Having your luggage stolen or losing it while traveling can easily ruin a trip, but dragging bulky baggage around crowded tourist spots can hijack your itinerary, too.
The latter is more likely in Japan, especially in major destinations like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto where the tourism boom is making the task of finding a vacant coin locker a major challenge for domestic and international visitors alike.
The problem has sparked the rise of digital platforms aimed at helping travelers go hands-free by matching them with providers of storage space.
Picture yourself elbowing your way through Tokyo’s famed Shibuya scramble crossing — said to be the world’s busiest — while toting heavy suitcases after failing to find an open coin locker.
This scenario could easily occur during this year’s extended Golden Week holiday from Saturday to May 6 as Japan marks the Imperial succession and the start of a new era Wednesday.
Japan’s leading travel agency, JTB Corp., projects that 24.01 million people will be traveling around Japan during the 10-day period.
This scenario is likely to happen again in late May, when Japan will host U.S. President Donald Trump, bringing deja vu to those who were inconvenienced when lockers in and around the capital were shuttered for security reasons during Trump’s November 2017 visit.
Tokyo-based Ecbo Inc., operator of the nation’s first platform connecting travelers with baggage storage establishments, hopes the service can help tourists travel with ease.
“I thought it would be cool to create a platform that allows us to have our belongings stored and to take them out only when we need them,” said Ecbo chief Shinichi Kudo, 28.
Kudo said the service represents the first step toward addressing one of the most daunting challenges of travel: how to handle one’s belongings and time.
Kudo launched the Ecbo Cloak service in January 2017, allowing travelers to store luggage for up to a few days at more than 1,000 facilities including coffee shops, beauty salons, karaoke parlors and even shrines, in major cities from Kyushu to Hokkaido. For a fixed price ranging from ¥300 to ¥800 per item, travelers can book storage space via smartphone or the firm’s website.
In Tokyo, for instance, the service is available at Shinagawa, Tokyo, Ikebukuro and Ueno stations on East Japan Railway Co.’s Yamanote Line, and the number of participating firms and organizations is growing daily, he said.
The app is available in Japanese, English and Chinese, and users can communicate with storage providers via screenshot or QR codes with their booking information.
Ecbo estimates that foreign travelers account for around 70 percent of Ecbo Cloak users and that thousands have used it so far.
Kudo came up with the idea for the platform in Tokyo in August 2016 after encountering a foreign traveler on the streets of Shibuya desperately searching for a locker in the neighborhood that would be spacious enough for his extra-large bag.
“We spent 40 minutes wandering around Shibuya, to no avail,” Kudo said.
He said the incident sparked his interest in luggage problems across Japan, leading him to discover that there are about 1,400 coin lockers in Shibuya but only 90 suitable for extra-large luggage.
Based on the firm’s own findings, Kudo estimates there are roughly 220,000 lockers nationwide but that 300,000 more are needed to meet demand. Kudo has concluded that some 176,000 people face difficulty finding space for their belongings every day, he said.
He believes the emerging storage services are a response to changing travel habits, as more people drift away from tours organized by travel agencies and schedule independent trips, keeping their heavy bags at their sides.
Named Ecbo Cloak, the platform proved a hit with tourists in 2017 when most coin lockers in and around Tokyo’s major stations were sealed for Trump’s visit, according to the company.
Although luggage storage services are available at train stations or hotels, travelers are usually required to complete time-consuming paperwork or to line up to leave their gear.
Kudo aims to improve the process so travelers can focus on exploring and take advantage of other services provided by Ecbo’s partners, such as getting a haircut at an affiliated salon. Ecbo and the participating firms split the profits equally.
Other companies are rushing to address Japan’s luggage storage challenges ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as well.
Travelers familiar with popular room rental service Airbnb may have heard about monooQ, which in Japanese sounds like mono oku, meaning “to store.” This company links people looking to store items with those who can offer space in their homes.
At the airports, JTB, together with electronics giant Panasonic Corp. and parcel company Yamato Holdings Inc., have taken Japan’s rapid baggage delivery service, known locally as takkyubin, into the smartphone age by letting travelers preregister for door-to-door delivery straight to their hotels. The luggage service, which dispenses with paperwork by using QR codes, is offered as an option on JTB tours and is now available in languages including English, Chinese, French and Thai.
Kudo, who was born in Macau but grew up in Japan, is preparing to take his digital cloak room portal worldwide within a year.
“By 2025, I’d like to expand Ecbo Cloak’s system to 500 cities around the world,” Kudo said.
“But further, I’d like to introduce something more futuristic — a delivery app that would enable travelers to have their luggage sent to wherever they want, with just one click,” he added. “And in 2025, I envision people around the globe using such an app to stow their luggage and have it delivered to any place on the globe they wish.”