Postcards from Tokyo – Reference Mark


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Perhaps it’s in response to the looming pressure from the Shanghai and Beijing auto shows or that nonautomotive shows such as CES are starting to steal the thunder from the autorama circuit, but the Tokyo Motor Show displayed more fighting spirit this year.

Sure, the Tokyo show might not have the glitz and weirdness it did before Japan’s miracle economy burst. But for a display that has bordered on bland/conservative for a couple decades, and which was even threatened with extinction, the 2017 effort was a return to form.

Toyota teased a chunky off-road successor to its FJ Cruiser, Mazda unveiled a sleeker-still evolution of its kodo design language, and Nissan brought a NISMO (!) version of its Leaf EV.

Wacky concepts were in abundance. Suzuki’s E-Survivor could be Japan’s home-market answer to the Jeep Wrangler. Yamaha’s Cross Hub compact car featured a diamond seating arrangement and a cargo area large enough to stow an adult’s motocross bike. Honda revealed a sporty iteration of its compact electric vehicle, which was equal parts cute and thrilling. Mitsubishi unveiled a high-performance electric SUV that carried an Evo badge, of all things. And then there were the lozenge-shaped personal mobility vehicles, with styling straight out of Blade Runner 2049. Clearly, the Japanese automakers brought their A game.

But one car stood out. Likely destined for the Japanese market, the Daihatsu Compagno is on my wish list to come to America, as well.

The Compagno has serious cool factor and would be a groovy first vehicle if you lived in an urban community. Like an energetic puppy, the Compagno surges forward on its haunches, with the face of a Volvo, the side profile and roofline of an Audi A3, and a back end like something out of Pininfarina’s 1965 catalog. The instrument displays are digital-modern but housed in a retro framework.

At 165.3 inches long, it splits the difference between a Toyota Yaris hatchback and Yaris iA sedan, with a similar width. Powered by a 1.0-liter turbo, it could probably fit Toyota’s 114-hp, 136 lb-ft 1.2-liter engine. Why a Toyota engine? Because Toyota owns Daihatsu. A personal note to Akio Toyoda: #BringCompagnoHere instead of the boring old Yaris.

Check out more of our Tokyo Motor Show coverage here

In a parallel narrative, this year’s Tokyo show marked the 20th anniversary of a biennial tradition of mine—meeting my friend, Nobuhiro Uchiyama, sushi chef extraordinaire and proprietor of Sushi Kanesho in Tokyo’s Shimbashi neighborhood.

In 1997, exhausted from a long day of covering the show, hungry and unable to decipher the katakana signage that marked storefronts of Tokyo’s bustling streets, I came across his restaurant. A knee-high sign with a caricature of a red-colored fish signified what lay beyond the tiny sliding door entry to the 20-seat establishment. The locals looked up from their sushi geta, surprised to see a gaijin pop in. Despite the demands of serving a packed house, Uchiyama-san extended warmth and hospitality at closing time, exchanging tales of his time spent in California.

Although Uchiyama had trained to be an architect—his splendid drawings and paintings adorn the walls of the restaurant—the family business was sushi, so he learned that art, as well.

Many years have since passed, time marked with sporadic visits and the welcome arrival of his hand-printed Christmas cards. We had a lot of catching up to do. I met his son, recently back from a high school foreign exchange tour in Hawaii. A few seats over, a family celebrating their daughter’s birthday were the only other customers this night—the father graciously serving as interpreter when our collective language skills ran out.

Uchiyama served exquisite tuna, octopus, and the very rare kinki fish, caught off the coast of Hokkaido. Also known as an “idiot fish,” the kinki fish is orange, with gaping eyes and a huge head. It also happens to be delicious, as sushi and later transformed as the stock of a fish soup his wife specially prepared.

Once again, I had stayed well past closing time. We took pictures and said fond farewells, and I left with a promise to visit again next time. With the Tokyo Motor Show’s renewed innovation and originality, let’s save the date.

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