It was May 24, 2006. Or maybe it was May 23? I guess it depends which side of the international date line I was on. I was 21 years old and had just hopped off a Boeing 747 at Narita International Airport. It was my first ever visit to Japan and the first overseas trip in my life.
Feeling some strange combination of jet lag, exhaustion and pure excitement, I walked through the terminal parking lot and snapped a picture.
It was a terrible photo by even the lowest of standards. A blurry, out of focus and poorly composed shot of a white Nissan R34 Skyline GT-R parked not far from the terminal entrance. It was a total fanboy moment; just a quick snapshot that I grabbed as we hauled our luggage across the parking lot. But I’ll never forget that moment or that photograph; it was the first step on a journey that would completely change my life.
Before I elaborate, let’s back up a little bit. In May of 2006 I was a junior in college and the year before had met a nice international student from Japan who became my girlfriend (and is now my wife). She was planning on heading home for summer break and asked if I’d like to come along to meet her family and see Japan for myself.
It won’t be shocking to hear that I was obsessed with cars at the time. I had been for my whole life, and over the previous few years I’d developed a pretty deep interest in Japanese car culture. I was ecstatic for the chance to finally get over to Japan and experience some of it for myself.
Although it was only 10 years ago, 2006 was a different era when it came to automotive media. There were no websites like this one regularly exposing the magic that is Japan’s automotive scene, and social media was still in its infancy. When it came to Japanese car stuff, I got my fix from print magazines, imported videos and outdated Japanese language websites with super low resolution photos.
So with the help of my girlfriend, I planned out a schedule that tried to squeeze in as much car stuff as possible, along with the usual tourist and family things.
And in typical tourist fashion, I wanted to capture photos of what I found. A few weeks before leaving I went online and ordered my first digital SLR camera – a Nikon D50 with 28-80mm kit lens. If I recall, it cost me right around 500 bucks for everything; dirt-cheap by professional standards but not small change for a college student on a budget.
Prior to getting that Nikon, my photography experience had been limited to snapping photos of my own cars with crappy cameras. This was a big leap. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was going to have some fun learning. I also brought along a cheap point-and-shoot camera for those times I didn’t have the D50.
Being in Japan for the first time was an eye-opening experience. During the ride from the airport my gaze was glued to the windows, identifying cars I’d never seen before in my life.
Whenever we went anywhere, I couldn’t stop scanning the roads, highways and parking lots for interesting cars. Even the most mundane errands became exciting for me. And that was just the beginning.The City & The Country
In total we’d be in Japan for about a month, with time split between Tokyo and my girlfriend’s family house in the Ibaraki countryside.
It ended up being a great way to see two different sides of the country; the peaceful quiet of the countryside and the hustle and bustle of the city.
You don’t need me to tell you that Japan is a fantastic place to visit. The sightseeing, shopping, food and meeting my future in-laws were all great, but it was the car stuff that took the trip to another level.
Looking back on it, it’s amazing just how much car stuff I was able to see during those few weeks. It ended up being the perfect intro course to Japanese car culture.
Naturally, there were the popular spots in Tokyo: Toyota’s Mega Web showroom in Odaiba – a free and easily-accessed spot for any car lover visiting the Tokyo area.
We also took a ride out to Tochigi to visit Twin Ring Motegi – the Honda-owned facility that’s far more than just a racing circuit. There were go-karts, racing simulators and live demonstrations from ASIMO himself.
Best of all, Motegi is home to the Honda Collection Hall – the incredible museum that chronicles the lineage of the brand’s automobiles and motorcycles.
With huge wings dedicated to both racing and production vehicles, there was a lot to see; everything from ’90s JTCC cars to historic Honda F1 machines. And it’s just as great to visit today as it was back in 2006.
While at Motegi, I was also able to catch some gymkhana action. No, not the viral video kind – the grassroots motorsport that’s roughly equivalent to solo autocross in the United States.
It was damn fascinating to watch, and it’s one of the few things I haven’t really had the chance to cover since. Maybe on my next visit?
It also happened that my girlfriend’s family lived not more than 30 minutes from Tsukuba Circuit; a place I’d already become very familiar with thanks to Best Motoring videos and numerous video games.
We ended up checking out Tsukuba on a couple of different occasions, and each time there was something cool going on – even in the middle of the week.
These weren’t huge events; they were typical grassroots track days. But to me it was simply magical walking the pits and watching the cars run through the famous corners.
I have a ton of photos from these decade-old Tsukuba track days, so if you’re interested in seeing more I’m sure I can whip up a more detailed post.Drift Cars, Kyusha & More
By 2006, drifting was already well into its global spread, but Japan was still the undisputed epicenter of it all. One rainy weekend we headed to Tokyo to check out a MSC event on the familiar Odaiba parking lot course.
I’d been to D1GP events in California, but this was my first exposure to real Japanese drifting, and I was instantly hooked. It was every bit as great as it was portrayed in the videos.
Among the drift teams competing in that MSC event was a certain Team BURST, one of Japan’s most famous drift ensembles, led by Mr. Naoki Nakamura.
The same weekend as the MSC event there was also the Tokyo Nostalgic Car Show happening across the way at the Tokyo Big Sight.
Cars like the Nissan Works KPGC110 Skyline Prototype were already legendary in Japan, but outside of the country these vintage machines didn’t have the same following they do today. I was seeing so much of this stuff for the first time.
Along with the assortment of car displays inside the Big Sight, there was also a swap meet full of vintage wheels, collectables and other stuff I wanted to take home with me. I guess that part’s never changed.
The parking lot of the Nostalgic Car Show was a happening place full of kaido racers, shakotan machines and other sects of Japan’s kyusha scene.
For me, so much of this stuff had never been seen outside of print magazines and low resolution photos on websites with super-long URLS. Up close and personal it was a revelation; something that ramped my appreciation for old Japanese cars up to an even higher level.
On another day I dropped by a ‘dress-up’ car show, also in Odaiba. It was here that I got to experience the cool and sometimes funky world of Japan’s custom vans, VIP sedans and kei cars.
Looking at the photos today, it’s interesting to see what’s changed in the decade since. Some cars were heavy on the trends of the time, while others look every bit as cool today.
Aside from the event photos, my memory cards were filled with images of cars on random street corners and parking lots. Stuff like this Toyota Century Limo spotted in Tokyo.
Or these lifted Land Cruisers at a dealership in my girlfriend’s hometown.
Even back then a P10 Nissan Primera was a car on my wishlist. Turns out it’d be another 10 years before I’d finally get one…
I didn’t know it at the time, but that first visit to Japan ended up changing my life in some huge ways. First off, I ended up marrying the girl who was so kind to host me and help me navigate this unfamiliar place. Secondly, I loved the place so much that I decided to move there for a year after I graduated college. And third, I still had a ton to learn, but this trip planted the seeds towards writing about and photographing cars as a career.
There was so much more that I wanted to do. I wanted to explore not just the famous parts of Japanese car culture, but also the less commonly seen stuff. The hot rods and lowriders; the radical wide-body Porsches with the words ‘RAUH-Welt’ on them; the weekend circuit racers; the hidden-away workshops – and so much more.
Soon after my visit, I started a simple blog called Auto Otaku where I posted stuff both from Japan and the US, and that eventually led to an opportunity starting some new thing called Speedhunters. The rest is history.
I’ll never forget that first trip and the way it changed my life. Yes, I’m 10 years older now and have a lot of adult responsibilities I didn’t have back then, but my passion and appreciation for Japan and its car culture has yet to wear off. I can’t imagine it ever will.
Nice article Mike, I was with Dino for coffee last week and explaining the same things like for like..
Three years ago - first time, came back the next year - still not enough, Got the required visa last year and now am married and have our first on the way this summer.. It's amazing how something such as the love for the automotive culture can define our lives!
Reading Speedhunters from my favorites list to posting my first article on here back in May, with another due this week.. It really makes you smile when you look back and see how things work out.
All the best to you and the family sir, and don't be a stranger on your next visit here ^-^/
Great write up Mike.
I was fortunate enough to have been sent there with work for the HKS Premium Day last year and we spent a few days after that with the guys from Cusco for some product training.
Everyone was extremely hospitable, such different outlook on everything, not just the cars.
Would love to go back there....
Great post Mike. I loved the old Auto Otaku days and I can certainly relate a bit to the awe of your first trip to Japan- although your trip sounded way cooler! I'd been learning Japanese since year four in primary(elementary) school and we had a bunch of Japanese exchange students come and stay with us. I was fortunate to be offered a reciprocal trip to Japan as an exchange student myself at 15 year old. It blew my mind! Everything was just so cool and I had an amazing experience. A full size car hooked up to a game in a an arcade was about the coolest thing I'd ever experienced in 1995! I've loved Japanese culture not only their cars ever since.BTW - Your photos looked a hell of a lot better than the ones I took with the crappy automatic film camera I was using.
Great article/story. I had a similar experience the first time I went to Japan back in 2011. My trip is still seared in my memory!
auto-otaku was the real deal....i would steal pics and keep on my HD to use as wallpapers. Thanks for the great contribution to enthusiasts all over the world Mike
10 year anniversary, Congrats! The parallels between your story and mine are remarkably similar, though you stayed the course with cars (+ living in-country for a year = my respect), not to mention I was 20 years ahead of you with little sway to pursue my passion for the JDM scene. If I knew what was going on where before I first went over in '87, I had the chance of a lifetime to check it all out during a drive in my future father-in-law's Bluebird from Wakkanai to Kobe over the course of a month - though my girlfriend (now wife) would've dumped me if I had, LoL. Looking forward to looking back 'n' sharing more nostalgic experiences. Feel free to contact me via my email address above or on facebook (Vince Dalrymple). All the best, Mike!
One of the best articles for a long time here. Thanks for that! :) I´m more into japanese car culture, than other car cultures and sometimes miss the old Speedhunters days, when this site was more Japan-oriented.
Auto otaku was one of the first, if not the first, car culture blog I came across when I was in high school and it really changed the way I saw cars back then.
Ten years fast forward and I own the car of my dreams, I've met my best friends and my girlfriend through cars and I'm going to finally make my first trip to Japan next year.
I probably have to thank you Mike!
@importfan Nope, thank YOU!
I didn't know you bought a Primera! Congrats on your SR20 ownership then! ;)
I can still remember discovering the Auto Otaku blog somewhere in 2007 by pure chance: I wanted to create a blog called Auto Otaku, I googled on the name to find out if anyone already used it and it turned out that someone already did. ;)
BTW: I think the domain auto-otaku.com is now owned by someone else...
And congratulations with your 10th anniversary!
@banpei_net Thanks much! And thanks for all the support over the years!
Love Japan! I use to go every year with CART / IRL as a team mechanic. Spent some time in Tokyo, but mostly in Utsunomiya and Motegi.
BTW: That green & white Indycar on the far right of your picture of the Senna F1 cars is one of my old chassis. It was Honda's first IRL championship with Tony Kanaan. I have a picture of me and the rest of the crew the day they unveiled it at the museum.
@Rjweaverjr Nice! I love the hotel they have on site at Motegi. Stayed in it during the trip mentioned in this post.
@Gianluca FairladyZ Thanks!
Definitely think us readers would like to see some old pics for once. They would be great whatever quality they are. Great post btw!!
@tokuku Ore mo!
Love the write up Mike! I'd love to see some of those decade old photos! I'd love a bit of a history of speedhunters too!
@Lachys114 It's coming!
@azamat bagatov In fact only 3 cars are American, 2 are German and the majority and rest of the bunch is definitely Japanese.
@John Key NZ Thanks. I guess? Haha.
I was in Tokyo for 4 days and besides 2-3 exotics, the only Japanese Car culture (as portrayed in the above pictures) I saw was in the car park of the Super Autobacs and a lone R34 GTR in Shibuya. Maybe I was in the wrong areas for it, or the wrong days, but I didnt see many cars at all.
The rest of the Trip was spent in Hakuba, where I saw a gold S14 half under a tarp for the snow season.
Japanese Car Culture tends to get put on a pedestal for some reason. A lot of the builds are not very progressive, often sticking with tried and true mods from a decade ago and the tuning results roughly the same. Style hasnt moved much either - not that it really needs to, but if you're looking for modern builds, you're best off looking at any other countries car scene that loves japanese cars - the US, NZ, Australia, Europe to name a few. These places are always exploring new technology and new parts and coming out with great builds.
Further outside of this the holiness of JDM parts never ceases to amaze me. I have bought plenty of JDM branded parts that have much better alternatives on the market from other nations- coilovers being the most obvious. Not all Japanese brands are created equally, and a lot of the engineering teams at these tuneshops are stuck in the 90s. My East Bear Sigma recliners both have broken seat frames from daily use - not something you expect to see it what many would consider a high quality Japanese made component.
I love Japan and Japanese cars, but my love is based in reality and the cars, not the culture.
@OfficialWCP Go to the Tokyo Prince Hotel basement car park. It's like walking into someone's private car collection. (except it's open to anyone)
@OfficialWCP You're clueless.
@OfficialWCP Go to Omotesando, Akihabara UDX, Daikoku or any number of other spots and you'll see that it's alive and well.
Ah the website auto otaku which I visit almost every week until Speedhunters came up. I envy you for staying a long time in japan. Nice work buddy!
@icobird Thanks a lot!
@earmenau Just me doin' me. lol
I am living/working in Japan since 2010 now, and looking at your pictures made me realized one scary thing: in 10 years, NOTHING has changed. You could take the very same pictures anytime today, they will be exactly the same.
Even on those 2006 pictures, most of the car were already old, they are now 10 years older, the people who are driving them too, and basically everything else is still the same...
Japan car scene is slowly dying, stuck in time, like basically everything else in this country, and this makes me sad...
@ThomasGateau I've never been to Japan, but my perspective is a little different. Sometimes things don't need to change. For example, style; something which the Japanese have had nailed for quite some time. Case in point: the rise in the popularity of grass roots street style. All the most popular cars from All star bash to the American midwest, to the australian drift scene might as well be carbon copies of Japanese cars made 20 years ago. Change can be good, but authentically cool shit, will always be cool.
@ThomasGateau Hmm. I think there has been change, but maybe not in the obvious ways?
@Mike Garrett Actually, to me, the change came from Euro cars culture in Japan, which is becoming more and more interesting. But the pure JDM did not really change in the past 10 years, one the reason being that Japanese manufacturers did not release anything interesting... And on a more general trend, people are growing old and the young ones are not so interested by cars anymore.
But don't misunderstand me, Japan car culture is still interesting and enjoyable. I just don't see any renewal into it...
Wow, was Auto Otaku that long ago? I remember back when it was really freaking hard to find great content from the motherland, that was the first site that just had tons of great content. So many hours I should have been working were spent looking at your photos. Thanks!
@Rob Sayers Thanks! All the original photos are still there on my Flickr page from way back.
Mate Auto Otaku sent me on my path, long before Speedhunters was born. The amount of those photos I still have saved is immense. It inspired me to start a site of my own, and show people what cool things people are out there doing to cars.
Also would love to see more photos. I remember lots of shows with cars parked atop white crushed rock.
@NickAutoFiend I'll go through and see what I can find!