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"The Biggest Vending Machine"
By Darron Davies
Special Correspondent
Car turning

Imagine a ferris wheel. Put cars on it, then put it inside a building. This goes someway towards understanding car park stacking in Japan and how it looks to an Australian eye.

I am in the suburbs of Osaka, Japan – near to the Higobashi Station - and Mr. Masaki Ikeda, a car park attendant and owner, is moving in and out of his booth, keeping an eye on his customers.

It is a concreted area, with turning circles and two doors, like lifts. These open to reveal cars on a revolving hoist.

"I am from Australia," I say, approaching Mr. Ikeda. He senses my curiosity. "Space," he says , thinking through the words , speaking them in broken English.

Mr. Ikeda understands how foreign this building must look to me - the fact that I stop and stare, mesmerized by the rotation of cars.

A customer appears. Mr. Ikeda responds quickly. He receives details from the customer, moves into the booth and pushes a button on the wall.

Immediately a door opens and machinery starts to whir. A revolving carousel can be seen. Cars roll past. Finally the customer's car appears. It is like a huge vending machine, a jukebox for cars.

The customer steps into the lift, into his car, and with guidance from Mr. Ikeda backs onto a revolving turntable. The car is turned and the customer happily drives away.

"The lift holds 30 cars, the other one 34," says Mt Ikeda. "One is for taller cars."

It is an extraordinary piece of machinery, the likes of which I have never seen before.

Small car stackers are making a tiny impact in Australia, particularly in densely populated apartment buildings, yet there is little need for multi-storey stackers.

"There are about 200 of these in Osaka," says Mr. Ikeda. "No problems, only breaks down or needs repair once a year."

Customers appear every few minutes and Mr. Ikeda responds quickly. He is clearly a man who sees his job as a service. He is highly professional, his task to move cars as fast as possible for waiting customers.

The costs are interesting 200 ¥ ($2 U.S.) for 30 minutes for regular cars, 250 ¥ ($2.50 U.S.) for taller cars. Day rates apply for vehicle types: 2000 ¥ ($20 U.S.) up to 2500 ¥ ($25 U.S.). The overnight charge is a flat rate of 1000 ¥ ($10 U.S.)

The costs surprise me , they are less than I imagine. Yet , these machines, no doubt , receive a good return- there must be a quick turnover of cars.

‘It is made by Ishikawajima Harima Heavy Industries, says Mr. Ikeda. IHI is one of the largest manufacturers in Japan specialising in large machinery such as shipping cranes and car parking systems.

I search on the internet for references to Osaka and find a humorous site called 'An Englishman in Osaka.' A reference is made to one of these buildings. Again it is an example of a fascinated foreign eye:

‘Windowless offices are starting to appear on the Osaka skyline in ever increasing numbers. Research has shown that productivity inside these offices is up to 20% higher compared to office buildings with windows. This is thought to be due to the elimination of outside distractions, which can cause a worker to look up from their desk instead of focusing on the job in hand.'

Of course this is tongue in cheek. The building is a car stacking tower – tall and windowless. I must admit I stood perplexed when I first discovered one in Kyoto!

A report by the Park 24 Group - 'Parking Conditions in Japan' , says that parking is increasingly becoming a problem.'

‘There are large numbers of illegally parked cars, especially in major cities. The resulting traffic congestion causes environmental pollution, traffic accidents, the obstruction of emergency vehicles, such as ambulances and fire trucks, and economic losses and has developed into a major social problem.'

Statistics can be fickle , yet , with reportedly over 500 vehicles per 1000 population, and a relatively small area - especially compared to Australia - Japan has serious ongoing issues.

With an estimated 7 million public car park spots in Japan , and a reputed demand for up to 23 million spaces , there is a serious shortfall between supply and demand. This places greater emphasis on car parking systems. It also acts as a deterrent shifting commuters away from cars and into public transport.

This is far removed from my parking experiences in Melbourne, Australia. I simply drive along a freeway – a non tolled section of the Mulgrave Freeway in Melbourne - and visit the enormous Chadstone Shopping Centre. Being one of the largest shopping centres in the country I am offered 9500 free car spaces across a huge sprawling area.

In Australia the car is king. This is partly due to the belief that we have lots of room to move. The infrastructure is geared towards commuting and parking. Car parking systems are generally multi-storyed and spacious.

Walk through any urban area in Japan and you will see a variety of parking systems. There are towers, and systems with titles such as: vertical circulation, multi-level circulation, elevator, elevator slide, plane surface slide, horizontal circulation, and two-storey or multi-storey systems. Many a time, walking through the side streets of Osaka, I would see small car parks with cars stacked above each other. I would stare, trying to work out how that car got up there!

Type the words ‘Japanese car park stacking' into Youtube and you can see a fascination with these car parks: ‘Is that real? I thought it was only in Tokyo drift!' - the movie.

Still, car parking culture in Japan has seen changes in recent years. Prior to 2006 car parking fines were issued by the Japanese police. With the amendment to the Road Traffic Law, fines can now be issued by private companies. This has resulted in less illegal parking and a greater shift and need towards car parking systems.

I enjoy my time talking to Mr. Ikeda. There is an opportunity to chat between the comings and goings of his customers. He enjoys my curiosity, is happy to share this unique piece of machinery, and the excellent service that is his business.

I relish the sophistication of the machinery and the ingenuity in dealing with heavy car use in densely populated areas. A number of companies are designing and building even more elaborate car stacking systems: more for me to stare at and ponder. I am reminded of that childhood fascination with mecanno sets!

It is extraordinary technology that defies the weight of cars. With sophisticated hoisting systems cars are like other objects – easily moved, easily stored.

I look at the cars turning on the turntables, or turning in the stacker. I am mesmerized ,intrigued. Mr. Ikeda converses with the waiting customers.

One could easily feel that this structure is mechanical and sterile – a form of automation that dehumanizes, and simply worships the car.

This is not the truth though. Amongst this turning of machinery Mr. Ikeda strikes up warm conversations.

In a country where one imagines there is little space for cars – and a busy lifestyle precluding interaction – my opinions are shaken. A lot of camaraderie takes place in these mechanical settings. Even as the most sophisticated of technology turns Mr. Ikeda and his customers chat and laugh.

This is a real insight into Japan - how it copes, how it makes best use of the space and time.

Perhaps next time I can speak better Japanese. Perhaps next time I can enjoy driving my car onto a hoist, watching it disappear into the biggest vending machine I have ever seen.

Examples of car parking systems: Japan Parking System Manufacturers Association Incorporated HYPERLINK ""

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Mr. Darron Davies, who serves as a special correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. He is a photographer: and works as a specialist in education supporting creative teaching within schools :






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