I Moved To Tokyo To Chase Cars, And It Has Been Completely Worth It
Photography by Ken Saito
I never imagined living in Japan. Growing up in the middle of Middle Earth (New Zealand), the perpetually sci-fi-like neon of Tokyo seemed like an address on the other edge of the universe. Even the car scene was a completely foreign thing to me. The closest that my corner of rural Canterbury got to JDM was a handful of beat up Skyline GTS-Ts and a few suspicious Mitsubishis with crooked Evo badging.
I had visited Japan a couple times before moving there, but only for short periods of time mostly spent visiting relatives and doing the typical touristy things—I never went for anything automotive. That all changed when I was accepted to do a one-year student exchange at Waseda University back in 2015. I was eager to start exploring, so I landed in December even though my first semester would begin in March.
The timing was perfect, as I was able to attend my first major car event in Japan, one of the most famous to foreign enthusiasts like myself: the Tokyo Auto Salon, or TAS. This was sort of like a crash course in the contemporary Japanese tuning scene. My first taste of the modified cars from the nation that’s perhaps best known for tweaking its automobiles, it was an eclectic mix to say the least. A lineup of endless creativity, some hilarious modifications, and the attention-to-detail that the place is known for. Some of the work is of staggering quality, while other projects seem like they were put together for a laugh. Both ends of the spectrum have something to keep your attention beyond the first glance for one reason or another.
Before going to TAS, I was very supercar-centric. I didn’t give much attention to most Japanese cars, particularly modified ones—after seeing everything here, I quickly realized that I just hadn’t been exposed to the right stuff in person to create that spark. I had some appreciation for Japanese sports cars from the ‘90s and early ‘00s thanks to my obsession with the Gran Turismo games, but to see how much else exists beyond Supras and Skylines was enlightening. Of course, a clean GT-R will always get my attention.
Immersing myself into the local car scenes in Tokyo was a little difficult initially, though. I didn’t know anyone here, and none of my friends at the university were interested in cars. The first couple of months were mostly spent exploring different places around the city to see if there were any interesting cars around. A bit of a scattershot approach, but it wasn’t fruitless and I quickly found out just how many cool machines were driving around this insanely dense city on a regular basis. I began photographing all the cool cars I saw on the road as a pastime of sorts, but I had never really pursued photography otherwise.
The diversity of what I saw in Tokyo encouraged me to bring out the camera more often, and the content—from pristine first-generation Honda NSXs, Delta Integrales, to 993 Turbos—meant there was always something worth shooting. It was around this time, after I started posting my street car findings on social media, that my Instagram account started to grow. Thanks to the power of social media I got a message from Suga, a local photographer, and a YouTube car channel soon after. Say what you will about these platforms’ effects on the way we live, it was a welcome opportunity to expand my in-person experiences.
Suga pointed me in the right direction to take advantage of Tokyo’s auto ecosystem beyond my happenstance encounters. First and foremost, he told me about the meets at Tatsumi and Daikoku Parking Area, both places that you’ve probably seen before if you’ve ever read a “look at these wild Japanese cars in a parking lot” article before. After my first visit to these places in real life rather than through a screen, I was hooked. My schoolwork took a back seat for a little while as I began to attend any and all car meets that I could—but then again, most study abroad programs aren’t really about holing up in the dorm with your textbooks.
Over the course of that year I gained a new perspective on and appreciation for the modified scene. I love seeing the manifestation of all the time and effort these guys were putting into their cars, and the welcoming nature of the people in these circles made it easy to have a good time at these meets once I found them. There was no discrimination, all cars and people were treated with respect. It didn’t matter if you showed up in a McLaren or a Silvia, it was more based on a love for cars than huddling off in a corner like some school yard clique. There are car clubs of course, but no animosity between them, no Calvin peeing on Rival Brand’s logo either. It was all very polite, even if a few of the cars are guaranteed feather-rufflers.
Highlights of my first year included going to my first Tokyo Motor Show in 2015, meeting all the various car groups and clubs including CarGuy, Morohoshi, and Anija, as well as visiting all the various brick and mortar shops and museums around the city. Going to my first Hanyu End of Year meet (the most recent version of which I reflected on last month) made for a memorable weekend, but the standout moment of my first year in Japan was the Bingo Sports track day at Fuji Speedway. To this day it remains one of my favorite automotive events anywhere in the world.
I returned, reluctantly, to New Zealand to finish my degree afterwards, but the I kept thinking about going back to Japan as soon as I could. I didn’t know what I’d do once I got there, but I would figure that out when it came time to figure that out. So, a few months after I finished my degree I packed my bags and moved to Tokyo. I didn’t have any jobs lined up, but was determined to stay for as long as I could.
I knew there was a general lack of English car content coming out of Japan on a regular basis, so I figured with the friends I’d met in the scene I could try my luck at that. Armed with a phoneful of contacts and a budding knowledge of the local scenes at this point, I began to travel around the country nearly every weekend.
During that first year living in the city as a civilian instead of a student, I attended the Suzuka Sound of Engine, La Festa Mille Miglia, the McLaren Track Day at Fuji, Ferrari International Cavalcade, and the first Pagani Touge Run in Japan. I was also invited to several supercar debuts, including the Japanese premieres of the Aston Martin Valkyrie, the launch of the Japan-special Ferrari J50, and the launch of the Japanese-spec Koenigsegg Agera RSR.
Having lived here for the past few years now, I’m continually amazed at the variety of what you can find here (three-wheeling low riders one weekend, Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari F1/87 the next), and constantly reminded of the fact that the more I see, the more I realize I’m not seeing. I’m going to keep exploring the mountain passes, the claustrophobic garages, the parking lots, the circuits, the loop lines, and everything else I can get my lens on. I’m hoping that I can give you a few reasons to come over here for a visit of your own.