Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Car Shopping in Japan

Treat Bags, Toys & Free Beer

My wife and I walked through the sliding glass storefront doors, our kids not trailing us so much as swarming around us like a nebulous cloud of sweet-smelling humanity. The people working looked up, all of them at once, and greeted us with a rousing chorus of ‘Irrasshaimase~!’ A young girl with a pony tail as crisp as her white blouse and black skirt ensemble walked over, bent slightly at the waist in that subtle and ubiquitous display of deference, and offered us a string of niceties like flower petals laid out at our feet.

Japanese hospitality never gets old.

Her beaming smile was genuine and steady and, outside of Japan, a rare attribute for 8 bucks an hour. She continued her bowing, bobbing show of polished civility as she led us to our table. Not waiting for us to be seated, she produced out of nowhere a pristine faux-leather-bound menu and proceeded to ask us what we would like to drink.

My boys shouted in tandem – ‘Melon soda!’ – and headed for the foam-padded play area in the corner. Their little sister followed, focused only on the red slide. My wife asked our waitress something about tea. I stood next to her, looking around at the other people sitting and drinking at their tables, and wondered what the hell was going on.

I’d never been to a car dealership in Japan. I now go to them every weekend.

My wife had a friend who worked at this wonderfully endearing Honda showroom. They had, we were told, several used minivans among the new cars that made up the vast majority of their inventory. And we needed the space of a minivan rather than the sensible practicality of a regular car thanks to that third child over there, that twenty-two pound crawling, screaming, drink-spilling machine tumbling backwards down the red slide over in the corner.

Our waitress served us our drinks, placed three little bags of candy next to my kids’ glasses, then smiled some more as she commented on how cute our screaming twenty-two pounder was. Remaining bent over, she backed away from our table as if we were royalty, leaving us to enjoy in peace what would be the perfect amount of time before my wife’s friend appeared out of nowhere and greeted us with a smile and a comment about how cute our screaming twenty-two pounder was.

We were summarily told that they only had two used vehicles on the entire lot. This would have elicited a few sarcastic words out of my mouth except (a) they were so polite about it, (b) they’d just given me free coffee, and (c) Japanese people do not get the concept of sarcasm.

The two sort-of (for Japan) largish almost-mini-SUV-type cars they had were both perfect microcosms of man-made Japan: clean, orderly and entirely too small. One had a DVD player. The other came with a set of snow tires. Neither had room in the back for a bicycle.

My wife suggested buying one of them because her friend had shown them to us. I had other ideas and went back inside for a refill on the coffee.

On our way out of the showroom the entire staff sent us off with a rousing chorus - ‘Arigatou gozaimashita~!’ - while our permanently-smiling waitress handed my kids fireworks. For our parting gifts my wife and I got pocket-sized packets of tissues.

...And so we search on...

Down the street we visited a Toyota dealership; the same scenario played out except there were no refills on the coffee and the play area was noticeably and quite thoughtlessly small. My boys didn’t care; they are happy to fight over stuff no matter what size. My girl climbed up and tumbled off a rubber rocking horse.

They had two used vans that seemed much more suited to our needs. ‘Can we see them?’ I asked in abrupt, coffee-stained Japanese. I like to jump into the conversation when the questions are easy and the answers are predictable.

‘No, I am sorry,’ the man said.


No, we couldn’t, as they were both presently on a Toyota lot in Koriyama, an hour south.

My kids got more fireworks on our way out. My wife and I each got a fan.

At our third place, a Daihatsu dealership, we never even made it inside. My wife very nicely accosted the salesman hurriedly crossing the lot as if he had something to do and was trying to avoid contact with us, because he would then be obligated to offer us as much of the rest of his day as we wanted – and would have to smile and be polite through it all. My wife, although she is Japanese, does not think of these things and tends to accost people.

Daihatsuland had a few used cars that were too small and one van that, surprisingly, was much too big. Before letting us go, perhaps relieved that we were not going to be taking up the rest of his day, our salesman ran inside and came back out with a proper-sized box of tissues for us. My older son is mature enough not to say things like ‘Don’t we get fireworks?’ My younger son is not. My little girl reached for my shorts, missed and fell down.

That evening my wife, either suddeny prone to giving up or simply bent on being nice, suggested again we get one of her Honda friend’s vehicles. I said we should go to the Nissan dealership the next day. I was not about to spend the next four years cramming our growing kids into a back seat the size of a carton of Cup Ramen.

Our guy Takagi-san at the Nissan lot, after letting us finish our drinks, showed us several used vans. He also managed to ignore the one van that was perfect for us; perfect within Japanese parameters at least.
Eventually he stopped talking to my wife about those other vans and came over to me.

Back inside I slouched in my chair and sipped more free joe while my wife tossed all kinds of questions at Takagi-san. When she was done I told him that the rotors and the muffler were rusty and the tires looked a bit worn. While he was outside checking everything out I snagged another coffee. Then I finished off my kids’ lemon sodas and dug into their candy bags while they continued knocking each other around the wide, cushiony play area that not even my daughter could get hurt in - which meant she was compelled to climb up on the foam wall border and fall over onto the linoleum floor.

Well I know what I want...

Despite the egregious lack of a DVD player I was giddy about buying this van. Because Takagi-san and his bowing, smiling, flower petal polite co-workers were running a campaign wherein every new vehicle purchase came with a very special gift.

‘Come this way,’ he said (handing us three crisp, unblemished Nissan umbrellas as it has started to rain) and led us over to a side office the size and shape of a trailer home. There he showed us a table with three gifts to choose from, a thank you for choosing Nissan, rusty rotors and all.

"Honey, you drive."
I already knew what they had on offer. I knew exactly what I was taking home.

‘I’ll take the case of beer,’ I said.

‘Good choice,’ said Takagi-san, handing me my prize.

The Japanese have no sense of irony.

Our new van has so far performed admirably, taking the five of us and all our stuff up over the mountains of Fukushima, down the Sea of Japan coast and over the mountains of Nagano to our new home here in Matsumoto, where they don’t know me and I am able to make the rounds at the car dealerships all up and down Route 19.

Until around October when I’ll have to start motorcycle shopping.