Visiting The Motherland: planning a car enthusiast trip to Japan
Even if you are not a fan of Japanese cars, every car enthusiast has to make at least one trip to Japan. Among the rich history, beautiful landscapes, and vibrant food culture, Japan also hosts one of the biggest car scenes in the world. Tuners, Bippu [VIP], American Muscle, exotics, you name it: Japan has it.
I myself have been to Japan four times; three of which were car-focused trips. There is a reason why I keep on coming back: there is always something happening car-related in the country, that one trip is not enough to see everything.
While now is not ideal for any travelling around the world, there is still plenty of time for you to plan out your future trip to one of the best tourist destinations in the world. To assist, here are a few tips to consider when putting together an itinerary.
This is most important: when do you want to go to Japan? Do you want to mainly focus on car-related activities, or do you want to mix it up with some exploration and sightseeing?
Take note of the calendar of car events in Japan if you want to attend them. Generally: Tokyo Auto Salon is always in mid-January. Osaka Auto Messe is in the following month. Wekfest typically makes a stop in Nagoya the first week of May, whereas StanceNation Japan varies in prefecture and dates. As for racing and drift events, research their respective websites to pinpoint at what time they are expecting to stop in Japan. Keep an eye on Facebook events and Instagram as well, on any major car festivals too: like Nismo Fest at Fuji Speedway.
Also, note down how the climate will be during your visit; not only to pack accordingly but avoid a discomforting trip. Avoid the summer months from June-August: Japan can reach up to 100 F (40 C) and maximum humidity, it is not worth enduring the heat during that time of the year to explore Japan. On the other hand, if you are not used to snow or colder climates, it is best to avoid Japan from late November to February (unless you plan on going to the ski resorts in Hokkaido or northern Japan).
Will you be expecting to drive around Japan a lot? Only for a few days? A few hours for a day trip?
In Japan, rental cars are more affordable and abundant, compared to renting one in the States or Europe. The best value for money choice, from past experience, has always been Toyota Rent a Car. Aside from being the most reliable cars available, they have plenty of locations around Japan at airports, train stations, near hotels, or popular tourist spots. Other options to consider include Times Rent a Car and Nissan Rent a Car.
For most, a compact like a Corolla or Vitz (Yaris) will be enough to get around. Spend a little more to get a hybrid version or a Prius, and you’ll have the bonus of great gas mileage for those road trips. A little more above that will get you a JDM exclusive, RWD sedan: a Mark X or if money is no object, a Crown/Crown Athlete. A Hiace or Alphard will easily accommodate big travel groups; luggage included. (The Kei-cars are tempting to get a taste of JDM motoring, but not recommended for long motorway journeys; stick to urban driving for them).
If you are looking for something more fun to drive and can spare a few extra yen: check out Omoshiro Rent a Car. From FD2 Type Rs to WRX STIs, and even some noteworthy JDM legends in their fleet, Omoshiro is the best enthusiast-choice in regards to hiring cars. They also have an office conveniently located next to Narita Airport: perfect to make pick up and drop-off a breeze.
Don’t forget to budget for tolls! All Japanese rental agencies offer the option of ETC (Electronic Toll Payment) for your car if you want to avoid paying tolls manually via cash and seamlessly go through the ETC lanes at each toll booth. Through this, the rental agency will calculate how many tolls you used, and give you a bill for it all when you return the keys. If you have a tight budget, plan your journeys accordingly to avoid facing a hefty bill purely for toll roads.
Nevertheless, no matter what your budget, needs, and personal preference, you’ll easily find a JDM rental that fits perfectly.
If you do not plan on driving at all in Japan, the public transport systems will do the job just fine. Don’t forget Japan’s bus and subway systems are some of the most efficient in the world. The same goes for going from one end of the country to another: the Shinkansen [Bullet Train] will get you there in no more than a few hours, and in some cases, be cheaper than if you drove.
Two chain stores in Japan will be your best friend if you want to look for parts: Up Garage and Super Autobacs.
UpGarage is a second-hand parts retailer that carries everything from bumpers to stereo systems for any car you can think of: exclusive to Japan or foreign. They also take the time to refurbish the parts for their new homes: in some cases, they may be in better condition than when they first arrived, and for a far better price too. You can’t pass up deals like those when it comes to getting JDM-exclusive parts.
To save time: use UpGarage’s online retail website, Croober, to look up parts and see which store they are located at. You can then check if the store is within the distance of your current location (or along the way), and plan a route to stop by. Even better, you can make a road trip out of checking stores back-to-back: just make sure your rental car has enough space for them all! The website also gives you detailed information about the part: its condition, clear images, and the price upfront, so you do not have to waste time going to one store, only to find out it's gone, not worth the money, or out of budget.
Super Autobacs meanwhile, is your one-stop-shop for Japanese market accessories. Whereas your familiar Autozone or O'Reilly's AutoParts might have a small selection of mirrors and air fresheners; here, they can take up to half of the store’s inventory. The possible accessories you can find in any single store is literally hard to put down on paper. Even the smaller branches can have a collection that is miles above your typical O'Reilly's.
The biggest one of them all, SuperAutobacs in Tokyo Bay has recently been transformed into more than just an accessories store. Along with the usual array of car tools and accessories, it is also a bookstore, cafe, and travel gadget store now. If you love to collect Japanese car magazines and other related literature, especially the HyperRev issues focusing on a specific make and model of car (and listing the entire aftermarket catalog for said model), this is the place to go. Sticker hounds can also get their fix of Japanese car-themed decals at these stores too.
Aside from these two franchises, junkyards are also a good source for parts. Forget average Japanese souvenirs like the exclusive KitKats or plushies: you could walk away with a JDM-exclusive front grille or spoiler! The arrangement is what you will be used to at your pick’n’pull: bring your own tools, take whatever you want, and pay for it at the office.
If language can be an issue, especially when trying to negotiate with junkyard owners, one of the more English-friendly ones can be found in the Northern part of Japan; specifically, the Misawa prefecture (and right in front of the Air Base): Tommy’s Junkyard. Hitting up a junkyard can be hit-or-miss depending on what’s available, but it could be worth the trouble.
There is no doubt you have to stop by at least one car meet in Japan during their stay. Aside from pop-up ones announced on social media, if you cannot read kanji or do not have any contacts to give you a heads up on when things happen, here are three main hotspots to keep in mind: all located within Tokyo city.
Akihabara + Akihabara UDX night meets
The main territory of super-geeks, otherwise known as the ‘otaku’. Aside from the maid cafes and arcades, Akihabara has plenty of car action after hours. The underground parking garage at UDX typically has some meetups Friday nights. If ‘itasha’ culture is your thing, you are bound to encounter some here.
Out on the street, you can also encounter some more ‘deko-car’[decorated cars] and modified cars parked curbside. Occasionally, a unicorn (say, a Delorean?) may pass through as well; keep your eyes peeled and cameras ready.
Daikoku and Tatsumi Parking Area (PA)
If you ever played Wangan Midnight or watched those videos of Japanese street racing on YouTube, the words ‘Daikoku’ and ‘Tatsumi’ might be familiar. While the days of the Mid Night Club are now gone, Daikoku Parking Area [PA] is still known worldwide as the ‘go-to’ place for car culture in Japan. Whatever your car passion maybe, you’ll likely find it parked at Daikoku.
The best times to go are on Fridays or Saturday/Sunday nights. If you can wake up early enough, Sunday mornings also attract groups out for morning drives, especially supercar clubs.
To access either, you will need a car or get a ride there: considering Daikoku is on an artificial island out in Tokyo Bay. Accessing it by a bus is impossible, and a taxi will be awkward to turn up in (hence, the case for hiring a car for a day or a few hours). Tatsumi PA is right down the road from Daikoku, and while smaller, still attracts plenty of cars. (It also serves as a backup spot for those that get kicked out of Daikoku when the police kick everyone out for the night).
By day, Shibuya is Tokyo’s prime shopping and business district. By night, it turns into a hub for nightlife and spontaneous meetups from car and bike enthusiasts. It is not uncommon to see supercar owner groups meet up weeknights on the roadside, or bikers to cruise through the famous intersection in front of the Hachiko statue.
The whole district is alive around the clock, and much of the car/bike meetups happen in the latter part of the evening/early morning; ideally, spend a night checking out the shops and grab something to eat/drink in the area, before catching one of these random meets. If you’re lucky, you might catch some Japanese lowriders hopping through.
And, you might also see those real-life Mario Kart tours out for a drive too.
I could go on with more tips, tricks, and pointers over my past travel through Japan. I have not even gotten to where to find the mountain roads any Initial D fan dreams about driving on, some of the best Japanese car museums worth visiting, or the best way to explore Hakone and Mt.Fuji (hint hint). But I’ll delve into them separately in their own blog posts.
Hopefully, this helps you get started thinking about how to plan out your dream car-themed vacation to Japan!
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