I mashed the pedal down hard and braced myself as my go-kart accelerated.
Ahead — finally — was a long stretch with no traffic lights. Good news for me since I was tired of being stuck behind the slow-moving Tokyo traffic, sweating profusely in my Mario onesie.
Up ahead was my friend Shanta, dressed as Doraemon, who I had somehow convinced to join me in a seatbelt-free go-kart around Tokyo. Our Japanese MariCar guide, Kengo, was way ahead. We struggled to keep pace thanks to cars that kept slotting in between us and cutting off our vision.
Thankfully, things changed once we made it to Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge. Japanese drivers are a tad more considerate than most, and left us to our own devices as our go-kart convoy of three sped down at about 60 kph. We were headed towards Odaiba, a large artificial island in Tokyo Bay where a 115-meter ferris wheel and a 18-meter Gundam statue are located.
Sadly for my geek self, the Gundam was still under construction, so I could only glimpse the bottom half of its torso as I whizzed past. We’d been driving for an hour, so our guide signaled for us to take a pit stop and pose for photos with the ferris wheel in the background.
This was a good time for a break. Go-karting is as draining as it is fun. We were exposed to the hot Tokyo summer and had so far stopped at almost every other traffic light, flanked by container trucks and cars. But once we got onto an uninterrupted stretch and really opened up, everything was forgiven.
The go-karting service in Tokyo is operated by MariCar. It has 6 different stores and 11 routes in the city, as well as two other stores in Osaka and Okinawa. Unlike other countries, go-karts are allowed on the streets in Tokyo, so there should be no issues with the law. Nintendo sued MariCar for copyright infringement earlier this year, but the courts have since ruled in MariCar’s favor, leaving it free to continue operating.
If you’re lucky, go-karters may bump into other onesie-clad drivers — or even a convoy of them depending on the season. It’s a lot more fun to kart in a big group, but there’s a limit of 25 people. Any more and drivers may not be able to keep up properly, says MariCar.
A two-hour ride costs around 8,000 yen (about $75, £55 or AU$95), while a shorter one-hour drive is just 5,000 yen (about $45, £35 or AU$60) and you get discounts for leaving a review on Facebook. Costumes are free, but if you want additional accessories such as a Mario moustache you’ll have to fork out extra. If you want to record your ride, you can rent an action camera too.
The route takes you through Tokyo’s biggest tourist destinations, from the upmarket shopping belt of Ginza to Tokyo Tower. If you’re unsure what to expect from each route, MariCar’s site gives a rated breakdown, explaining how fast you can go and whether you’ll be able to enjoy Tokyo’s nightlife if you take an evening tour.
If you’re into attention, this tour will definitely get you that. Smiling locals waved at us and tourists took our photos. It no doubt helped that we looked like we’d just jumped out of Mario Kart 8: Deluxe.
But unlike the video game, there’s no racing on this tour and no fighting with weaponized turtle shells. I wasn’t encased in metal as I would be in a normal vehicle, and that made me feel vulnerable. The go-karts are street legal and come with their own license plates and signal lights, but they also lack seat belts.
The guide keeps a steady eye on drivers on the road, and you’ll have to stop in pairs so you don’t take up space. It feels pretty safe as long as you don’t suddenly decide to accelerate off on your own. Of course, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been accidents. A MariCar employee mentioned minor incidents such as a driver crashing her go-kart into a police box, but there have been no serious situations so far. Regardless, you’re fully insured in the event of an accident.
Return of the kart
As we made our way down the Ginza during our final stretch, my legs were already feeling cramped. The vibrations from the rattling motor were giving me a tiny headache and the noon sun wasn’t helping. Making the final turn, I cruised to a stop outside the carpark, where countless other go-karts were parked.
I had a big grin on my face as I unsteadily got out of my ride. I was feeling nothing but relief: Partly that I had made it back safely, but also because it meant I could finally get out of the sweaty Mario onesie I’d been wearing for the past two hours. As we made our way back to the shop to pick up our belongings, I wondered, would I do this again?
Oh yes, I would.
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