The Coin-Op Parking Lot, or How to Destroy Your Car’s Undercarriage in One Easy Step

Driving in Japan presents obvious challenges–you know, driving on the left, not being able to read traffic signs, turning on the wipers when you mean to hit the turn signal, and so on. But one of the biggest sources of stress for new drivers in Japan comes from parking the car–specifically at automated parking lots with car-trapping devices.

In the U.S., even big cities offer street parking with parking meters that are usually operated by the city. Unless, say, a city sells off the rights to collect parking meter revenue for the next 75 years for pennies on the dollar (cough cough Chicago)…but I digress.

Here in Japan street parking rarely exists. Instead small, privately-owned parking lots and garages are scattered about. Some of the lots around our neighborhood hold only three or four spots, and I’ve even seen several lots with only one space apiece. The lots’ signs usually include a kanji character that lights up in either green or red to indicate available spots.

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The Single Spot parking lot. So cute!

Here’s how a Japanese lot like this works. You pull in to an empty spot, driving over a metal plate in the lowered position. After a minute or so the metal plate rises up and rests against your car, making it impossible to exit the spot. You go off and do your thing. When you return to your car you pay the fee at the central machine, hopefully lowering the metal plate. Then you run to your car as fast as you can and pull out before buckling your seat belt or turning on music out of paranoia that the plate will rise up again and destroy your car’s undercarriage while you’re pulling out (OK, maybe that last paranoid step is just me).

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The car-destroying metal plate in the down position
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The metal plate in the I Will Destroy Your Car If You Don’t Pay position

Easy enough, right? But here’s where it gets tricky.

The overall concept is the same across these lots, but the details can vary. The steps are always listed on the machine itself–in Japanese, though every once in a while a machine includes English instructions. Some lots issue a ticket for validation at an attached grocery store or restaurant, which means that you have to figure out how to extract said ticket for your numbered spot, get the ticket validated, and convince the machine to accept your ticket and release your car.

Like I said at the beginning–stress.

The first few times Mark and I used these lots it took a really, really long time to figure out the steps, but we did it eventually. With time the whole process got easier, and I started to feel at ease. How could I have ever considered this difficult, I wondered to myself about two weeks ago as I effortlessly paid at a lot that I frequent several times a week.

I’m sure you all see where this is going.

Later that same day I parked in a new-to-me lot at a grocery store for the first time (for you Yokohama locals, it’s the OK! Supermarket on Honmoku Dori near D2). This machine had more steps than I had previously seen and no English anywhere. I started pushing buttons randomly without success, then meekly asked a grocery store employee to help me out. Not surprisingly the employee spoke no English at all, but thankfully another customer helped me out. I tried to memorize the sequence of buttons that he pressed, but I swear it’s never the same way twice. Every time I park there I punch at buttons madly until I randomly hit the right order to release my car. I’m convinced that the parking attendant only looks like he’s directing traffic when in fact he sees me coming and signals to the Parking Machine Head Dude, “Here comes that gaijin driving the orange Cube–change the buttons on the ticket machine again, LOL.”

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The payment machine at OK! Supermarket that hates me. Easy as 1, 2, 3–right? Right?!? Notice the reflection in the machine of my clutching my newly-purchased bag of rice and the evil parking machine ticket.

The whole parking lot thing is really a great analogy for so many things about living in Japan. At first everything is so darned…well, foreign. The simplest tasks aren’t simple at all, and I was completely helpless at first. With time I learned how to complete simple tasks and even mastered them, provided that I went to the same places all the time. But memorizing how to use a particular parking lot (or bus, or train, or grocery store checkout) isn’t mastery at all–all it takes is a slightly different setting to remind me how little I really know. I’m That Person fumbling with the simplest transactions, and the people who help me show such kindness and patience. It’s humbling.

One thought on “The Coin-Op Parking Lot, or How to Destroy Your Car’s Undercarriage in One Easy Step

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