Japan Day 22 (Part I) - Akihabara, Tokyo

There was just one thing left to do on our Japan wish lists: dress up as Mario Kart characters and race around the streets of downtown Tokyo in go-karts. I’m not talking about a track, or a virtual realty experience, but actual vehicles zooming around the city streets. Who wouldn’t want to turn the world’s best video game into a real-life experience? Enter MariCar, where you can live out your childhood fantasies in a city as colorful and bizarre as a Mario Kart course. (Disclaimer: MariCar is in no way associated with Nintendo).

Due to its popularity, MariCar now has 11 shops around the country, the bulk of which are peppered around Tokyo. Each shop offers unique courses that include different well-known landmarks around the city, ranging in tour time from an hour and a half, to over three hours. The price averages around $100 per person.

In order to participate, you must obtain an International Driving Permit, which turned out to be the easiest piece of paper I have ever applied for. Before you travel, just fill out this form, bring it, along with the $20 fee, and your US Driver’s License into your nearest AAA office (found here), and they will fix you up with your permit right there on the spot. They’ll even take care of the passport photos for you. (Extra time required if they don’t know how to operate the camera).

Being the organizational nerd that I am, I made a big chart of each shop and what routes they offered, how long they lasted, and the price. (Their website wasn’t the easiest to glean this information from). We ultimately decided on the Middle Tokyo Tour from Akihabara #1 Shop.

We were so excited that we arrived in Akihabara, the geek capital of Tokyo, an hour early. So we grabbed Starbucks and walked around, looking curiously at lines forming outside various shops, waiting for them to open. Finally, it was time to check in.

We were greeted by two friendly Japanese guys who spoke proficient English. They handed us iPads on which to sign our lives away. Then gave us the orientation on waving at people as we drove by.

“Japanese people are very shy. We recommend you first make eye contact, and then wave with hand.”

I wish I would have had this advice sooner. My entire trip might have been spent cheerily waving at random strangers to see if I could glean a reaction from the crowds of otherwise introverts.

Our guide, Eiji, pointed out a rack filled with costumes to choose from. The majority of them were fleece onesies, which would have been perfect for a winter tour, but it was an 88 degree day in late June. I managed to find one Mario dress amongst the rack of fleece. Fletch wasn’t so lucky, and ended up in a Yoshi onesie.

Eiji led us and the other couple on our tour down the block to the garage where all the bright red go-karts were parked. My heart sped up a beat. This was going to be epic. We received a quick orientation on how to operate the vehicles. Seatbelts were there, but “not necessary.” Green meant go, yellow meant GO GO GO!, and red meant stop. Luckily Fletch warned me ahead of time that go-karts drive jerkily, so there were no surprises as I lurched out of the garage, and into formation with the rest of our Mario Kart gang.

And then we were off! Driving down the streets of colorful Akihabara in a Mario hat and a vehicle half the size of the other already-tiny vehicles. I was grinning like a maniac. I don’t even like driving, and I was still having a ball. The only thing that would have made it better would have been bananas to throw at the others. That was discouraged though.

Eiji was waving his arms around like a monkey, trying to communicate how he wanted us to follow; two by two at the stop lights, and single file around corners. Don’t leave enough space for anyone to merge into the middle of the group. I have no idea how what we were doing was even legal, but I checked before writing this post, and they haven’t been shut down yet.

Eiji gave us the full treatment and took enough photos to satisfy even the biggest Instagram fanatics. All the while we tootled our way through Ueno, Asakusa, past the sumo wrestling stadium, straight towards Tokyo Skytree, where we stopped for a photo break, Tokyo Station, where Fletch and I had started our Japan adventure three weeks earlier, and Ginza district, where we pointed out the hotel where we had slept that first night. 

Tokyo Skytree

Tokyo Station

At every stop light, we would wave to passersby, people who had moments ago been stone-faced inside their own little bubbles, but suddenly would burst out grinning and return the wave, displaying the same child-like delight that I was feeling. Some would hurriedly fumble with their handbags or pockets, trying to find a phone to snap a quick photo. Besides being a complete and total blast, MariCar showed us a side of the Japanese people that had so far been an enigma. People were smiling and being kids with us for a moment.

All too soon we were on a familiar street with bright colors and manga posters in every window. I recognized the gaudy shop signs, anime characters the size of billboards, and girls dressed as maids passing out flyers for various maid cafes. This was the end of our tour, and I felt like I wanted to keep driving around the whole of Tokyo for the rest of the day. I guess that's why they have 11 shops and dozens of different courses, so that you can do just that. If you are ever in Japan, and a fan of Mario Kart, I can't recommend MariCar enough.