Photo/IllutrationAn overseas visitor looks glum as all coin-operated lockers at JR Akihabara Station in central Tokyo are full. (Takeho Morita)

  • Photo/Illustraion

The coin lockers are full, and the weary foreign visitor has no choice but to lug heavy suitcases across town while catching up on last-minute shopping.

It's an all-too-common sight. But help is at hand as new services come into play that are intended to make life easier for tourists, with the expectation they will spend more on souvenirs--thereby generating revenue--if they are not encumbered with luggage.

Travelers have long been able to send baggage direct from airports to their hotels and elsewhere if they are able to fill in forms in Japanese.

From January, an app will allow them to do so in the language of their choice and in the comfort of their own homes before they leave for Japan.

STORAGE SPACE

The area around JR Akihabara Station in central Tokyo is invariably busy as it is a must-see location for aficionados of “Cool Japan.” The 10 or so coin-operated large lockers on the station's first floor are nearly always full, which means there are often tourists strolling around with suitcases in search of empty lockers.

The locker shortage is due mostly to a rapid increase in trips by individual travelers, who now make up more than 70 percent of overseas tourists, up more than 10 percentage points from three years ago.

The overall number of foreign visitors has also risen sharply, and continues to do so.

Unlike group tourists, individual travelers have to keep an eye on their baggage. Areas in train station complexes are limited, which explains the limited number of coin lockers.

The government has set of goal of attracting 40 million foreign visitors by 2020.

If, as Tokyo expects, long-stay visitors with fatter pocketbooks account for a larger proportion of all foreign tourists, cities and towns across Japan can expect to see more foreigners trailing suitcases through their streets.

Municipalities with well-known tourist sites have begged for some respite.

An exasperated Kyoto city official summed up the situation facing areas of historic interest by saying, “Buses and trains already packed with residents are getting even more crowded.”

The plea did not land on deaf ears. Travel agency JTB Corp. has teamed up with parcel delivery operator Yamato Holdings Co. and electronics giant Panasonic Corp. to develop an app that enables travelers to arrange for their baggage to be shipped to and from airports to hotels and other facilities on the day they requested for delivery. The service is due to start in January.

Given that form-filling in Japanese poses a kanji challenge for many foreign visitors, the app is in multiple languages.

SPENDING MORE

To say the delivery system planned by JTB, Yamato and Panasonic has a hidden objective might sound cynical, but one aim is to free tourists from their luggage so they can more easily browse shops and make purchases.

“Burdened by heavy baggage, visitors from overseas are forced to visit fewer tourist spots and buy fewer souvenirs,” said Hiroki Furuno, an executive at JTB.

Parcel deliverer Sagawa Express Co., budget ticketing travel agency H.I.S. Co. and other firms have also set up new bases to allow overseas tourists to fill in forms in other languages to send their luggage from train stations and sightseeing spots.

In January, ecbo Inc., a Tokyo-based start-up company, started introducing beauty salons and restaurants with unused space so visitors can store their baggage--for a small fee. It said 400 outlets in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, Okinawa and other prefectures are offering space.

The venues can be accessed in multiple languages on the firm’s app. Storing a large suitcase costs 600 yen ($5.35) a day.

“Both the numbers of registered users and storage sites are rising daily,” said Kanako Tsuji, a public relations official of ecbo. “We hope to expand the service to local areas.”