For a trip down memory lane, here is my blog from a trip to Japan buying cars at auction back in 2008.
Days 1 & 2: Blast Furnace to Refrigerator
On a 39-degree day, leaving Adelaide wearing tracksuit pants and clutching a thick jacket earnt me a number of sideways glances, particularly as I was heading to Cairns on the first leg of the trip. Flying into Cairns was an event in itself – with recent flooding, all the rivers were struggling to cope with the deluge washing down from further upstream, and the silt being carried turned them all (and a good proportion of the sea near their outlets) a lovely shade of brown. The flight to Nagoya was fairly eventful one, thanks to a half-hour delay in Cairns due to ground equipment malfunction (“let’s fly Jetstar!…oh, hang on…”), then some fairly turbulent weather somewhere over Papua New Guinea. Being one of only a handful of English-speakers on the trip, I was given the enormous responsibility of sitting over the wing and being in charge of the emergency exit, and was beginning to wonder whether I would actually get to use it at a couple of points.
Ok, now I want you all to go outside to your cars, turn the airconditioner on to its coldest setting and highest fan speed, then place your faces right in front of the vents. This will give you a small glimpse into what the weather was like when I arrived in Nagoya. If a cold breeze is like a slap in the face, then I went nine rounds with Anthony Mundine while I waited for the train last night. Compounding the problem somewhat is the fact that Japanese heaters obviously have a button that reads “blast furnace” and I’ve probably removed and put on more clothing than a small brothel since I’ve arrived.
Having said that, Nagoya today was actually quite bearable, although the maximum temp was still somewhere in the single figures. No clouds, no wind and no snow meant that, while the thermals stayed on, the gloves and snowboarder’s jacket could stay in the suitcase. Let’s hope this is a trend that continues!
My brief re-acquaintance with the 8th wonder of the world – the Japanese convenience store – last night, reminded me of why I enjoy spending time here. Desperate for a snack, having skipped dinner, I passed on the butter-flavoured potato chips (tempting as they may be) and settled on chicken-consommé-flavoured ones, which did a remarkable job of tasting just like chicken. I spotted a new-released chocolate called “Panky” which I just had to try – those of you familiar with Japanese won’t be surprised to discover that Panky is actually small pieces of bread with vanilla cream wrapped in chocolate, and as weird as it sounds, didn’t taste too bad. As a closet lover of ham steaks, I was overjoyed to discover another breakthrough in Japanese takeaway cuisine – the ham steak on a stick! The total for these items and a bottle of water came to just 510 yen, or about $5.20 Aussie, and I remarked that many things in Japan (particularly with the improved exchange rate) have actually become cheaper than in Australia. Strange times indeed.
Catching a taxi to CAA auction is always plenty of fun, as local drivers always seem to know the back roads to avoid the congestion on the major arterials – good on the wallet but not so good on the heart. With most roads one-car-wide two-way roads, taxi drivers have developed the reflexes of cheetahs, unsurprising given that said reflexes always relate to some kind of survival instinct. Nevertheless, we made it the auction house in one piece.
Having just sat down to ready ourselves for a busy day’s car hunting, I suddenly heard a loud and rather ocker “Oi! Iron Chef!” from just over my shoulder, and who should be sitting there but two mates from Adelaide, also over here car hunting. Talk about small world.
Coming back to auctions in Japan is always a good reminder of how much variety there is in the local car market – just an incredible number of new models to see (and memorise, in my case) that have never reached Australian shores. I found an immaculate 1972 KGC10 2-door Skyline in white with fat gun-metal Watanabes and fell in love – the only problem was it was in the carpark, presumably driven to the auction by a dealer. Oh the humanity. Another interesting and quite rare car that popped up today was a Ford Thunderbird – not the early models, but the 2002-ish tribute model that was built in very limited numbers and hideously expensive (and, in many ways, just hideous). A lack of battery power prevented me from taking photos of it, but I’m sure you can Google it if you really want to know what they looked like.
The highlight of my day was finally getting to see, in the metal, a Mitsubishi Evo X, and the R35 GT-R, no less than three of which were being auctioned today. They sat in a special undercover section with a new BMW M6 and were guarded at all times, putting the kybosh on my attempts to get an Iron Chef Imports sticker on to one of them long enough to take a photo…
We picked up two cars for the day, but most of the ones we were really interested in came up quite some time after we were due to leave, so there were quite a number of proxy bids left for those. As I type this, we’re on a Shinkansen bound for Tokyo, which, with the three other trains we need to catch to get to our destination, will probably mean snatching a snack from the local convenience store at 10pm and getting an early night’s sleep for a 4:30am rise in the morning.
Day 3: USS Tokyo
Thursday: time to tackle the Goliath that is Japan’s biggest car auction – USS Tokyo. Only in Japan could you pass through a semi-rural area, with traditional housing and small rice paddies, and come upon a car park housing 13,000 cars on any given week. Greeting us at the door of the auction were 10 brand-new R35 GT-Rs in black-and-white formation, making yesterday’s display look rather tame. There were another six hiding away in various other spots during the auction too. Those hoping to sell their new GT-R and make a quick profit may well have been a little disappointed at the cut-throat nature of the auction houses, with most either passing in, or selling for roughly what they owed new, at around 8 million yen a pop. Coming close to that figure was a genuine KPGC10 GT-R, which, even at that price, was no concourse winner. Definitely worth a photo though!
Having arrived at the auction smack on 6:30am, we quickly got down to the business of sorting out where all the cars were and heading out into the bitterly cold weather to start checking cars. Thankfully, the auction staff was on hand to provide everyone with woollen gloves and special warm-packs which work via some form of chemical reaction to heat whichever part of the body needs it most. And no, I didn’t put it on the body part some of you might expect, although the thought certainly passed through my mind a few times. For such a large auction, it never ceases to amaze me that USS Tokyo hasn’t followed the lead of USS Nagoya and others and built a multi-level car park, instead bitumising hectares and hectares of land – obviously land in that area is cheap enough to make it the better option. The farthest point from the auction house is over 1.5km away, so my general soreness from walking comes as little surprise.
Some of you may be familiar with the concept of lanes – most auctions will run two lanes of cars through auction at any given time, working on the theory that, if the cars are from different section, very few people will end up bidding on two different cars at the same time. Because USS Tokyo is so large, they had six lanes running at once, which put any of the buyers worth their salt under the pump trying to stay ahead of the auction, check the cars in the metal and get back to the auction house in time to bid. Well I’m pleased to report that USS Tokyo now has no less than 10 lanes, so staying ahead of the cars going through is a bit like staying ahead of an avalanche that seems to pick up both in speed and severity as the day progresses.
In amongst the GT-Rs were a whole host of incredible cars, including a Maybach 62 which did an exceptional job of demonstrating how stupidly expensive-priced cars depreciate – worth over $1 million Australian new, this one failed to attract bids at just $200,000, despite being less than 3 years old and in immaculate condition. Ouch.
Once again, this blog entry is coming to you from a Shinkansen, heading back to Nagoya ready for tomorrow’s auction. Having ended up with 5 cars yesterday, today’s effort was fairly lacklustre in comparison, buying just 3 as I type this, although, again, we have placed a number of proxy bids for cars coming up later tonight – with accommodation already booked and paid for in Nagoya, and the total trip from Tokyo taking 4 and a half hours, it’s best not to leave one’s run too late.
Here’s your random trivia question for the day – answer in tomorrow’s blog! The latest fashion this winter is items of women’s clothing with thumb holes. I’ve now seen gloves with flip-up ends on the thumbs, as well as jumpers with long sleeves and thumb-holes for the wearer. See if you can guess why….
Day 4: USS Nagoya
Another 5:45pm start in Nagoya had me feeling the pinch today – this trip has been quite different to last time in that regard. I think it’s a combination of starting with the bigger auctions first (last time I had a couple of days to settle in) and the colder weather making it much harder to get out of bed! Having said that, it was a positively balmy 14 degrees C today, reinforcing my opinion that I’d brought some Australian weather with me on the plane. The thermals are still on, but I was able to go without my heavy jacket for most of the day.
Another amusing photo is of a Kei van (660cc) that has been modified to look like a VW Kombi. It’s quite a popular conversion over here, and it’s amazing how much different they can make the original car look with the changing of a few panels and a lick of paint. Mitsuoka is another “car company” that takes cars already available on the market and turns them into replicas of old British cars. Google Mitsuoka and enjoy the new names given to their vehicles.
Having checked all the cars we wanted to bid on by lunch time, we were able to catch the Shinkansen back to Kobe and bid on the remaining vehicles we liked from the office in Ashiya. In Japanese tradition, it considered good form to take presents to the Japanese office staff, and so Naoko and Mariko were the recipients of an Easter Bunny and a huge slab of Rocky Road from Darrell Lea (chocolate from Australia is always a pretty safe bet for a gift!).
We picked up another four cars for the day, which, along with 5 in total from Wednesday, takes the tally to 14 so far. There’s no getting around the conclusion that cars auction are, in general, dropping in quality, and getting more expensive. There are a number of new markets opening up for used Japanese cars around the world, with the Middle East, Russia and South Africa now some of the largest in terms of volume, which means more bidders on virtually everything. Some cars really have become a “needle in a haystack” proposition, and the days of good S13s and R32s, for example, are all but gone.
With paperwork all sorted in the office, it was time to head out for our first decent dinner all week. The hectic nature of auctions means that meals are either eaten on the run or not at all. Japanese convenience stores are usually pretty well stocked, but there’s a limit to the number of ham, cucumber and mayonnaise sandwiches (a favourite combo in Japan – I’m actually starting to like it!) one can consume over an extended period of time. Tonight we went to a Brazilian restaurant and basically stuffed ourselves senseless.
For 3500 yen (roughly $35), diners get access to a very impressive buffet for 90 minutes, but the best was still to come. There’s a Brazilian method of cooking that’s quite similar to a rotisserie over a barbecue, where meat is placed on very long skewers and grilled. From there, a staff member would periodically bring out said skewers and slice the meat off and put on your plate. During the night we had chicken pieces, pork spare ribs, ham, lamb and five different cuts of beef (including, interestingly enough, one taken from the neck and face of the cow, which didn’t taste quite so nice once I knew where it was from…). I passed on the chicken heart, too.
It was my first opportunity to get back behind the wheel in Japan, and Vincent’s Legacy GT-B Blitzen was a pretty good weapon of choice. While back streets are best driven very slowly and cautiously, the expressways are incredibly easy to navigate, and one of many things that Japan does far more efficiently than Australia. As with so many other aspects of life here, speed limits are routinely ignored, but with a tacit understanding that you will be pulled over (and have the book thrown at you) if you’re doing double the speed limit or higher. Makes Victoria’s 3km/h tolerance look pretty ridiculous, and I’m sure you can guess who pays more attention to the road…
Well that’s it for Friday! Answer to yesterday’s trivia question – the thumb holes are so young ladies can keep their gloves on and still send text messages on their mobile phones 😉
Day 5: HAA Kobe
Ok today’s entry might read a bit like an episode of War and Peace, but there is plenty to fit in! I’m writing in chronological order, so make sure you read right to the bottom for the best it! It’s worth the read!
Another 6am start! Being situated right next to the sea, I had the feeling HAA Kobe auction was going to be freezing, so packed all my most serious cold-weather gear. My prediction turned out to be correct, and the rain and snow rolled in soon after lunch time and continued for the remainder of the day. Thankfully we had inspected most of the cars we were interested in by that point. While there are plenty of good cars at HAA Kobe, virtually every car at auction is in the “Z corner”, meaning that it’s locked and, in order to get the keys, bidders need to wait in ridiculously long lines to wait to get the keys from auction staff, usually at the farthest point from the car itself. What’s worse is that, while Z-corner cars are all placed in the one spot, they are not numbered in order, so finding the car is extremely trying, particularly in bad weather. It is hardly surprising to find that some buyers take shortcuts at HAA and don’t bother unlocking the cars or even venturing out of the warm bidding rooms.
There’s good reason to check cars carefully, though – exhibit A is a Legnum Super VR-4 that had had the Recaro seats removed, and in their place were base model Legnum seats, which, of course, wasn’t even mentioned on the auction sheet! See pics of it below. Unbelievable. We picked up another 3 cars, taking the tally to 17, but continued the trend for the week of mostly buying cars in the upper price range rather than $10,000 landed-and-complied-type stuff. The account balance is looking decidedly average as a result, so those of you who’ve had your orders filled, make sure you hit the bank soon!
We didn’t bid on the American school bus though – seriously why would anyone import a school bus that is left hand drive when the local ones are cheaper and better in almost every way? It defies belief. Note also the Gallardo Spider up for auction as well as the two Mercedes CLSs – can you spot the difference? With no restrictions on left-hand-drive vehicles like we have in Australia, Mercedes Benz Japan will happily sell their customers a vehicle in their choice of left or right-hand-drive.
After the auction, we went to the Super Autobacs in Kobe to pick up some goodies, and I’ve taken a few picks of cars spotted in the car park, including a mini-meet of Legnums. Then it was a late-afternoon trip to TRIAL to catch up with Maki-san and the crew there. Some of you might remember an ex-English student of mine named Fumi works there, and Yuiichi once again managed to escape my photo-taking this time around, but chatting to him is always a great laugh. Chihose, where is my invoice? 😛 As you can see from the photos taken around the place (note the snow still falling in one shot), there are way too many cars to go through any of them in detail, but suffice to say that, if TRIAL had been a car show in Australia, everyone would be wondering how anyone could gather so many good cars in the one spot.
As we were getting ready to leave, TRIAL boss Maki-san asked us if we’d like to pay him ichi-man-en ($100 or so) for a ride in an R35 GT-R, and we had quite a laugh about until he said, “No I’m joking. You can have a ride for free. Would you like a ride in a GT-R?” At around the same time, the Blitz R35 “work car” turned up out the front, and our jaws hit the ground. As it turned out, Blitz were at TRIAL for the day doing some promotional work for their products and taking TRIAL customers for laps around the block in their GT-R. With the temperature hovering around zero, it was pretty much perfect weather for good horsepower, although the snow made life interesting.
The Blitz rep had been doing test drives all day, and locals had been complaining to the police about a GT-R blasting past, so the test route changed a few times throughout the day for fear of losing his licence, so he told us. Getting sideways on the wet and icy road in first gear on the exit from TRIAL soon had him short-changing into second for the rest of the trip, especially once he flicked over to R mode, transforming a fairly sedate touring car into a track weapon. Seriously, with the whine from the drivetrain and clunking and jumping of the clutchless manual box under light load, R mode isn’t something you’d be using to drive to the shops. Open the throttle and it really is amazing to see how quickly the R35 bolts through the gears. Note that I took a couple of quick photos early and then sat back and enjoyed the ride. Vincent, in the meantime, was busy checking out the cup-holders in the back seat!
Vincent told me to walk back in to the TRIAL staff and say “Manzoku” which means “I’m satisfied” although given the laughter I got from that comment, I think the context in Japanese may be a little different to what I’d hoped.