MariCAR Osaka: Where you can go Mario Kart-ing in Japan

The first thing people ask when it becomes clear that you are going go-karting in Osaka wearing a Super Mario onesie isn't "a onesie?" but rather "on the actual streets?".

Well, yes, on the actual streets, at night, in and out of actual traffic, in a red, custom-built go kart lit up like a disco ball, and with a throbbing nightclub soundtrack blasting out of the lead car. After all, we're in Japan, possibly the politest and nuttiest country in the world.

The MariCAR go-kart office is hidden away in a small industrial estate in the Fukushima-ku area of Osaka and is best reached by taxi. On arrival you sign your life away, choose your onesie (Super Mario, Luigi, Pikachu, you name it) and then get a short safety briefing and lesson from the tour leader on how to behave in traffic.

It's a little intimidating at first but you soon realise it's all simple, common-sense stuff such as driving in a straight line behind one another, lining up in twos at traffic lights, obeying the usual road rules, not driving under buses or over pedestrians, that sort of stuff.

The MariCAR website is also very instructive: "MariCAR is in no way a reflection of the game Mario Kart. Therefore, when riding the go-karts none of the following will be allowed. 1. No racing each other on the streets. 2. Do not throw banana peels or any other garbage on to the streets. 3. Do not throw red turtle shells or any other objects to each other."

After this there's a quick orientation of the kart. This essentially consists of "here's the accelerator, here's the brake, there are no gears, yes, it's very low to the ground". And before you know it you're off.

On the night I go out there are only two other people in our small convoy – a husband and wife team from Hong Kong with their two small (and too small) children in a support car. As soon as we hit the dark streets around the office tour leader Ume Chan fires up his mobile discotheque and Ed Sheeran's Shape of You starts up. The lyrics, looking back afterwards, are remarkably prescient: "Come on now follow my lead, I may be crazy, don't mind me."

And follow Ume's lead we do. And he's slightly crazy. But in a good way.

Don't ask me the exact route we take but during the two hours we are out we speed around the bright lights of Osaka train station, drift past the impressive Umeda Sky Building and navigate the maze of small streets and alleyways around the popular Dotonbori entertainment district.

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At one point, on one of the larger main thoroughfares, we follow Ume's lead and swerve around manhole covers as if they are an obstacle course. We never really get up much past 40-50km/h but the low-slung karts and semi-prone driving position make it seem much faster.

What's most surprising is just how popular we are not just with other drivers but also with pedestrians. Everywhere we go people – locals and tourists alike – wave and grin and take photographs. If you ever want to know what it's like to be famous, give this a go.

At one point we stop to take our own pictures and find ourselves accosted by passers-by who want to take selfies with us. Somewhere in Germany there is a guy with a photograph of the two of us giving the peace sign by the colourful neon Dotonburi gate.

It's a thrilling night out and a good way to see this most vibrant of cities. And after that initial period of wary adjustment you can feel the muscles in your mouth start to spread in a goofy grin that wouldn't look out of place on Super Mario himself.

MariCAR also operates in Tokyo, Yokohama and Okinawa, and while there have been some issues with some drivers flouting the road rules or crashing into each other, our Osaka guide works hard to make it as exciting as possible without compromising on safety.

Eventually we have to head back, the traffic thinning out as we leave the city centre behind. In a last flourish, Ume chucks a squealing U-turn into the home straight and we follow somewhat reluctantly in his wake. Sad to say it really is … GAME OVER.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/japan

maricar.osaka/en

insidejapantours.com

jnto.org.au

FLY

Qantas flies direct from Sydney to Osaka's Kansai airport three times a week (Monday, Wednesday and Saturday) on an upgraded two-class Airbus A330. Return economy flights start from $859 and return business class seats start from $3159. Flights from Melbourne and Brisbane go via Singapore or Tokyo. See qantas.com

STAY

Inside Japan Tours chooses hotels based on the individual traveller's needs and budget. We stayed at the five-star, 1920s-style Imperial Hotel Osaka (imperialhotel.co.jp/e/osaka) right on the Okawa River, and the new Candeo Hotel in Osaka's Namba district (candeohotels.com/namba). Nominally a three-star hotel, the Candeo opened in July 2017 and punches well above its weight. Visit the onsen (open-air bath) on the 17th floor. It's pretty much the only place in the city where you can take in such amazing views totally naked.

TOUR

Established in 2000, Inside Japan Tours offers small group tours, tailored self-guided adventures and cultural experiences in Japan. See insidejapantours.com and maricar.osaka/en. A valid International Drivers' Licence is necessary to take part in the tours. See nrma.com.au/international-drivers-licence.

Keith Austin was a guest of Inside Japan Tours and Qantas.

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