It may seem like I drive around Japan looking for garages (OK, I do sometimes do that), but the truth is, there’s at least one in every neighborhood, so these places are very easy to chance upon when you’re out and about.
There are a few reasons why these shops exist and prosper in Japan, more so than in other parts of the world. I’ll get into those reasons in a moment, but first, let me introduce you to Owl Works, its owner, Dan Takahashi, and his owl, Aowuru, all based in Samukawa, Kanagawa.
Firstly, yes Dan is his real name. I didn’t ask, but my surprise at his Western name was so obvious that Takahashi-san told me anyway. Dan’s father, like so many Japanese dads, spent his youth in front of the TV watching episodes of Ultraman, specifically the third series, Ultraseven.
In this series, the ‘Ultra-beings’ came to Earth to defend our world against giant alien invaders – think big robots and Godzilla-type monsters. Unlike other Ultra-beings, Ultraseven created his human host from scratch rather than finding a fully formed human, and for some unknown reason he named himself Dan Moroboshi. So that’s where the name came from.
A few years ago, our Dan – Dan Takahashi – was winning at life as a pro golfer. He started working his way up the Japanese tournament ladder, but ultimately decided that he didn’t have the competitive nature to truly crush his opponents. Takahashi-san is just a chilled guy who knows how to swing a club, and besides, he had another hobby that he wanted to invest his time in.
Realising that he was more passionate about classic cars, and that there were plenty of wealthy people willing to share his passion, Takahashi-san decided to make a career out of buying and selling collectible cars. He named the business Owl Works Corporation.
As you can see, Takahashi-san has pretty eclectic tastes when it comes to stocking the showroom floor. Owl Works sell cars – mainly older, more nostalgic models, plus compact Euros like Mini Coopers and Fiats – that are either original, restored or modified. When it comes to the latter, these upgrades are often handled in and out-of-house to a purchaser’s specification.
One car that really stood out to me was this 1974 Toyota Celica 1600GT with a unique blend of period-correct and contemporary modifications.
So how can an independent garage like Owl Works, and so many more, keep business going here in Japan? In the UK for example, classic car sales are either done privately or dominated by a couple of big dealers. These kinds of independent garages simply don’t exist in Great Britain.
It’s worth mentioning that the term ‘garage’ is often interchangeable with ‘dealership’ in Japan, because more often than not they are able carry out repairs on site. Owl Works, for example, offer their clients a full ongoing maintenance service, which surely extends to taking care of the bi-annual shaken (roadworthy) inspection.
There are a few contributing factors to the garage bubble in Japan.
Firstly, physical space. Many people don’t have the space to keep cars let alone work on them. Sure, you can go full rebel and pull the engine out of your Subaru DIY-style as I currently am, but most enthusiasts would run a mile at the thought of such a thing.
Secondly, time. 99% of Japanese people are at work from 8:00 in the morning till 8:00 at night, and sometimes more. So no one really has time to be messing around maintaining old cars when there are barely enough free hours to just enjoy them.
Thirdly, customer service. This is the #1 priority when conducting business in Japan, because no one wants to buy a car privately and actually have to deal with another person; the risks are just too high. When it comes to shopping, the Japanese are so accustomed to being taken care of that anything less is unthinkable.
My last point relates to customer service, because buying and selling a car privately in Japan involves a mountain of paperwork, and then some more. The government has made the process such a bureaucratic headache that no sane person would dare attempt it.
Now, I’m not saying that the Aowuru the owl is going to do any of the paperwork for you if you buy a car from Owl Works, but Dan Takahashi certainly will.
When it come to these sort of specialist automotive businesses, I think it all works out for the best. Customers get looked after when buying their classic investment, the cars get maintained properly, and best of all Japan is blessed with a rich and vibrant garage culture unlike anywhere else in the world.