A friend of mine has a theory about Japanese pop idol performances. In his opinion, the real show isn’t the performers on stage, but the fans in the audience putting their unabashed passion on display as they cover themselves from head to toe in clothing bearing the likeness of their favorite singer.
You can make a similar argument about Tokyo’s anime shopping mecca of Akihabara. Sure, the neighborhood is packed with specialty stores, each of which is in turn packed with the rarest and/or latest merchandise. As interesting as the inventories of professional products may be, though, they’re often upstaged by the creations of fans who flock to the district to show them off, such as the anime-decaled cars of Japan’s itasha capital, the Akihabara UDX parking garage.
Itasha cars have seen their popularity explode over the last few years, as social networking allows owners to share their rides more easily with other anime enthusiasts. In turn, this greater exposure has encouraged owners to get together to snap photos and swap ideas, usually by meeting up in a parking lot or garage.
Of course, if you’re the proud owner of an itasha, you probably don’t mind mixing in a little anime shopping with your trip out of the house, so Akihabara is the obvious destination. UDX not only has a convenient location, it’s also entirely enclosed, meaning you don’t have to worry about rain or other inclement weather damaging your painstakingly applied anime artwork.
UDX parking garage staff member Shuhei Abe says that he first noticed a sharp increase in the number of itasha customers the garage had about three years ago. He started posting snapshots of the cars to the company’s blog, and eventually UDX became known as the place to scope out and display itasha. The garage has become so well-known that itasha magazines and photographers occasionally rent out a section for photo shoots.
▼ At first this looked kind of gross, but then we noticed how ridiculously clean the floor is.
While customers have to pay to park, there’s no charge to walk in and look at the rides. Some foreign tour groups even swing by UDX as part of their activities in Akihabara.
Abe says that during the week, the majority of the spaces are occupied by normal looking cars driven by people who work in the area. On the weekends, though, the garage draws itasha owners from all over east Japan.
UDX easily sees 20 to 30 itasha on Saturdays and Sundays, and on particularly busy days, as many as 50 come by.
Of course, the more money you throw into decals, the less you have left over for the car itself, so some of the models aren’t exactly the latest. The Nissan 180 SX, for example, went out of production several decades before the start of Love Live, the series this character hails from.
Likewise, Honda’s mid-engined Beat was gone from showrooms long before anyone thought up the software necessary for virtual idols like Hatsune Miku.
Sometimes, though, the reverse happens, in that it’s the anime that’s particularly old.
▼ This Toyota Celica is driven by one of two remaining people who care about the mercenary dogfighting series Area 88 (the Internet writer who instantly recognized the insignia being the other).
Here, the car and the cartoon are both past their peaks in popularity, as the Honda Legend and Cardcaptor Sakura each had legions of devotees in their day, but garner far less attention from new automobile and anime nuts.
Some itasha even double up on their referential visuals. For example, this Celica and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution not only sport Girls und Panzer decals, but also the livery from when the two cars competed in the World Rally Championship.
Similarly sporty is this race-inspired Toyota Supra.
Not all itasha feature anime artwork, though. Some draw inspiration from manga comics, like this Toyota Chaser with its multi-panel layout from Jormungand, speech bubbles and all.
Still other itasha pay homage to video game classics, like this Mazda RX-8 done up in the colors of Ridge Racer’s Racing Team Solvalou.
You don’t even have to be infatuated with a fictional persona or world to be part of the club. Plastered on the hood of this Nissan S15 Silvia is voice actress Eri Kitamura.
Meanwhile, reigning queen of anime songs Nana Mizuki graces this Suzuki Swift.
For some people, creating an itasha is all about cramming as much artwork as you can onto your rolling canvas.
Others take a less comprehensive approach, like this owner who seems to be trying to fit the entire cast of the Idol Master franchise onto a single corner panel of his Suzuki Alto.
He’s very much the exception to the rule, though. For many people creating an itasha, the artwork is so important they’re willing to sacrifice most of their rear visibility for it.
Others are willing to sacrifice all of it.
Contrary to popular belief, adding neon lights to the bottom of the car has never been particularly popular among Japanese street racers. Itasha enthusiasts, though, seem to have embraced the look, especially when it ties into the character’s signature color.
▼ Just in case the girl with the angel wings wasn’t eye-catching enough, the owner of this Toyota Alphard decided to paint the whole thing pink.
In some cases, the artwork is truly astounding. In others, the surprising thing is that the driver didn’t get pulled over and taken in for questioning long before he arrived at UDX.
▼ We’re not sure what exactly constitutes probable cause for a vehicle search under the Japanese penal code, but it seems like this might qualify.
Not surprisingly, the majority of itasha owners are men, and many choose to make one of anime’s fetching heroines their muse.
That’s not to say there are no ladies with their own itasha, though.
▼ A Prince of Tennis Nissan Cube
▼ This Kuroko’s Basketball Mazda Premacy has enough seats for an entire team, including two substitutes.
Put perhaps the most dedicated itasha owner of all is the driver of this car.
Sure, the artwork, featuring Sera Shinohara from visual novel Koiiro Soromoyo, isn’t as over the top as many of the other examples here. But what brands the owner as truly committed to his 2-D crush is his choice of vehicle: the Toyota Sera.
When you don’t just slap on decorations, but choose the model of car itself based on it coincidentally having the same name as your favorite video game heroine, you, sir, are hardcore.
Akihabara UDX Parking
Tokyo-to, Chiyoda-ku, Sotokanda 4-14-1