If you ever go to Ikebukuro in the northern Tokyo ward of Toshima, you might see one of these strange contraptions ambling about. Ikebukuro is one of Tokyo’s many “centres” – a high-concentration shopping and entertainment area always heaving with throngs of people. And now, they have a new way to get around.
The Ikebus (pronounced “Ee-kay-bus”) is another one of the many initiatives taken by various Japanese authorities and firms ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics. The idea was to find a distinctive vehicle to focus attention on the Ikebukuro area. On that score, it’s a complete success. It’s impossible to ignore these bizarre red rectangles on the streets.
The Ikebus is strangely reminiscent of the Catbus seen in the 1988 animation classic My Neighbor Totoro directed by Hayao Miyazaki. This is probably not a complete coincidence, since Ikebukuro is the centre of animé culture in Tokyo. That being said, I don’t think the base vehicle, the eCOM-10, was designed with Miyazaki’s input…
The eCOM-10 is a ten-wheeled “low-speed community vehicle” made by Thinktogether Co., Ltd., based in Gunma Prefecture. The eCOM-10, which was developed from the smaller eCOM-8, is a battery-operated AWD vehicle. The eight- and ten-wheel EV bus concept was co-developed with Gunma University, so it’s probably some sort of private-public partnership. The Ikebus itself was designed by Eiji Mitooka, who is more renowned for his work at Japan Railways.
I guess that explains the shape of the Ikebus, making it square to maximize passenger space and completely disregard anything else. This thing is not meant for land speed records, after all. The eCOM-10’s vital statistics make for unusual reading. The rearmost wheel is the only one that doesn’t turn, it seems. Each wheel is powered by a 1.3kW motor. Top speed is 19 kph (12 mph). Wheelbase length is 499.5cm (196.5 in.) and total length is 6 meters (just over 19’6’’, or 3 in. longer than a 1977-79 Lincoln Continental). Passenger capacity: 14 seating down and seven standing. Weight (without pax): just under 1600kg – not bad, compared to the aforementioned Lincoln’s 2400kg.
I’m not 100% clear on several details – nearly all the information out there is in Japanese. One thing I did find out is that this vehicle has an autonomy of just 30km at full clip. Which means the Ikebus can only run for about 90 minutes before it needs to be recharged. Therefore, the two routes served by this bus are very short – about 35 minutes end to end.
And because it needs all the juice it has just to keep going, the Ikebus is devoid of any HVAC whatsoever. Which means that they will not be running during the summer months, when temperatures routinely reach over 35°C (95°F) and the humidity is high. So the 2020 Olympics, if they take place as scheduled (which is perhaps optimistic), will not serve as much of a showcase for our little ten-wheeler.
The Ikebus took its first paying passengers in November 2019. Last month, Thinktogether (sometimes also spelled “Thinktogather”) delivered the final three units to Willer, the operator. This gives us a grand total fleet of … ten buses. They’re all painted red, except #7 – that one is yellow. They call it the “Lucky Seven”. Is that a thing? I thought the number eight was the lucky one. Maybe that’s only in China.
Stops are identified by a big red rectangular sign. Perched atop this watchtower is the bus’s mascot – an owl with a crown, also found on the vehicle itself. Ikebukuro is associated with owl for some reason, so that’s where that comes from. The crown is less obvious. In fact, not much about this entire thing is all that clear yet, but pleasantly left-field. Japan in a nutshell.