Photo/IllutrationA signboard in the central Aomori parking lot carries warnings in large text: “Be aware of a special high rate for the Nebuta festival period.” (Provided by reader)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

AOMORI--A man was hit with a 75,000 yen ($675) bill for parking his car near the Aomori Nebuta Festival here after the parking lot jacked up prices to more than 16 times their normal level.

The 24-year-old was among dozens of unwitting drivers who received eye-watering bills for using the lot that is located about 400 meters from Aomori Station and near the route of the float parade renowned for its gigantic “nebuta” lantern sculptures.

Over the festival period, from Aug. 2 through 7, the parking lot managed by Tokyo-based Paraca Inc. set rates at 5,000 yen per hour at all times.

The company said the reason for setting the prohibitively high fee was to deter passing drivers and to save spaces for guests staying at a nearby hotel that it is tied up with. Paraca said it was astonished that so many people did not read the signs that displayed the rate.

The man, from Hiranai, Aomori Prefecture, parked there on the evening of Aug. 4. He enjoyed the night parade, and then returned to the lot to sleep in his car.

The next morning, he was stunned when he tried to drive away and received the demand of 75,000 yen for 15 hours of parking.

The parking lot has a deal with the Hotel JAL City Aomori across the road from it that customers get two hours of free parking if they spend money at a restaurant in the hotel. The man managed to write off 10,000 yen of the fee by spending 1,600 yen on a lunch meal, but he still owed 65,000 yen.

He withdrew cash from an ATM in a convenience store, and stuffed a payment machine with 65 one-thousand-yen notes to free his car from the lot.

During the annual festival, it is always hard to find parking lots in close proximity to the venue.

“I thought I was lucky when I saw the ‘vacancy’ sign, and did not pay attention to the price signboard,” said the unfortunate man.

Being broke, he said he had to cancel a drinking party with an old friend who was visiting their hometown for the summer holidays.

A 45-year-old woman, who is originally from Aomori, was visiting the city from Kumamoto Prefecture in the southern island of Kyushu with her two children.

She parked at the carpark in question on Aug. 5 to go souvenir shopping after driving around for about 10 minutes looking for a space.

She was slapped with a 5,000-yen parking fee when she wanted to leave about 40 minutes later.

“I spent 200,000 yen for us to visit Aomori, and the last memory I have of it is being ripped off,” said the woman.

She added, “I am not surprised if other tourists think they will never visit Aomori again (if they have same experience.)”

The usual rate for parking at the lot in the daytime is 100 yen per 20 minutes, and guests staying or eating at Hotel JAL City Aomori receive some free parking hours.

Paraca and the hotel denied trying to take advantage of the festival and make money from careless drivers.

The company posted notices about the planned rate change in the parking lot from the end of July. During the high-rate period, they placed a total of 12 warning signs and notes on the sign board, ticket machines and payment machines, stating, “Be aware of a special high rate for the Nebuta festival period.”

The increased rate was applied from 11 a.m. on Aug. 2 through midnight on Aug. 7.

However, Muneyuki Joraku, general manager of the hotel, said more than 10 people were “stunned” by the fees and went into the hotel to inquire.

“We thought it would be fine, but obviously there were a number of people who parked there without seeing the signs,” said Joraku. He decided to give a 5,000-yen voucher as a "consolatory gift" to each of the drivers who went in to ask about the charges.

A Paraca member of staff in charge of the parking lot said it was “totally unexpected” to have that many drivers caught in the trap.

“We never tried to rip anyone off,” the staff said.

The employee added that it was the only parking lot in the area to change its pricing during the festival, but denied intending to take advantage of the Nebuta festival.

However, the staff also said the company believed there were some who knowingly decided to park here despite the high rate, because of “the prime location for the festival.”

On Aug. 13, the company revealed in a news release that 76 drivers ended up paying the 5,000-yen-per-hour rate.

According to the release, 315 drivers entered the parking lot during the festival period. Of those, 122 left immediately and were not charged a fee. They are believed to have realized the hiked-up rate and decided to find parking elsewhere.

The rest parked there for a prolonged time, and of those, 117 drivers, who either stayed or ate at the hotel, used fee waiver coupons, and did not have to pay any fee.

Of the 76 drivers who paid, 48 drivers paid 5,000 yen and 23 handed over between 10,000 yen and 25,000 yen. Five people paid more than 30,000 yen, including the 24-year-old man from Hiranai.

The Aomori Nebuta Festival this year attracted about 2.8 million visitors over its six-day period.

(This article was written by Hiroshi Nakano and Daichi Itakura.)