PARK PLACE: If you are driving off base, read this!
You are stationed in Japan for the first time. You just got your government driver’s license, purchased a car at the lemon lot, filed all the proper paperwork and paid road taxes.
And now you’re revved up to drive off base and explore Japan.
But before you put it in gear, have a plan on where you are going to park. Seriously. Parking can be a problem in Japan if you’re not prepared. Or don’t bring enough yen.
You may think that you can get away with parking your car anywhere for a couple of minutes. Unfortunately, that is wrong. Most public roads in Japan are “no parking” zones unless there are signs that say so.
I confess that I have been fined for illegal parking several times in my life.
A couple of years ago, I parked my car in front of a bookstore, bought a magazine and returned within five minutes. Greeting me was a ticket stuck to my windshield. I looked around, searching for a police officer to lodge a protest. There was not a soul on the street. I was gone for less than five minutes!
Days later, a notification was sent to my home from the National Public Safety Commission. I paid a fine of 15,000 yen ($120). Make no doubt about it, parking tickets are a money maker for the Japanese government.
It is very common to see parking enforcement officers (generally two people in green uniforms) walking the sidewalks and backstreets looking for cars illegally parked. And they have no mercy on you. They’ll photograph your illegally parked car, and post a ticket on the windshield within a minute. They’re like ninja.
If the green-uniformed parking police don’t get you, look out for mini police cars trolling about. Police officers (often women) will periodically drive around looking for parking violators. If they find a car illegally parked, they mark a wheel of the car and the road with chalk and come back in five to 10 minutes. When they return to discover the car is still there, they’ll issue a ticket.
But beware, a ticket is not the worst thing that can happen. In many cases, especially on congested streets, the police will put a lock on the wheel well of an illegally parked car and call a tow truck. The owner of the car is responsible for paying the tow truck fee and parking ticket, as well as the cost of storage from where you pick up your car after it’s towed. This can run you close to $400.
Now that I’ve made it quite clear not to park illegally on the street, don’t think for a second that it’s okay to park in unmarked spaces in various parking lots found outside apartment complexes and in neighborhoods. These are reserved spots paid for by car owners.
In Japan, you can’t register your car until you have proof that you have a parking spot for that particular car. So if you live out in town and have a one-car garage and two cars, you have to pay for another parking spot, which can run anywhere between $100-$200 a month or more depending on your location.
Where do I park?
When wanting to park, look for blue or yellow signs with a capital “P” on them.
Supermarkets, shopping malls, restaurants, government buildings and some leisure facilities usually have their own parking spaces. While some are free, many will issue you a card when you enter the parking lot. If you use the facility or shop at the department store, you get credit for your purchases, resulting in a couple hours of free parking. You simply pay at the automated fare adjustment machine located in the lot.
If you can’t find free parking, you’re going to have to fork over some yen. Like in the U.S., there are parking meters on city streets. But, especially in Tokyo, these spots fill up quickly.
But there are many different types of facilities to park, including towers. A lot of foreigners are amazed at the cutting-edge technology used in these parking towers. Your car is driven to the front of the tower, where it is loaded on an elevator and moved electronically. Some of these car towers are 10-15 stories tall and have automated plate-number recognition and cashless payment systems.
There are also parking lots that are underground. You simply drive up to the spot and a car attendant will take your car down on an elevator.
You’ll also find small 100-yen parking lots throughout cities. A lot of these lots are owned by individuals and only have 2-10 parking spots. This self-service coin parking is easy to use and usually open 24 hours a day.
According to Yoshio Yamamura, managing director of Japan Parking Business Association, when you use these parking lots, it is important to know the hourly fares before you actually park your car. Most parking lots only take yen, although some of the latest models accept credit cards and IC cards. But be prepared, if you don’t have enough yen, you won’t be able to drive off.
How to use coin parking lots
1. To park:
When there is a vacant parkiing space, the main sign will read “vacant” (空) or (空車). If all the spaces are occupied, it shows “full” (満車) or (満), often in red letters.
Remember that you pay the fare when you will leave the parking lot. After confirming that the locking flap is lowered, enter slowly into the parking space. Park your car within the lines of the parking space, ensuring that the wheels are in contact with the stopper.
The locking flap will automatically rise within approximately 3 to 5 minutes after you parked the car.
2. To leave:
Make sure to get the right number of your parking spot, then go to the automated fare adjustment machine and press the number. Press the fare payment button and insert the appropriate amount of yen. After confirming that the locking flap has lowered, exit the parking space within 3 minutes. Remember, the locking flap will rise again automatically after 3 to 5 minutes. If you have any problems, contact the call center by using the handy phone installed on the automated fare adjustment machine.
(Source: Japan Parking Business Association)
How much to pay
Fares for coin parking vary depending on the location, day and time. Fares usually start at 100 yen per 10, 15 or 30 minutes. However, in very urban or tourist areas, the fare often goes up to over 1,000 yen per hour.
According to Yoshio Yamamura of the Japan Parking Business Association, the fare rate is determined based on daytime (8 a.m.-8 p.m.) and nighttime (8 p.m.-8 a.m.) Although most of coin parking lots set nighttime fares at two or three times cheaper than daytime fares, there are lots situated on busy streets with bars and restaurants that have expensive nighttime rates.
Parking rates can also differ on weekdays, weekends or holidays. While holiday rates are cheaper than weekdays in most of business and residential districts, parking lots around tourist attractions, restaurants and shopping facilities often have more expensive rates.
Parking on Okinawa
Shoji Kudaka, Stripes Japan
In Okinawa, many facilities such as shopping malls, restaurants or beaches offer free parking spaces to their customers. Given the fact that we don’t have trains in Okinawa, having large parking lots is important for local business owners to draw customers. (We do have a monorail, but it runs only in Naha city.)
However, if you go to Naha or Okinawa City, the two most populated municipalities in the prefecture, pay parking lots are common. You can usually find them a block or so off the main streets. On Saturdays and Sunday, you would see many rental cars with “Wa” or “Re” number plates filling these parking lots, indicating that tourists are having a good time shopping at fashionable stores, or discovering unique local accessories in a maze-like market.
So, if you are planning to explore local scenes in Naha or Okinawa City, especially in areas near Kokusai Street or Gate 2 street by Kadena Air Base, make sure you have Japanese yen to pay for parking. Rates vary from parking lot to parking lot, but 300 to 400 yen for an hour (100 yen for 20 minutes or 200 yen for 30 minutes) is what I see is the average in Naha.
In Okinawa city, 100 to 200 yen for an hour is a common rate. The fees increase every 20 to 30 or 60 minutes. Some of the parking lots offer discounts if you shop or eat at specific places.
As an Okinawan, I have to admit that Okinawa is a place where drivers’ etiquette and road manners are not necessarily the greatest. Sometimes you see cars involved in accidents on busy streets, or drivers forced to take sobriety tests. Since we have many people tourists driving on the streets, you want to pay close attention when driving.
And you also want to pay close attention to where you park. Busy roads like Route 330 have many cars parked on the side, causing traffic congestion. It is commonplace to see people just pull over their cars to shop at stores. There are places like Gate 2 Street that have parking meters on the side of the road, but it is not common. Most streets in Okinawa don’t have space to park your car, legally speaking.
Realistically, there are cases when you need to park your car on side of the road. But please make sure that you do so in a location where it doesn’t cause traffic problems. Use your common sense and avoid parking on the side of a road for a long time, especially if you are on a busy street or in urban areas where there isn’t much parking space. And, this will also help you avoid getting a dreaded parking ticket.