Transport of Delight

Tokyo Life - January 14th, 2000
tokyoweekender_James Bailey

by James Bailey

There are nearly as many ways of seeing the sights in Tokyo as there are sights to see. You can walk, you can ride, you can do it yourself, you can play follow-the-tour-guide with other sheep­like rubberneckers.

But for half a century, for millions of first-time visitors from ‘the hinterlands, the most entertaining and informative introduction to the Japan’s capital city have been provided by Hato Bus, Ltd. Today, the company offers everything from historical structures to transvestite floor shows and the opportunity to dress up like princesses.

Inaugurated in March of 1949, the company’s origi­nal Tokyo half-day course took rubberneckers to two major parks, two palaces and cost ¥250—or nearly 85% of a Hato Bus driver’s monthly salary at the time. De­spite the price, there wasn’t an empty seat to be had.

Fifty years later, offering 39 different daytime courses and 25 at night, Hato buses continue to oper­ate at capacity. Today, a half-day course roughly equivalent to the one that debuted in ’49, costs less than ¥7,000.

Like the trademark pigeon (in Japanese, hato) on the sides of their vehicles, the company is dedicated to reaching destinations quickly and returning home safely. To carry the avian analogy even further, between start and finish there’s no deliberate ruffling of feathers.

With close to two-thirds of its clientele composed of first-time visitors to Tokyo, and with a self-pro­claimed reputation for fashioning itineraries “decent enough to be recommended for ladies,” Hato Bus, Ltd. favors prudence over prurience. Hubba-hubba is most definitely subdued.

Take, for example, a seemingly ooh-la-la nighttime jaunt that features a buffet-style dinner at a leading Western-style hotel, followed by a theatrical revue starring transvestite performers. Realizing that middle-aged women on the tour aren’t eager to broadcast the exact nature of their night on the town to passersby, their guide exchanges her eye-catching uniform for a sober, navy-blue suit and declines to use the brightly colored flag that members of her profession normally wield to keep their charges from wandering off with other tour groups.

By contrast, participants in “Dress Up Tokyo” tours are more likely to let it all—or some of it, anyway—hang out. Introduced five years ago, the consistently popular tour affords women the opportunity go to the Tokyo Bay Hilton, choose from a dazzling array of drop-dead gor­geous bridal gowns, dress up and play princess.

Because most dresses were made to be worn by women in their 20s, older dresser-uppers often must have their commemorative photo taken with the backs of their gowns unzipped. Once the photo sessions are completed, tour members take a cruise around Tokyo Bay.

For armchair travelers, Mitsuyo Chikagawa offers what may be described, with only a slight stretching of the truth, as a virtual reality tour. A former Hato Bus tour guide who retired in 1995 after 35 years on the job, Chikagawa recorded a CD on which she takes listeners on a tour of Tokyo’s most famous sites, using the same descriptive, but deferential, language that was the hallmark of her on-the-job spiels.

Titled “Souvenir from Tokyo: The World of Bus Guide Mitsuyo Chikagawa,” the CD has the potential to reach a fairly substantial presold audience. The total number of participants on Hato Bus tours of Tokyo in the past five years alone is around 3.5 million.