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What I learned go-karting around Tokyo dressed as Spider-Man

I accidentally found myself in the middle of a national debate about tourism versus authenticity.

Me, driving a go-kart in Tokyo.
Courtesy of MariCar

The first time I really thought I would die happened while driving a go-kart through the streets of Tokyo dressed as Spider-Man.

As city lights flashed by, all I could think about was how easily even the smallest vehicle could flatten me. After all, I was driving alongside people (who likely resented my presence) at the eye-level of their car’s door handle.

I’m in Japan learning about the country’s defense policy. It’s my first time here, and to see the capital’s sights I joined a guided tour — one where you wear goofy costumes and drive a small, frighteningly fast red go-kart on packed city streets.

The tour company, MariCar, has quite the backstory. When it first opened, it offered thrill-seekers from around the world the chance to live out a dream: to take part in a real-life Mario Kart experience for about $80.

Customers got to dress up head-to-toe as a character from the popular Nintendo racing game, drive in the low-lying vehicle, and see the city’s greatest attractions. That includes Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge, which excites and reminds fans of Mario Kart’s hardest level. (And no, you can’t throw shells at other riders or drop banana peels, like you can in the game.)

The problem is that MariCar was never officially approved by Nintendo, and the gaming giant sued the tour company in Feburuary 2017 for copyright infringement — and won this year. After paying $89,000, MariCar now offers customers the same experience, except that riders can’t wear Mario Kart-character onesies and are bombarded with signs distancing the company from Nintendo.

A sign at MariCar in Tokyo, Japan, on December 10, 2018.
Courtesy of Robbie Gramer

That development likely pleased many Tokyo citizens — and especially drivers — who never liked the go-karters in the first place. “They really are a nuisance,” Akio Arinaka, a Tokyo taxi driver, told the Wall Street Journal in June 2017. “When I see them driving close by it’s scary, especially since they drive in large groups.”

Of course, I knew none of this when I arrived at MariCar’s two-story dispatch center for a cold nighttime tour. I paid in advance to reserve my spot and signed a waiver after I got there. It was only then that my guide warned me to be very careful on the road because “everybody hates us” — including the police — and that sometimes cab drivers would try to “interfere” with the tour.

Apparently I had unwittingly involved myself in a cultural flashpoint — all while wearing a ridiculous Spider-Man costume.

Terrific.

“Try not to kill anyone or die”

I started my MariCar experience in Tokyo Bay, a remote and dark part of the capital about a 15-minute walk from the nearest train station.

Here’s what you do when you get there: sign a release form; show your passport and international driver’s license; change into a onesie of a non-Mario-Kart cartoon character while trying not to think about how many people wore it before you; and listen to Japanese covers of American pop songs as you wait to start.

The mass of Pikachus, Hello Kittys, and Captain Americas around me bundled up against the brisk 40-degree weather that evening. I wore my jacket under my spidey outfit — making my already tight onesie a heck of a lot tighter and even more ridiculous.

MariCar also provided gloves, but the appreciation for the company’s generosity was soon replaced by mild concern as a fellow customer found an open boxcutter inside the glove bin. A staffer sheepishly shrugged it off while agreeing that it shouldn’t have been there.

There was a brief training on how to operate the kart, featuring the more than slightly disturbing instruction that we didn’t have to wear seatbelts or helmets. Afterward my guide said something I never heard on a tour before: “Try not to kill anyone or die.”

The company has yet to lose anyone, but some previous riders have injured themselves. One even hit a police station, and in February a Taiwanese go-karter not with MariCar struck a cyclist but kept on going. He was subsequently arrested and charged with a hit-and-run.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that about half of my nine-person tour group said they were nervous to drive the go-karts. I still felt fine — in fact, I seriously questioned my safety only once: when I had to idle behind the kart in front of me for five minutes waiting to start, inhaling its smelly, toxic fumes that were blowing directly into my face.

My tour group stopped at a red light parked side-by-side. I’m in the back in the second-to-last position.
Courtesy of MariCar

But MariCar does have a safety protocol for the road. If the guide holds up one finger, the group proceeds in the middle of one lane in a single-file line. If the guide puts up two fingers in the “hang loose” position — which happened mainly at red lights or before a turn — drivers must tightly assemble inside the lane in a two-by-two formation. No one is allowed to pass a fellow rider, and a second guide travels behind the group to ward off vehicles that could potentially hit the tourists.

I may have taken the rules too seriously. Toward the start I barked at the driver behind me when I thought he tried to speed by. “You’ve got to let me go in front of you!” I yelled in a supremely uncool moment. He and I soon put that behind us, though, with copious thumbs-up to each other throughout our two hours together.

Actual drivers in their normal-sized cars and trucks alongside us ranged from irate to friendly. On one occasion, a van tried to merge into our lane and nearly hit me while I sped down the street at around 30 miles an hour. A taxi successfully wedged itself into a gap in our line — one karter was far behind another — and made a point to drive slowly to delay the back half of the group.

But on other occasions people who stopped next to us smiled, waved, and even took pictures.

Tourists love MariCar. Locals mostly hate it.

The mixed reaction we received seemed to mirror a debate in Japan over how to showcase the country and earn lucrative tourist dollars while accurately and sustainably portraying what the country is like.

The government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made tourism development “the pillar of the administration’s economic growth strategy that aims to increase GDP to 600 trillion yen,” according to a 2016 report outlining the government’s vision.

The report lays out ambitious tourism growth targets: For instance, the target for international repeat visitors to Japan is 24 million for 2020 (double the number who came in 2015) and 36 million for 2030 (triple the number who came in 2015).

Much of this is focused on improving things like heritage sites and national parks, but it’s not hard to see why tourists would be attracted to the MariCar go-kart experience: It’s different, it’s risky, and you kind of get to live out a childhood fantasy.

But some people in Japan have expressed concern over what the tour says about the country. Tourism is booming in Tokyo, in part because the city specifically and the nation writ-large caters to foreigners’ sometimes inaccurate or culturally insensitive perceptions of Japan. What’s more, the tourism boom of recent years has overwhelmed cities like Kyoto, leading to a backlash from locals who don’t like fuller buses or loud visitors.

Companies that let visitors drive a go-kart in costume, dress up in traditional garb, or even have robots or ninjas serve them dinner all fit within the stereotype that Japan is full of silly-yet-stern, tech-savvy people with strange, exotic customs. For instance, in Tokyo’s robot restaurant, a top tourist haunt, diners can eat alongside dancing machines — which of course isn’t representative of daily Japanese life.

That’s the main issue some people have with these sorts of tourist lures: They offer tourists a cliched view of certain aspects of Japanese culture rather than a true understanding of the country’s history and society.

One person I spoke with about driving the go-karts expressed anger about it, saying it only fed those gross generalizations. “It’d be like if I landed in Tokyo, dressed as Godzilla dancing around pouring soy sauce on my head,” the person said.

But although that conversation certainly tempered my excitement somewhat and helped me get a more nuanced perspective on what I had merely thought of as a fun and wacky tourist activity, I can’t say that I regret having the experience, but that may have more to do with the fact that I’m still alive than anything else.

The guide for the group that finished minutes after mine seemed to share my feelings. “Nobody died!” he cheered, stepping gleefully out of his go-kart.

Correction: The Taiwanese go-karter didn’t ride with MariCar, but instead did so with a different company.