yorii rest area have increased 20 percent, according to East Nippon Expressway. The company is planning to open on Dec. 19 a service area off the Tohoku Expressway based on “Onihei Hankacho,” a popular series of stories by Shotaro Ikenami about Heizo Hasegawa, the head of the samurai police who cracked down on arson-robberies in Edo, as Tokyo was known during the Tokugawa shogunate.

The Pavarie Biwako Otsu commercial complex was opened by West Nippon Expressway Co. at its Otsu service area in Shiga Prefecture off the Meishin Expressway in April. With a total floor space of some 3,000 sq. meters, it is like a department store, offering a wide variety of products as well as restaurants, including 551 Horai, an outlet of a popular pork bun restaurant in Osaka.

Lake Biwa, the biggest freshwater lake in Japan, and Mount Hiei, where Enryakuji, a well-known Buddhist temple, is located, can be seen from a viewing platform on the third floor.

An official at Kintetsu Corp., the operator of Pavarie, said an increasing number of people are visiting the commercial complex “to spend time eating and shopping just like at a department store.”

Expressway companies, which were privatized in 2005, are focusing on earnings from parking areas as they spend toll revenues to repay debts and maintain highways. The trend of creating more attractive service areas is expected to continue.

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