Newly licensed in Japan, Alex and I were ready for our first test-drive. And what better way than a real-life Mario Kart adventure through the streets of Tokyo? That’s right, with less than three minutes of instruction and dressed in ridiculous costumes, we zoomed around Japan’s capital in tiny go-karts, bobbing and weaving our way through the thick traffic. A pretty cool way to celebrate Festivus!
Evidently the Japanese have no problem with miniature racecars driving in and amongst regular commuters. You can rent these go-karts by themselves for an hourly rate. Or you can get a package deal, as we did. Companies like Tokyo Gaijins (meant for ex-pat English-speakers) offer costumes, photos, and an experienced guide to lead your go-kart adventure. And yesterday, they also offered ten minutes of fame. Turns out, a Japanese TV station wished to do a feature on the event, and we were the chosen group. They interviewed us, rode alongside the go-karts in a taxi to film the experience, and even attached GoPro’s to our vehicles for live-action shots. (When the feature airs, I’ll be sure to post it!)
But back to the story…
We met outside the Akhibara Station in Tokyo where our lovely guide, Birte, walked us to our final destination. There, on a crowded street in the middle of Tokyo’s famous electronics district, a narrow driveway led into a dimly lit basement garage. Exhaust fumes hung in the air and the men leading us looked like they had stepped out of any popular street-racing movie. However, instead of tricked-out Toyotas, this garage was filled with more than 50 pint-sized go-karts.
After signing our lives away via unintelligible Japanese liability waivers, we were asked to choose a costume; anything from Santa Claus to Superman. And frankly, that was the hardest part of the day. What should we pick?
My friend and I decided to be the iconic Mario and Luigi brothers in homage to our childhood, and her husband chose Santa Claus – ‘tis the season, after all. But Alex was very undecided. He tried on various options until settling on Cookie Monster (or is “Veggie Monster” his new PC moniker?). Although my husband has a certain affinity for chocolate chip cookies, he chose it not so much for personal preference, but warmth! We all wore jeans, boots, sweaters, and coats under our costumes, but it was still freezing! Alex was the only one who was warm and cozy below layers upon layers of blue fuzz.
And then, off we went! Decked out as our characters of choice, we pulled out on the main streets of Tokyo and took a ♬three-hour-tour♬ of the sights. Of course, as it turns out, we –were- the sight! While it may be legal to drive these contraptions in the crazy traffic of Japan, it evidently isn’t a common sight. Tourists and locals alike waved and took pictures. Many would ask for a selfie with us while stopped in traffic. And they would grin from ear to ear when we would offer up the cliché peace sign for our close-ups!
Halfway through our tour, we stopped at the Shibuya Crossing, a famous shopping district with massive crowds of people akin to Times Square. After warming up with some much-needed coffee, we found ourselves quite the celebrities. Everyone wanted a photo with Santa or their favorite Mario characters. Even Alex, though unrecognizable to the Japanese as the American classic, Cookie Monster, was popular with the crowds. Random strangers came up just to touch him, rubbing his suit as if it was a Buddha belly!
Now, not everything always goes as planned. We had a fantastic experience, but it wasn’t without a few glitches. The foremost was rain. It was predicted to be a cold and rainy day. And in cruel irony, the weatherman actually got it right. 40 degrees, wet, and cloudy combined with open go-karts made for a less than pleasant experience. By the end, none of us could feel our hands or feet. Mario’s white gloves did little to protect against the biting chill. Note: if you’re interested in doing this yourself, I’d recommend the warmer months!
The other little hiccup occurred as we were making our way up the ramp onto an overpass highway. As we neared the top, I felt my kart begin to slow. At first I think I’ve exceeded my max-speed and some built-in safety feature is activating. Seems reasonable. But as I continue to get slower and slower, I begin to question that. Especially when I come to a complete stop with cars, trucks, and motorcycles whizzing by me, staring. (And this time, they weren’t looking at my costume!)
I hear Alex’s voice behind me, berating me for stopping at such a
dangerous location. Yeah, because I chose to do this! So after determining that my car wasn’t going to start again, Birte comes up a plan. Alex bumps into me, she bumps into Alex, and then the two of them use their combined force to push me to safety. This means they must power me up the ramp, across the overpass and then back down the ramp. Oh, and then as a connected threesome, we must merge left into oncoming traffic in hopes of finding an available stretch of sidewalk where we can park our little go-kart caterpillar.
Fortunately December 23 is a Japanese holiday (the birthday of the current emperor, Akihito) so traffic was lighter. We maneuvered ourselves to a slightly safer location and then inspected the vehicle. Things have come loose, wires are disconnected and bolts are missing. Ooops! Fortunately we are part of a tour and not on our own, so the Japanese guide/mechanic arrives 15 minutes later and takes a look. It’s clear we need some new hardware, but unfortunately he doesn’t have it. No problem, he mimes. And off he walks to… well, we aren’t sure. I’m thinking to myself, “Where is he going to find these things in the business district?” But within five minutes he returns with… (can you guess?)… Duct Tape! Duh! He tapes things together and we are back on the streets within a half-hour. So, a small detour, but nothing Mario can’t handle!
(Too bad I hadn’t collected more gold coins and rocket boosts along my route; we could have avoided that whole mess!)
Despite the weather and breakdowns, we had a blast! It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something you could never do back in the states. And being featured on Japanese TV is just the cherry on top! You are required to have a Japanese or International Driver’s License to participate, but if you do, I’d highly recommend Tokyo Drifting. And after conquering the go-kart, driving around Japan on the wrong (I mean, left) side of the road should be a piece of cake!