“If there’s one thing I regret, it wasn’t getting my international driver’s license before leaving Canada.”
“You need it, then?” I ask.
“Yeah; but to be honest, I only found about it when I got there,” Philip replied. His response was the usual one to any, usually Western tourist, who finds out about the amazing and somewhat culturally different attraction on the roads of Tokyo: Maricar [*]. It can easily be described by three obvious key features: (1) you get to drive in go-karts, (2) you’re driving in the middle of actual traffic in the Tokyo street jungle, and (3) you’re in an anime or video game-inspired costume.
Let’s get this out of the way: yes, as many pictures of Maricar on social media proudly show, it could easily be mistaken as a weird Mario Kart rip-off on the streets of Tokyo, especially if one wears an iconic Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, or Yoshi costume. Presumably, in a case of being as diverse as possible, you could also wear costumes from any number of other Japanese games or shows such as One Piece, Pokemon, Yokai Watch, or Sailor Moon.
Let’s also get this out of the way: yes, it clearly sounds like a case of blatant copyright infringement in the back alleys of Akihabara and Shinagawa. In fact, the company has been under fire (obviously by Nintendo) for some of these possible obvious rip-offs. In a case of obviously doing their research, the Maricar company has fought back successfully by (a) stating the costumes are an added benefit and do not actually provide profit to the store , and (b) while having a name that sounds like an abbreviated form of Nintendo’s eponymous game, shares no other commonality other than driving in a kart-like vehicle .
To be honest though, when you’re driving down a meandering Tokyo road at 50 kilometres per hour with road traffic on either side of you, there’s no comparison to the relatively mundane, ‘sit-at-home on your couch’ adventures of Nintendo’s Mario Kart.
But let’s not get carried away yet. First is the obvious preparation that my friend Philip warned me about: since you are actually driving on the streets of Tokyo, you do need an international driver’s license. Conveniently in Canada, the local Canadian Automobile Association’s branch does it for around 25 bucks, ready in 15 minutes.
Second is the mental preparation of driving in Japan. I’ve occasionally read about a few Western tourists who do rent cars to travel around Japan. Other than them and my few Canadian friends who live in Japan (and probably have a legitimate reason to drive around), I’ve never met anyone who has actually driven in Japan. For starters, the train system is beyond phenomenal compared to the North American rail system so there’s no real need to rent a car. Probably, the whole driving-on-the-left thing probably deters a few people who are on the fence of renting a car or not. Combining the anxieties or lack of necessity mentioned above with doing those things in a vehicle that really has no windshield, no seatbelt, and no helmet is probably not particularly exciting to some people.
Overcoming the legal and mental preparations, I decided to risk it all and head for the Tokyo roads and ended up asking a friend who happened to be going to Japan at the time as me if they wanted to join. “Yes, yes, yes!” was her immediate response. Clearly, no mental preparation necessary.
Since we only had a few overlapping days in Tokyo, it took a while to find a date and time that worked for us. We ended up booking a 2-hour tour in the evening from the Akihabara site that was advertised to go around the Akihabara, Odaiba, Ginza, and Tokyo Tower area. Interestingly, there were two prices posted for the tour: the normal $80 price, and a “happy fare” at $60. The stipulation of the “happy fare” was to make a positive mention of the company on social media. It seemed pretty easy, and in my head, I thought there was no actual way they could police that.
The day of our scheduled tour was sunny, hot, and humid – which, though after a week of rain was greatly desired, the thought of driving around exposed in thick furry costumes was not all the bit enticing. It ended up that our scheduled time was just after sunset so the air was starting to cool down.
As we walked the side alley to get to the store, a string of go-karts driven by Mario, Luigi, and Pikachu drove by us. It finally hit me: I’m about to drive in the middle of Tokyo in a funky costume. Yes!
Amid the usual legal stipulation that would accompany driving a go-kart in the streets of Tokyo (read: don’t sue us), we were assigned our group  and shown to the racks of costumes. Since we were one of the last groups heading out, the more popular choices were initially not available but it wasn’t too long before some of the other groups returned and dropped off their costumes. In the end, our group was comprised of Mario, Luigi, Yoshi , Koma-san , and Chopper .
In honesty, the lack of seatbelt and vehicle exterior becomes clearly apparent as soon as your foot presses down on the accelerator pedal and you move even a foot ahead.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…”
The go-karts were all initially parked down the street from the storefront in a small parking lot. After picking our initial place in line, we were given a brief instruction on how the go-kart works and how Tokyo traffic works. At least, we were attempted to given instructions on how traffic works. One of the workers from the store was going to drive in front and guide us around the city as we heeded his one simple instruction: “just follow me.” Each go-kart had a light attached to the back so that in the dark of the night, you merely had to drive towards this source of light .
And as the guide’s go-kart headed onto the street, the excitement of what was actually happening was approaching a zenith. The thought of doing something so strange and crazy in a foreign country was just so utterly cool and amazing that it felt like all other things I had done so far had led up to this purely fantastic occasion. And then your go-kart skips the curb onto the actual streets and you’re driving by parked cars and approaching an intersection where actual cars and drivers are crossing. At that point, your excitement turns into a madman’s rush of thoughts: why are you doing something so strange and crazy in a foreign country that’s so utterly dangerous and stupid if you really think about it?
The guide first took us through the main street of Akihabara. As it was just after twilight, the sidewalks were still crowded with tourists and locals. As soon as we pulled up to the intersection to wait for the light to turn green, the heads all turned around towards the buzzing hum of our go-karts and the cell phones were all pulled out and pointed straight as us.
“Aaa~, sugoi-desu ne!”
Little kids were waving at us. Teenage girls were taking photos of us from different angles. Guys ran toward us to take selfies with our costumed-selves. We simply smiled back and waved at the crowds before the light turned green and we were off again down the street. Drivers in cars along our left side would be smiling at us and holding a thumbs up. Passengers in taxis driving in front of us would be waving at us and taking pictures. One driver got out of his car while stopped at an intersection just so he could take a selfie with our group.
For that moment of time, we were famous.
But the fleeting moments of fame were quickly replaced by the adrenaline and thrill of driving the 50 kph alongside semi-trucks, sports cars, and motorcycles. With fluid agility, the go-kart swerved gracefully across lanes and curves with satisfying ease. The rush of the night wind was refreshingly cool and the droning hum from the speeding go-kart drowned out any noise from the urban fanfare that the go-kart was rushing by.
At the apex of speed and excitement was the pinnacle of the tour: the 800m ride across the massive Rainbow Bridge to the Odaiba island waterfront. As cars and motorcycles would merge or otherwise cut us off on this expressway, our go-kart reached 70-80 kph speeds – speeds that were unexpected from such a vehicle. No matter how dorky the idea of speeding in a go-kart while wearing costumes from anime and video games was, there is no denying that the fragment of time from the approach of the bridge till we had finally paused for a pit stop on the island felt like the self-proclaimed coolest moment of any adventure I had done up to that point . More excitingly, we had to do the exact same journey in reverse as we traversed back to the Tokyo mainland.
All in all, our scheduled two-hour tour ended up being a total of two-and-a-half hours including two pit stops outside Aquacity on Odaiba and at the base of Tokyo Tower. Along the way, our guide made numerous mini-stops to get pictures of our go-karting adventures. More than likely, however, there were probably loads more photos of our group taken by pedestrians, especially as we traversed the long stretch of the Dai-ichi Keihin highway through pedestrian-filled Ginza back to the Akihabara storefront.
“That was unreal.”
“Totally worth it.”
In the end, I did give the place a hugely positive (and non-forced) review on Instagram and Facebook – which says a lot as I normally don’t post reviews on social media. But perhaps, like most of my “first-times” in Japan, there’s a certain emotion and memory that gets engrained in the back of my mind and that says a lot about an activity as simple as go-karting. Whether it’s being able to share such a positive and exciting emotion with a good group of people of being able to see the urban “Tokyo jungle” from a perspective that many tourists don’t normally experience, it’s definitely a moment of my time in Japan that I feel no qualms in freely mentioning as a “must-do” in Tokyo to friends who take the 10-hour plane ride to the 35th north parallel.
[*] This story was originally written in 2017. Since then, the company has changed names and website to simply STREET KART.
 What the company was trying to get at was that the company does not charge for the costumes. The price you pay for go-karting in Tokyo is only the price of the drive. The costume rental is a free perk that could easily have been substituted by customers bringing their own costumes or by forgoing the costume altogether. But who would want to miss out on driving around Tokyo in a Donkey Kong costume?
 In other words, there’s no blue shells or banana throwing on a MariCar tour and perhaps for the better. As a side note, this is a rare loss for Nintendo who has previously been known for their ruthless lawsuits and intellectual property battles against entities that show even a remote similarity to a Nintendo franchise.
 The group was comprised of myself, my friend, her husband, their friend, and a random American who was travelling solo.
 For those not in the know, Mario, Luigi, and Yoshi are popular characters from Nintendo’s ‘Mario’ video game franchise. Mario and Luigi are plumber brothers who routinely fight the giant lizard-creature Bowser to save the often kidnapped Princess Peach. Yoshi is their dinosaur friend who helps them on their adventures.
 Koma-san is a creature from the video game franchise ‘Yokai Watch’. He is a yokai, a spirit who is based off the guard dogs you see in Japanese temples. In the game and the anime based on the game, Koma-san is portrayed as an innocent and simple yokai who comes from the country-side to the big city and is mesmerized (and at the same time easily frightened) by the hustle and bustle of city life.
 Tony Tony Chopper (or simply ‘Chopper’) is a blue-nosed reindeer from the anime franchise ‘One Piece’. In the series, a young Chopper ate a special fruit that increased his intelligence, allowed him to communicate with humans, and allowed him to transform into a human-reindeer hybrid. While this ostracised him from the rest of his herd, he was able to befriend a human doctor and in turn gained the interest to become a doctor himself. He would eventually join the carefree Luffy and his pirate crew and travel the world.
 In other words, only the second person behind the guide really had to pay attention to where the guide’s kart was. Everyone else merely had to pay attention to the light of the other go-karts in the group.
 Add one-handed driving and a dispassionately calm demeanour to this appearance of coolness.