After the Tokyo Motor Show in late October, I stayed in Japan for some vacation time. Among other things, my wife and I trekked for 10 days on parts of a traditional Buddhist pilgrimage trail on the island of Shikoku.
It was great to be amid fall foliage on the steep mountain paths, even if my knees didn’t always agree.
But I couldn’t entirely stop being an auto reporter. Here are some thoughts and observations from my first extended return to Japan in eight years.
Space remains tight. Wonder why large Americans SUVs sell only to those Japanese consumers who want to make a dramatic statement, not to soccer moms? That’s easy: who has room for one of those? This, after all, is the nation of the paid parking lot with spaces for only five cars.
Rural Japan is as poor as rural America. If you only visit Tokyo, it’s easy to come away with a view of Japan as a wealthy nation. Case in point: during the Tokyo show, I was staying within a short walk of stores selling Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Porsche and Tesla vehicles.
But that’s not the whole country, any more than Manhattan or Boston is fully representative of the U.S. Japan also has Shikoku, just as the U.S. also has Olney, Ill., and Emporia, Kan.
Sure, there are well-off cities on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. In Tokushima and Takamatsu, I saw Alfa Romeo, Lexus, BMW, Peugeot and Jeep vehicles on the road. Indeed, at the Tokushima Awaodori Airport I stumbled across a display for the Ford Mustang. But those were the exception.
Just as rural America is depopulating, so is rural Japan. Along the coastline, we saw areas of abandoned homes. After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan, many people in Shikoku decided to move to higher ground, and couldn’t find anyone to buy their old house.
Overall in Japan, minicars -- those with engines under 660cc, which also offer major tax breaks to buyers -- account for nearly 40 percent of the market. In Shikoku, it felt more like 60 or 75 percent. These remain the favored vehicles for farmers and fishermen. Suzukis and Daihatsus, marked by their distinctive minicar orange license plates, were everywhere.
So were used-car lots, with names like Gorilla (with an inflated one there by the road, natch), Gulliver and Ultra Potato.
Watch that name! Japanese automakers have always been known for the unusual English names they give their vehicles in the domestic market. You’ve probably heard that the Nissan Z was the Fairlady Z in Japan. My favorite was always the Mitsubishi Big Toy, a minicar that looked like, well, you know.
About the third day of our trekking, the bus taking us to the trailhead was passed by a Toyota Isis. Now that’s one I bet Toyota’s marketing geniuses wish they could put back in the branding bottle.
Praying for protection. Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples sell a variety of omamori, amulets for protection and luck. They can promise help in passing university entrance exams or safe childbirth, for example.
One of the most common is for traffic safety. Think of that amulet, an embroidered bag dangling from the rear-view mirror, as Japan’s equivalent of the St. Christopher medallions of yore.
At Kompira shrine, also known as Kotohiragu, a famous Shinto shrine in the town of Kotohira, I saw a list of omamori that included a first, at least for me: one to ensure safe seatbelts. The cynic in me wondered how long it’ll be before a shrine offers an amulet to protect the owner from his airbag.
News Editor James B. Treece was Automotive News’ Tokyo-based Asia Editor from 1995-2007.