National | Regional voices: Chubu

Tokyo-based bus firm brings fresh local produce, as well as passengers, from rural Gifu

Chunichi Shimbun

Highway express buses between the city of Takayama in Gifu Prefecture and Tokyo are being used to transport fresh fruit and vegetables to supermarkets in the metropolis.

As the distribution industry is facing a severe manpower shortage, companies are coming up with new ideas that clear hurdles between passengers and cargo, and enable the delivery of people and goods at the same time.

This benefits farmers because they can promote their products in the metropolis, as well as bus operators because it provides them with a new source of income.

At Kitchen Court Eifukucho, a supermarket within the building of Eifukucho Station on the Keio Inokashira Line, rows of spinach, white leeks, taranome (young buds of angelica trees) and other vegetables fill the fresh produce section with a banner promoting the Hida Takayama region.

The vegetables were grown by farmers in Takayama and were transported using highway express buses operated by Tokyo-based Keio Group.

Since September, roughly 100 kilograms of vegetables have been delivered by bus to the supermarket twice a week.

“I bought their leeks and carrots before and they were very delicious,” explained a 77-year-old housewife as she picked out some shiitake.

The Takayama Municipal Government and Keio began considering the use of highway express buses to transport vegetables after working together on a project to attract foreign tourists.

Highway express buses are allowed to transport cargo of less than 350 kg, so the company does not even have to take advantage of recent deregulation allowing mixed passenger/cargo buses.

They prepared double-layered containers that can block the heat, to keep the vegetables fresh. The containers are kept in the storage compartment generally used by the bus crew, which is under the passengers’ seats.

According to Keio, it is rare to use long-distance highway express buses to transport products.

The vegetables are collected in Tokusenkan Ajika, a farmers’ store in Takayama, and loaded onto a Keio highway bus at around 9:30 a.m. at the Takayama office of Nohi Bus, a local bus operator.

After the passengers get off shortly after 4:00 p.m. at Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal, the biggest bus terminal in Tokyo, the bus then goes to a highway bus office close to the supermarket to unload the vegetables. The next morning, they are placed on display at the store ready to be sold.

According to the supermarket staff, the vegetables are very popular and almost always sell out.

“Hearing that vegetables from Hida are popular in Tokyo motivates me to produce better vegetables,” said Kenji Okada, 70, a farmer who grows leeks, with a smile.

Keio is thinking of increasing the number of supermarkets that will offer vegetables from Takayama and expanding the system to other regions.

Efforts to increase the efficiency of distribution by delivering passengers and cargo together are gaining attention as the industry is suffering from a shortage of bus and truck drivers.

The transport ministry announced a deregulation measure in September, allowing bus operators and taxi companies that acquire a cargo business license to deliver cargo under certain conditions.

Cargo operators are also allowed to carry passengers if they obtain a permit.

The ministry hopes the move will help maintain the transportation and distribution networks in underpopulated areas.

In the Tokai region, Yamato Transport Co., the largest home delivery service provider in Japan, has paired with Gifu-based Nagaragawa Railway Co. to transport products by rail.

In the city of Toyota in Aichi Prefecture, Yamato’s packages are carried by the local Toyota Oiden Bus.

Last year, the Chubu District Transport Bureau conducted a field test using an express bus to carry tourist luggage from a hotel in Takayama to a hotel in the city of Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture.

“With the growth of e-commerce, the amount of cargo transport is expected to continue increasing in the future, so there is a need to boost efficiency in distribution and transportation while gaining the understanding of passengers,” said Hirohito Kuse, professor of Ryutsu Keizai University specializing in distribution system.

“Carrying passengers and cargo together is proving effective also for long-distance transportation such as highway express buses,” he said.

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published April 21.