A look into MariCar, Tokyo’s Real-Life Mario Kart Circuit

Last week, the Nintendo Switch was graced with the release of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. With a roster of playable characters and stages uncontested by any previous game in the series, and new features such as Smart Steering and Auto-accelerate designed to aid inexperienced players young and old alike, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is posed to take the heart of many a gamer.

But if you’ve ever lived in Tokyo, as I did for six months last year as an exchange student, you might be familiar with an even more captivating version of Mario Kart. One that’s a little more realistic than what the series has typically offered. No, I’m not talking about Mario Kart GP DX, the full-sized Mario Kart arcade machine (which yes, can be readily found in Japanese arcades) – I’m talking about MariCar.

While Tokyo is no stranger to curiously-shaped automobiles designed to accommodate to the country’s dense, narrow roads, I was taken aback when I first started encountering what appeared to be a gaggle of go-karts ridden by people wearing Mario costumes. A defiant contrast to the metropolis’ ubiquitous grayness, the karters appeared to roam the streets of downtown Tokyo with such confidence that I could only assume they were some sort of video game-inspired gang, unabashedly dedicated to taking the streets of Tokyo one red shell at a time.

As I would eventually discover, the go-karters were not actually some sort of post-post-ironic group of criminals, but rather participants in tours hosted by MariCar, Tokyo’s largest public go-karting company. For a starting price of 6000 Japanese yen ($53 USD) and an international driver’s permit, participants are given the opportunity to speed through a circuit composed of some of Tokyo’s most iconic wards, all the while wearing context-appropriate costumes provided by the company. While I did not partake in any go-karting myself, as I lacked a permit, I couldn’t help but smile and wave (read: hold my phone up to document this unbelievable sight) every time I saw them – which was more often than you might think.

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Unfortunately, things are far from rosy with MariCar these days: as reported by Kotaku in February, Nintendo announced a lawsuit against the rental company for using the Japanese corporation’s characters and iconography without permission. Then in march, a turn gone awry by a tourist using one of MariCar’s vehicles resulted in her accidentally crashing into a police box; while thankfully nobody was injured, the crash does little to help assuage MariCar’s impending legal troubles.

I’m not going to try to dispute the legality or justifiability of Nintendo’s decision to pursue legal action against MariCar. The fact of the matter is that it is completely within Nintendo’s right to want to protect its copyrights, especially when the violating company in question is one that generated controversy – albeit unintentionally – around Nintendo’s intellectual property as a result of the aforementioned crash.

And yet – I can’t help but lament the thought of MariCar’s services being brought to an end.

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From a young age, I was conditioned to believe that Japan was as glorious as it was foreign; a wonderful and wonderfully weird country whose strangeness was perfectly reflected in the anime and video games it endlessly exported. When the opportunity to study abroad in Japan presented itself to me, I anticipated receiving the biggest injection of culture shock I had ever experienced.

But when I arrived, I found myself surrounded by familiarity. From the English language, which plastered billboards and signs as often as Katakana or Kanji, to Western food, which was readily available for purchase anywhere you looked, Japan took me aback with how familiar it felt to Western society. Instead of being grabbed by the alienness of Japan’s institutions, I was distracted by how similar they were to what I was already used to.

And then suddenly, I hear the sputter of a half-dozen tiny engines, and see a mass of go-karters dressed up in Mario costumes waltzing around Shinagawa ward, as if pursued by a blue shell. And I think, “Oh, that’s right – I’m on the other side of the planet now!”

MariCar may not be completely legally sound, but it’s a serendipitous reminder that even in the most mundane of moments, Japan can be just as wonderfully weird as one expects it to be. I can only hope that Nintendo recognizes this as well.

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