Five small booths stand in a plaza in Konan Hoshi no Koen park near Shinagawa Station in Minato Ward, Tokyo. These modest-looking structures are the gateway to a surprisingly large underground realm.
Beneath each booth is a deep cylindrical space housing a mechanised bicycle-storage device. The five sites can accommodate about 1,000 bicycles.
At the entrance to each booth is a platform where a cyclist can place his or her bicycle.
A door in the booth automatically opens, and the bicycle is quickly taken out of sight. To retrieve the bicycle, the user waves a card with an integrated circuit chip over a sensor. The bicycle is whisked up to ground level in 13 seconds on average.
The service is available from 4:30am to 1:30am. The fee is 1,800 yen (about NZ$23) per month.
The system was first put into use in 1998 by Giken Seisakusho Co., a Kochi-based construction machinery manufacturer whose motto is "Culture on the ground, functions underground."
Including those under construction, there are 43 such facilities at 16 locations across the nation.
The facility in Konan Hoshi no Koen park was completed in 2010. As a result, illegally parked bicycles have mostly disappeared from the area.
Shotaro Yano, leader of the company's underground development section, emphasized the advantage of its construction method by saying:
"Steel boards are inserted into the ground to create a cylindrical shape, and the soil inside is then removed. We can do this in only two months.
"As soil pressure is evenly distributed [thanks to the cylindrical shape], the parking facility is reasonably earthquake resistant. As a carrier device is placed in the centre, the distance the bikes have to be moved is minimised."
The construction cost is about 150 million yen (NZ$1.8m) per unit.
Etsuko Kanda, 60, whose home is a 10-minute bike ride from the park, commutes to work after parking her bicycle at this facility.
"I can park my bicycle literally in an instant. It's very easy as I don't have to push my bicycle up and down ramps. And I feel relief because there is no risk of having the bicycle stolen or being attacked [by someone lurking in a parking lot]," she said.
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