A Car Nerd's Guide To JapanAn insider look at car culture in Japan.  

Have you ever woken up and told yourself you need the instrument cluster cover from a Honda CR-Z? Have you ever walked into an auto parts store with a front bumper of a Mustang hanging from the wall? What about the rear wing from an RX-7, the seat from an Alpine A310, and a headlight from a Fiat 500? That’s just a single headlight, not a pair. This is Up Garage, the used auto parts giant of Japan, and it is fascinating.

One of the best things about the Japanese car culture is its diversity. I’ve said it time and time again, there’s quite literally something for everyone here. That’s what keeps everyone on their toes when going to events and meets. You’ll never know what you’ll find. Each weekly meet at Daikoku and Tatsumi is a new experience because you’ll never know what you’ll find there and what could show up at any time.

There’s a sort of ‘thrill of the hunt’ aspect when it comes to these meets and events. By now you’ll be aware of how varied the car scene is in Japan with everything from Citroen 2CVs to the latest Modenese supercar, lowriders and cars so slammed a snail literally has more ground clearance. Of course, most of the enthusiast cars you see driving around are never left stock. The aftermarket scene in Japan is still very much alive, if not as busting as it once was. But there’s still no where quite like it which also means there’s no where else to search for car parts.

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There are several ways going going about it. The most obvious would be on the internet but that can be hassle. You have to go to a bunch of different sites, crashing your computer with all the tabs you have opened. Then scouring through hundreds and thousands of pages to find the right part. Then when you do you can’t be a hundred percent sure it’ll fit or if it’s legit. There’s also the hassle of waiting for it to be sent in the mail to wherever you live. Then if something does go wrong what are you going to do, send it back? Argue for a refund online? Luckily there’s a shop that makes searching for that one part a little bit easier.

Up Garage was founded by Makoto Ishida in Tokyo in 1999 as a place where people can buy and sell car parts and goods. Ishida thought if they bought parts for cheap and sold them for cheap, it’d “enrich the lives of enthusiasts.” Stores cater more towards the hands-on enthusiast, unlike Autobacs which is more for average consumer.

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You could see Up Garage as a response to Autobacs which was more about the casual consumer and making one’s “car life” happier. Up Garage is all about “getting closer and intimate with car parts.” It’s also involved with motorsports, backing a Super GT team. One employee also runs in Formula Drift over in the States, Kazuya Taguchi

Each Up Garage location sells different stock, so that aspect makes the hunt more exciting. Of course, staff from one store can find out if a part is in another store to save you from wasting time. They can also help with shipping overseas. The best bit is if you’re a tourist, you can purchase items tax free. Because Up Garage is now Japan’s largest source of used auto parts, with over 150 stores in the country and recently expanding in South East Asia, it’s not your Average Joe used parts store. All its items come with a one week warranty which gives you that extra piece of mind if a part is faulty or doesn’t fit. You don’t get that if you buy something off a random guy on Craigslist.

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Walking in the Nerima locaton had a feel of what Autobacs must’ve felt like in the early days. This Up Garage wasn’t the newest or the flashiest. Clustered displays of tires and wheels greeted customers on the first floor. Familiar OEM wheel designs came into view with BMW M4 Competition wheels catching my eye straight away. It was interesting to see random wheels from more mundane cars mixed with with aftermarket designs. Optional wheels for cars like the Alphard, Crown, and Elgrand were being offered for reasonable price and explains why some low-spec cars can sometimes be seen with the higher trim level wheels.

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Upstairs there was a little play area to keep the kids distracted while you ventured off on the second floor. It was here where it felt like a second hand shop, a bit like a thrift store but instead of vintage jackets you get second-hand exhausts. The floor was split into various sections for the different parts available. This didn’t really make things easier to find parts because while there’s a lot of stock in each Up Garage store, there’s not necessarily a lot of space. It’s all clustered which makes finding something in particular a bit of a challenge. Think of it as a bit of scavenger hunt sifting through boxes and crates of various bits and pieces. Luckily each item is labelled with the part and compatible car and whether or not an item is OEM or from a third-party brand. All of this is written in Japanese of course but Google Translate is your friend. Or better yet, bring a friend with some comprehension of Japanese.

As most of the stores are outside the city centre there’s little chance the staff there will speak English. Regardless, it’s still a lot of fun trawling through decades old parts and imagining what cars they came out of what use people would have for them. Does anyone today really want it need a Chrysler head unit, or three? Do they even work? Who care because it was only 990 yen ($9) each. Standing there for about 15 minutes contemplating my life and whether I needed or wanted it myself. Or what about the hardtop roof from a Toyota MR-S or the steering wheel from an Audi A4 S-Line?

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Up Garage is just as good of a source for tuning parts as it is for OEM stuff. There’s a lot of used springs, exhausts, seats, and navigation systems. A lot of these would’ve come from cars that perhaps got upgraded with newer items or perhaps they were sold and had the modified parts sold separately. One man’s trash is another man’s affordable used part, or so they say. Up Garage buys a lot of these sort of parts from dealers, wholesalers, and individuals coming in with their stuff. It’ll go direct to a seller’s house to inspect their parts and will buy on the spot. It’s all about that convenience and affordable prices.

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It was interesting to observe the people at the store on this particular day. It was around mid-afternoon on a Friday yet there were families in here, mom and dad browsing through aisles while the kids followed behind seemingly uninterested in the whole thing. There were a few older guys around too, most of them talking to staff members. Most surprising where the younger guys, probably early 20s who came in as a group of friends.

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In a way, places like Autobacs and Up Garage are helping keep these young guys interested in cars. Sure, there might be cheaper ways of sourcing parts if money is an issue, but Up Garage’s affordable items means people can keep going back and adding more to their cars. We all know once you start adding bits and pieces to your car, you can’t stop. Because Up Garage is constantly buying new inventory, going to a particular location is a bit like the Daikoku meet; you’ll never know what you’ll come across each time.

As with Autobacs, the era when all anyone did was physically go into a store are long gone. Most of the stock in this store was also available online at Up Garage’s online portal Croooober. However, some aspects of shopping in a store can’t be replaced. Up Garage provides installation on items purchased there as well as consultation. While I was there, a man was discussing which wheels and tire combos would be best for his car and driving needs. Michelins on a minivan might be overkill but the customer is always right.

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Think of it as eBay but more fun with the thrill of the hunt. If you go in there without a specific thing in mind it’s more fun. You’ll never know what you’ll find and what you’ll walk out with. Of course it’d be easier to shop online for what you specifically want but Up Garage might be the place to go to find those rare, nostalgic bits and bobs that’s a little too left field even for some online sites.

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I don’t see Up Garage going anywhere anytime soon. Sure it has its online store but its physical stores are still expanding. They have a charm to them that just can’t be replaced by clicking a mouse in front of a computer screen. Certainly, with the older enthusiasts, there’s a bit of nostalgia here too. Up Garage, much like the rest of the Japanese car scene, shows that sometimes the old fashioned way still has its merits.

At the very least it’s a great place to get closer and intimate with car parts.

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