Hearing about the opportunity to experience real life Mario Kart in Tokyo, I knew I had to give it a try. It’s our sixth day in Tokyo and, hopefully, I’ve made it this far without making any horrendous social faux pas.
So Many Rules!
I’ve remembered not to rest my chopsticks upright in my rice (it’s associated with funeral rites), not to eat and walk at the same time, and definitely to remove my shoes before entering people’s homes.
Japan is a land of many rules and complex social etiquette. Is this sometimes taken too far? Well, possibly.
One bottle of shampoo warned that if we wanted to use it to drink from then we should remove the contents first. Got it, thanks. Smokers are also reminded not to jab cigarette ends into children’s faces, which, if anything, just made me do it even more.
However, I’m not complaining. Most of these rules combine to create a highly ordered, efficient public life, and more importantly, help foster a healthy respect for others.
Sure, there can be a little anxiety involved in observing so many social mores, but once you’ve got your head around it all it can be quite nice to know exactly what’s expected of you and what you can expect of others. Still, it can feel like a lot to remember at times.
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Which is why it’s especially surreal to be among traffic on a busy Tokyo highway, dressed as Bowser and sitting in a Mario Kart.
We’ll wind our way through the fashionable streets of Roppongi, bobbing and weaving between taxis, trucks and motorbikes, then around the breath-taking site of Tokyo Tower, before making our way through the bustling Shibuya district and its iconic crossing.
The sun is shining and everywhere we go people wave at us. Not just tourists and children, but adults too: salarymen in suits, construction workers, shopkeepers, everyone seems happy to see a group of Pokémon and Mario characters fly past on Go-Karts.
It genuinely seems to brighten their day, and we feel like minor celebrities too, waving back and posing for photos as if we actually were the cast of Mario Kart.
But one thought keeps going through my mind: “how can I be allowed to do this?”
Imagine trying the same idea in London or Rome; I wouldn’t even know where to start. I know where it would finish: sitting in a bar telling your friends about the ridiculous business idea you just had rejected by the council.
And even if you did get it to work, I’m not really sure how many tourists would want to risk their necks for a few hours’ fun. A Canadian chap we met said there was no way he would try this in Toronto and I think I’d feel the same way about doing it in my home city, too.
Rules Are Fun Now
Paradoxically though, it’s precisely the ordered efficiency of Japanese life that allows us to Mario Kart in Tokyo whilst feeling just as natural as surreal.
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On our trip, nobody switched lanes unexpectedly or cut us up; no-one honked or harassed us; nobody tried to run the lights and we didn’t hit any traffic jams, even at peak time.
Driving in Tokyo is so ordered that it makes an experience like this not only possible but pleasurable. I can’t think of any cities outside Japan where this would work so well. So, as much as Mario and Pokémon now belong to a modern age with a shared iconography, there is something about this experience that remains uniquely and authentically Japanese.
Mario Kart In Tokyo Tips
In the spirit of “rules are fun now”, here are some things you will and won’t be able to do on your trip:
YES: Eat a banana
NO: Throw a banana at a family vehicle (sadly Tokyo is yet to install Item Boxes on its streets)
NO: Drift across lanes of traffic
YES: Drift off. There are plenty of traffic lights where you can take a break to daydream. Don’t worry about falling into a deep sleep, however. Other motorists will inform you if this happens.
YES: See Tokyo
NO: See all of Tokyo. The city is so huge that you can only cover a small part of it, so research first and choose your desired area carefully (more details below).
NO: Aggressively overtake other karters just like you do when playing the real Mario Kart (safety first)
YES: Allow them to pass you slowly, in a spirit of gentle camaraderie
How To Actually Do It
Hopefully, my guide has persuaded you to Mario Kart in Tokyo…if so then you’ve made the right decision, friend!
So, are you ready to live the dream and become Mario or Pikachu? Perhaps you’ll opt to disappoint your mother even more and become Luigi?
Whatever you decide, we’d strongly recommend booking with MariCAR. They were excellent throughout our trip and I was particularly impressed with our guide, Hiro, who wasn’t just friendly and funny but also gave clear instructions on how to stay safe and checked with us all regularly to make sure we were happy and keeping up.
Perhaps life as a Mario Kart guide has simply taught him to remain cautious when in 1st place? No-one likes a blue shell, after all.
MariCAR operates different routes through Tokyo, starting at Shinagawa, Asakusa, Shibuya or the Tokyo Bay area. There are a variety of lengths, of course, open to suit different budgets but the average price is about 9,000 Yen per person.
You can choose to see the city in the daytime, as we did, or take the night course for added drama. As well as choosing your character costume—genuinely one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made—they also have a range of products you can choose to rent to enhance your experience.
A GoPro is always handy, there are music speakers for the terminally conspicuous, or a fake mustache for the…people who don’t have mustaches.
For travelers who aren’t able to Mario Kart in Tokyo, MariCAR also has branches in Osaka, Okinawa and Yokohama.
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FULL DISCLOSURE: We have no financial incentive to promote MariCAR, and other similar tour operators exist. Our recommendation comes entirely from the writer’s personal experience.
Suggested next reading: 6 Temples & Shrines In Kyoto That Will Cure Your Wanderlust