Smile for the bus

Posted by in Mike's blog

Living in Fukui is a wish come true.

For years, I have wished for the opportunity to live in a city where cars are not required, and now my wish has mostly been granted. Japan is known for its extensive and efficient public transit systems. If we were in one of the big metropolis cities, there would be no questions about whether we would get a car or not. In Fukui…most people drive. So many people drive that as of this past Friday I don’t think we know anyone else who does not drive everywhere.

For a city similar in size to Kitchener, the city we lived in Ontario, Fukui’s public transit system is years ahead. Busses and trains seem to be extremely punctual, the drivers are so courteous we don’t know what to do, and the seats, shelters and walls are all free of graffiti, gum, trash and mess of every kind. I think I could eat a meal off of the floor of a Fukui bus. At first the network seemed complicated, but that was in large part due to the language barrier. There are 4 different systems (that we know of) that converge to serve most areas of the city:

1. The smile bus (pictured above) is also called the “community bus”, and has 4 lines that cover a lot of Fukui city. Red, grey, green and blue smile busses travel in north, south, east and west loops – only in one direction (either clockwise or counter-clockwise depending on the route). Unlike every other method of transport, a ride on the smile bus costs 100en regardless of the distance traveled. Smile busses usually come every 30 minutes.

2. Keifuku busses seem to be designed mainly for intercity travel in Fukui prefecture, but there are some local routes as well. The stops are further apart, and the intercity routes have stops in Fukui city on the way to and from wherever the final destinations are. Passengers board these busses in the back and take tickets from a machine. These tickets have numbers that correspond to places of departure. The cost of a ride depends on the distance travelled, so when I get off Keifuku busses I put my ticket and whatever my fare is in a machine beside the driver and then I exit at the front. There’s a screen that displays prices so I know how much to pay. Unfortunately, many of the Keifuku busses have sporadic and unpredictable schedules.

3. The Echizen trains are the easiest way to get around, and it’s my favourite. Trains go from Fukui station on 2 lines toward either Mikuni (north) or Katsuyama (east). In Fukui city, the stops are very close together, sometimes as close as 500m. If we miss the Echizen train, we tend to walk…but we don’t miss it often because these trains come like clockwork every 30 minutes, every day. Like the Keifuku busses, the cost of a ride on the Echizen railways is calculated based on the distance travelled. Most of the time, Echizen trains use a single car. During rush hour…2 cars. It’s a fun way to get around.

4. Fukutetsu trains operate on a light transit railway system. They serve a few stops north of Fukui station, but the network expands south toward Takefu, it covers area that the Echizen railway doesn’t. Since we live toward the northwest part of Fukui city, Fukutetsu trains don’t go anywhere near us. We haven’t had the need to ride on one yet.

Earlier I wrote that my wish to live in a city where cars aren’t required had mostly been granted. There are some downsides to this lifestyle choice. Because of where we live in Fukui, we have 4 choices for transportation if we want to go to the Fukui station/downtown area: We could walk 1500m to the nearest smile bus and pay 100en but travel 1/2 of the loop before we get to Fukui station, we could walk 1500m to the nearest Echizen train station and pay 200en, we could walk 1700m to the 2nd closest Echizen train station but only pay 150en, or we could walk 550m to the closest Keifuku bus stop (IF there’s a bus coming) and pay 230en. All of those prices are one way, per person. By the time we get home, the choice to take the smile bus as opposed to the other options saves us just over 500en.

More importantly, if it’s raining all of our choices involve getting wet. Cars are convenient because they can be faster, but they are more convenient because they are giant moving umbrellas. On rainy days we are very thankful for our generous friends who offer us rides! Without good friends that can help us when we are in a pinch it would be near impossible to live car-free in Fukui. We might end up having to get a car someday if our situation changes, but for now the car-free life really is a dream come true.