A new rickshaw tour for sightseeing in Asakusa; the launch of an online rickshaw ride that can be enjoyed even during the coronavirus pandemic
Shohei Miura works as a shafu (rickshaw puller), showing visitors around the Tokyo district of Asakusa. Although he had already quit pulling rickshaws before the pandemic, the advent of coronavirus made him want to give something back to the community, so he returned to Asakusa with the idea of a virtual rickshaw tour (guiding online viewers around the area with a camera attached to a rickshaw). He set up an online business as part of the company Fukuroya(Taito-ku,Tokyo) and is now running tours.
Inspiration came from an online drinking party
Mr. Miura left his job as a shafu to work in construction, but ended up with almost no work due to the coronavirus pandemic. The inspiration for the new rickshaw venture came from an online drinking party with his friends. Hoping to return to rickshaw work in some way, if given the chance, he thought, “If I attach a camera to a rickshaw, I can bring smiles to faces all over the world.”
New service designed with unique content such as online routes and effects
Mr. Miura launched his new service in April during the state of emergency, which had left the area around the Asakusa landmark, Kaminarimon Gate, devoid of rickshaw pullers. Mr. Miura began by asking people he knew to use the online tour and, based on their impressions, he made improvements. One such improvement is the route of the tour. On normal rickshaw rides, the back alleys, where visitors can feel the old-town atmosphere of the Shitamachi area, are popular. However, it turns out that this atmosphere does not transmit well online. Therefore, the route was modified to take it past high-impact sights such as Kaminarimon Gate, TOKYO SKYTREE, and Asakusa-jinja Shrine. In terms of online effects and production, he wrote down over 100 ideas in a notebook and chose the best ones. These included using the image of a mask from Kabuki theater to create a particular look when framing in and out.
Launch of virtual tours for paying customers
The online rickshaw service was opened to the public on June 1. To attract as many users as possible, the tours were free to use until the end of August. There were just under 200 users in both June and July. This was a good number, but in August the situation changed dramatically. Social media sites were flooded with posts about the shafu talking enthusiastically to himself while pulling a rickshaw with no one in it. The virtual rickshaw tour also became a hot topic on TV. In just two days, some 700 people made reservations. Mr. Miura thought about limiting the number of tours during the hot summer months. However, to raise as much awareness as possible before September, when a fee would be introduced, he operated six tours a day almost every day.
New customers, such as families and Asakusa residents, discovered online
“It was the hardest time of my life as a rickshaw puller,” Mr. Miura says, recalling his work in August. Even so, comments by users, such as, “I really felt like I went to Asakusa and it was much more fun than I had imagined,” were great encouragement for him. The number of new customers increased, including families that couldn’t leave home due to coronavirus. “The sight of four siblings displayed on the user screen all sitting quietly together left a big impression on me,” he says. Mr. Miura also has customers who live in Asakusa but have never ridden a rickshaw due to the embarrassment of being spotted by someone they know. Furthermore, demand from users overseas has been higher than he expected.
Start-up costs in the tens of thousands of yen; sales up about 1.8 times from before coronavirus
Since Mr. Miura began charging for the virtual rickshaw tours in September, he has offered two tours a day, three days a week. This is so he can devote more time to creating new services. Although there are relatively few tours, daily sales are up about 1.8 times from before the outbreak of coronavirus. Unique to providing tours online is that Mr. Miura can maximize his profits by taking on many customers at the same time. Moreover, the cost of launching the business was very low. Mr. Miura uses his own computer and, as a member of Fukuroya, is able to rent a rickshaw that would cost over one million yen to buy. He started out filming with a smartphone but recently has switched to using a 30,000-yen camera and a 20,000-yen pin microphone. He even made his own e-commerce website with the help of a friend. “If we’re talking only about costs then anyone can get started,” he says.
Create new services and systems in collaboration with other businesses; eventually contribute to regional revitalization
New ideas are already being tried out. These include holding offline parties at temples in Asakusa for those who take the online rickshaw rides and building a system that enables customers to purchase products online from stores that are introduced during the tours. Currently, Mr. Miura has English-speaking acquaintances acting as volunteer interpreters for tour participants from overseas. But he intends to eventually establish a payment structure. He is confident that he can use the knowledge he has gained in Asakusa to contribute to regional revitalization through online rickshaw tours. This is because of what he’s seen happening in Asakusa. Customers discover an area and post on social media. This knowledge spreads around the world and leads to an economic turnaround.
“After giving back to Asakusa,” he says, “I'd like to do online rickshaw tours in cities all over Japan.”