A Story Of Family, Food & Slammed VWs
A Family Affair

Car culture at large. It’s the best way to describe what we do here at Speedhunters – delivering Pure Automotive Enjoyment. Right now though, I’d like to focus in on the ‘culture’ part of that phrase.

You see, in my mind cars are not so much about cam durations, spring rates or cutting fractions off lap times. That stuff can be fascinating mind you, but it’s the cultural side of things that I enjoy most.

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Rather than pouring over the technical details of an automobile, I always find myself being most interested in the stories and personalities behind them. I love talking about the way they make us feel and uncovering cool stories about people who’ve made cars a big part of their lives.

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It’s exactly that which brought me to the rural city of Iga in Japan’s Mie Prefecture earlier this year. Back in the Sengoku Period of Japanese history, Iga Province was a center for Ninjitsu – or Ninja as they are better known throughout the world. Today the Iga Ninja Museum is one of the town’s most popular tourist attractions.

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But I wasn’t here to uncover ancient martial arts secrets or purchase souvenir shuriken throwing stars – I came to Iga at the recommendation of my friend Toshi to visit Side Project Cafe, a family-operated restaurant and coffee shop.

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While I dig a good meal, I’m not a food journalist so there had to be some cars involved here somewhere. I’ll get to that in just a moment.

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The cafe is run by ‘Side’ Yokotani along with his wife and his younger sister Hima – and it has to be one of the most interesting places I’ve visited during my travels around Japan.

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After working at various restaurants for about a decade Side-san decided to set off and realize his dream opening his own restaurant in his hometown. But he didn’t just imagine a place that served good food, he wanted a cool atmosphere that would reflect his love of vintage American goods and fashion.

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In October of 2009 Side Project Cafe officially opened, operating out of an ex-warehouse right in the middle of town. It might not be the type of building you expect to house a stylish eatery, but Side saw the potential to create a unique atmosphere for customers.

Good Food, Cool Cars
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When you walk through the door into the wide open building the vibe is warm and friendly. It essentially feels like you are in giant living room filled with all sorts of cool retro goods and antiques.

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You won’t find normal booths or other furniture typical to restaurants. Instead, the decor consists entirely of items that the family has collected over the years – much of it on trips to the United States.

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The decor and atmosphere make Side Project Cafe a great place for a casual meal or a drink, but the Yokotanis had no idea if the business would be successful when they opened it back in ’09.

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On the day that I visited, though, it was apparent that the place has become a popular dining and hang out spot in Iga – drawing both locals and those from more distant areas. Just minutes after opening, the place was full of customers enjoying the fashionable, but relaxed atmosphere.

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Of course, it also helps if you have good food, and this was confirmed when Side and Hima served us up a lunch of Loco Moco – one of the cafe’s signature dishes. Other favorites include Japanese-style curry, pasta and homemade deserts.

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But as I mentioned a moment ago, this isn’t Foodhunters, so on to the automotive part of this story. Even before opening the restaurant, vintage cars – Volkswagens more specifically – were one of Side’s big passions.

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Sure, Volkswagens might be of German origin, but like many Side-san saw the world of custom air-cooled VWs as a uniquely American phenomenon, bred on the streets of Southern California.

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It was that love of the West Coast and American culture that led Side-san to purchase his Type II panel several years ago. From the beginning he had the idea of customizing it and using as a rolling advertisement for the restaurant that he wanted to open some day.

RedBox & Lowlife Girl
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Years later, both the shop and the van have become well known, among both Iga’s locals and Japan’s greater VW community.

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Side-san says he has built the panel as his vision of an American style custom VW. Just like the restaurant, the bus is presented with great style, with a red-on-red color scheme, dropped suspension and rare Der Steiner Rad wheels to complete the look.

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With its slammed ride height and square proportions, many locals say it looks like a box sliding down the highway, and has become affectionately known as RedBox.

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For younger sister Hima, the love of cars came a little later. She started with antiques and collectables and then she made the progression to old cars.

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Watching her older brother and his friends enjoy their VWs also influenced her, and when it came time to get a car she wanted an oval window Beetle and nothing else.

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Her black rag top has been a constantly evolving project, starting a few years ago with basic body work before getting a full engine and suspension revamp.

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Despite the Beetle’s pebble scraping ride height, Hima’s car was actually built to be as easy to drive as possible – thank god for Japan’s smooth roads. Driving Japan’s lowest female-owned Bug, Hima has picked up the nickname Lowlife Girl.

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Along with his bus Side-san also has this slick Beetle convertible, which like the other two VWs rides low and tough.

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The stripped-down Bug is full of all kind of cool little custom touches both inside and out.

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My personal favorite: seat upholstery made using blankets from a Korean Airlines jet.

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With the custom VWs always parked outside (or sometimes even inside) the restaurant, Side Project Cafe has become a well known hangout spot for area car enthusiasts. In that sense, it’s not unlike the Mooneyes Area 1 Cafe in Yokohama.

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Fashionable cafes and restaurants are something you expect to see in trendy Tokyo or Osaka, but so much not out in the countryside like this. Side Project Cafe is the perfect mix of big city style and small town charm – and the cool cars certainly don’t hurt.

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For me, it’s impossible not to be inspired by what the Yokotani family have done. Both Side-san and Hima have built a successful life in which they surround themselves with the people and things that they love. You can’t help but feel good about it.

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This certainly would be a cool story even without the cars, but the family’s love of customized VWs only makes it that much better. For me, the Side Project Cafe really is car culture at its best – Pure Automotive Enjoyment.

Mike Garrett
Instagram: speedhunters_mike

More VW Stories on Speedhunters
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The thing I'd do for an oval window or split window….. And the one here so clean. Perfect. Although I'd have mine a little higher with the old dog dish whees and whitewalls, I can't deny that this one is pretty damn nice.


been waiting all month for this article and as a lover of aircooled's and growing up with my father who has owned some of the rarest whether it was the 63 rhd or the 60 bulletnose double cab or the 63 babyblue ragtop that i was brought home from the hospital in i cant help but gawk over the redbox and that beautiful black oval and i am now the proud owner of a 66 original black factory popouts and sekurit glass 13000 original mileage bug thats currently undergoing build into a restocal looker but everytime i see aircooled coverage on speedhunters i jump for joy as i truly love and have a passion for these little cars kudos to speedhunters and mikegarett  for the awesome coverage cant wait for more


Never a big fan of slammed cars of today but a VW is always fine in my book! 
Always wanted to build one with white walls, army green paint and one of my pinup art pieces to decorate the door. 
Love this post, the cars and the hangout spot. Keep em coming.


Foodhunters ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)


Great story Mike! Especially love the shots of Hima and her Beetle. So cool! かっこいい ^_^


As a long time air-cooled fan, I often cringe at what was called West Coast-style attempts, but this set - ragtop and bus particularly - hit the spot. I gotta get out to Mie-ken... Makes me miss my Ghia!


Thank the lord... Thanks Mike, this is exactly the spirit behind Roughsmoke.com and what I do there..

Tokyo drift wasn't exactly the best movie in the world, but the main character hits the nail on the head in the first moments of the film when saying ''Wow, you read the brochure''....

I blow my bank balance often to see the regulars of Virgin Atlantic to travel back and forward to Japan, but the rewards of friendship, memories, stories and much more and the things I take away from these trips.
To meet new and exciting people and see how things for them begun and to try and understand what makes them tick, or what they are thinking when blowing over ninety degrees into a drift..

Car shoots will become a further phase of my journey but right now I look back at the bunker load of 'tomodachi' I've collected, the Yokoi sideskirt hanging on my wall, my Roughsmoke t-shirt signed by new friends with messages of 'come back soon'... This is what it's all about...

Good to see you rock that same feeling, and others as well.

Will catch you track side back in the land of the rising sun in the future...

Keep up the good work.


Damn that oval window Beetle is clean! Nice story too!


showtime125 mikegarett  Thanks!  We have more aircooled VW coverage coming soon and h=look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments!


kphillips9936 We will!  Stay tuned for more - including a special one we cannot wait to share.


Lachys114 Thanks!


Roughsmoke Thanks buddy - sounds like we are on the same page with all this stuff!


Taryn Croucher Thanks Taryn!


@Kuroneko Yep, leave it to Japan to do SoCal right haha.


KennedyCao Yum!


kphillips9936 Thanks much!


showtime125 mikegarett  I'm glad you enjoyed it.


EricSeanDelaney Yeah I want to do an aircooled some time. Hopefully sooner rather than later!


Awesome article man! but you NEED to have brown gravy on a Loco Moco to really set it off!
That oval is a beautiful example.


itswhitenoise kphillips9936 Can't wait.


Another reason to love Japan.


RedBox is a really nice car. That little stop light is super cool


First air cooled vw I seen in ages I like that vert :0