Rural Japan Has the Best Cars

A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to take a 10-day trip to Japan. Having never really left the country before, I wasn’t completely sure what to expect. What I found when I got there was a completely different world that I never could have fully prepared myself for.
We spent the first two days of the trip in Yamanouchi, a small mountain village in Nagano. We stayed at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese bed and breakfast) where we slept on tatami mats, made multiple trips to the onsen (a bath fed by a natural hot spring), and ate traditional Japanese meals for breakfast and dinner each day. We spent the rest of our time exploring the town, taking in the mountain scenery, and enjoying a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the Twin Cities—the only sound we could hear most of the time was the rush of the water from a natural hot spring winding its way down the mountains and through the towns.

As we explored, it was impossible to overlook the myriad differences between life in Yamanouchi and life in the Twin Cities. As a person who works in the automotive industry, I naturally paid more attention to the cars dotting the tiny, winding roads and carports under houses. Almost every single one housed some variation of a Daihatsu subcompact car, but some others stuck out a bit more. We had a lot of fun trying to guess the makes of vehicles we’d never seen before (spoiler alert: they were all Toyota) and wrapping our heads around the fact that when we saw a new Mazda CX-5, a small car by most standards in the US, it looked like it could eat all the other cars for lunch.

Out of all the cars that we saw in Yamanouchi, my favorite was the Subaru Bistro. I never would’ve guessed it was a Subaru from the appearance, nor would I have pegged Subaru to even consider making such a car. Purposefully styled to look retro and modeled after early Mini Cooper designs, the Bistro was only produced for a few years in the 90s.
Other than that, the most interesting thing I noticed was that Toyota uses different badges on the hood of each model they make. I’ve never seen that on vehicles in America, but I can see it as a modern extension of hood ornaments. I was excited when I finally started recognizing different models, but it was definitely annoying at first when we’d see a new badge and go around the back of the car only to discover yet another Toyota.

After the wide variety of cars we saw in Nagano, I was so ready to encounter even wilder cars in Tokyo and Osaka. As it turns out, the more populated areas of Japan have strict regulations around vehicle age, mileage, emissions, etc meaning we were surrounded by a lot of newer cars that mirrored what we see every day driving around the Twin Cities. The wildest thing we saw was a new Mazda2 (known as the Demio in Japan), which allowed us all to briefly wax nostalgic about the days when you could still get one of those in America.

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