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The new treadmills of health-conscious Japan

It is a dreary January day, as the alarm goes off I contemplate just staying in bed. After hitting the snooze button a few times I acquiesce and roll out of bed. I try to talk Laurie into coming to the gym with me, but she decides to stay in bed and get a few more z’s. I walk out of our bedroom and a blast of winter air hits me. Our bedroom is the only room that we heat during the night and as a result the rest of the house is freezing. As I walk through the hall and into the bathroom I can see my breath. In my mind I struggle with myself, it is so cold that I just want to curl up back in bed next to my beautiful fiancé. But, in the end I convince myself that working out is what I should do this morning. One of the things keeping me committed to going is the fact that I will be warm when I finish. Our gym has a hot, Japanese style bath that I can use at the end of my workout. After sitting in the bath for a few minutes I know I will be warmed to the bone for the rest of the day.

After a light breakfast and a quick check of my e-mail I head out into the cold, rainy, sunless day. I plod through my workout, not feeling motivated to be exercising today. After coming to the gym for ten months I have made a few friends, in between exercises I chit chat with a few of these guys. My limited Japanese keeps the conversations short, but it is a nice break to the training. I finish with my weight training and head over to the treadmills for some cardio. This is for me the most difficult part of the workout, but I am comforted knowing that I can do some taxi watching while running. Normally watching taxis is not at all interesting. But, this is Japan, which means watching taxis is almost like watching art. Before coming to this gym and being able to overlook this spectacle I never thought watching taxis could be so entertaining.

 The treadmills of my gym are on the third floor of a large, grey building. The architect should be fired, the building looks like it is in a constant state of construction. Funding for the construction of the building must have run out and they were not able to put any money towards making the building look aesthetically pleasing. Fortunately, once on the inside things improve. From the third floor the treadmills look out over the train station entrance. This side of the station is a large cul-de-sac. It is a large half circle, almost elliptical, of concrete that funnels the vehicles and people in and then back out to the street. It is a mess of constant activity. Cars, buses, taxis, people, and trains are always coming or going.

 Directly outside of the station entrance is a taxi stand. Watching the process involved at the taxi stand is another example of Japan’s obsession with precision and attention to every detail. There is a little shelter under which commuters can wait for the taxis. But, in Japan no person should ever have to wait for a taxi. If a person had to wait, even a moment, for a taxi, at a mass transportation spot like a train station, that would imply that the country had failed to fully modernize. As a result there must always be three taxis waiting patiently in line for the next customer. In order to ensure there are always three taxis ready there is a staging area, where the back up taxis wait. This staging area is situated about twenty feet from the actual taxi stand in the middle of the cul-de-sac. The traffic goes around the holding area, helping to ensure the taxis’ smooth entrance into the flow of moving vehicles. It is a square section with four painted lanes for the taxis to wait neatly and orderly. Twelve taxis can fit in this reserve area waiting for their turn to pull up next to the stand and be one of the final three eagerly awaiting the next passenger.

 This taxi melee is a well oiled machine, completely organized and carried out. As soon as one of the final three taxis is pulling away with its passengers another taxi is pulling out of the holding area and up to the taxi stand. There is never any trouble as to which car goes next, it is all laid out and followed precisely. I have never been able to figure out how the taxi drivers know who is next. Once a line of three taxis finishes the lead car in another line pulls out to join the final three waiting taxis. It is not always the line adjacent to the line that has just become empty. Sometimes the first of the four lines finishes and then the lead car in the third line begins to pull out. At times it seems chaotic and random. But, there is never any hesitation as to who will pull out, so there must be some sort of procedure, or plan that everyone follows. Maybe as a taxi is pulling into the holding area the driver receives hand signals from one of the drivers in the front of the line, almost like a baseball manager giving signs to his players. Perhaps they have a secret code they must all learn at taxi driving school. I don’t know how they do it, but it runs like clockwork without any mistakes, or hesitation.

Watching this taxi system at work keeps me entertained and helps pass the time. I have seen it twice a week for the past ten months, but it never looses its appeal. On warm days the taxi drivers will get out of their cars and mingle with each other while they wait in line for their turn to pull up to the taxi stand. On a cold day, like today, I only have the cars to watch, though. This taxi phenomenon is seen throughout Japan. Each setup is unique, but at any mass transportation point, usually train stations, there is a taxi stand that is run approximately the same way.

I look down at the screen on the treadmill, there is only one minute left. I am surprised at how fast the time has passed. Trying to figure out the mystery to the Japanese taxi system has kept my mind off of the menial task of finishing my running workout. As the treadmill slowly comes to a stop I step off the machine and out of view of the taxis. I feel good having finished another workout and knowing that the intricate Japanese taxi system will never leave me waiting for a cab.

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