The hot August sun beat down with real intensity, its heat baking the dun colored earth into a hard packed surface that flecked away in a fine powder that puffed skyward with every footstep I took. The area before me seemed large, but like so many things in Japan its sense of scale was distorted by the fact that, over time, I had grown accustomed to tiny plots of land and buildings crowding in upon one another so closely that they blotted out the sky. In reality the space was little more than a fraction of an acre but even so it seemed like an oasis of space in an otherwise crowded urban desert. The fact that it was packed with junk cars was just icing on the cake.
I had purchased my 15 year old Twin Turbo Supra for a song from an Australian English teacher whose wife had inherited it from her uncle. The uncle, who had actually wanted a Corvette, had purchased the car new in 1986 after he had been informed by his parking garage that “foreign cars” were not allowed in their facility. The policy, which seems unfair on the surface, was actually intended to keep out Yakuza rather than Yankees. The Yakuza, it turns out, are a problem for people who own parking garages. They contract for monthly spaces and then stop paying their rent. Because they are scary, they are impossible to evict. The best way to keep them out is not to let them in and discriminating against their preferred mode of transport, expensive, showy foreign cars, it turns out is surprisingly effective.
Like most used cars on the Japanese domestic market, my Supra was low mileage but showed the bumps and bruises typical to life in the big city. All four corners bore minor scrapes and one of the front turn signals was broken. I solved these problems my visiting my local dealer where I ordered a can of white touch-up paint and a new signal but the one problem inside the car, an emergency brake lever that refused to ratchet any longer, necessitated a trip to the junk yard. My Toyota dealer was quite helpful to me and even drew me a simple, but surprisingly accurate map to the nearest one. My first visit there netted me the desired part and the repair was simple. Satisfied with the result, I tucked the location of the junk yard away in my memory bank and waited for my next chance to use it.
My chance came in the form of a leaking radiator. Given the extreme heat of the Japanese summer and the long hours spent idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I knew the problem was a priority from the moment I first saw the pool of coolant forming under the car. Even so, I hemmed and hawed about the situation, suspecting it was condensation from my air conditioner and delayed addressing the issue until I finally got a red warning light on my dash. A cheapskate at heart, and despite the obvious the seriousness of the situation, I still tried to avoid the issue by carrying a gallon jug of water with me for a while, but eventually, I knew, the part must be replaced. The cost of a new unit would be high, I thought, so one sunny Saturday morning I determined another trip to the wrecking yard would be in order.
Despite the small size of the yard, dozens of late model Japanese cars in surprisingly good condition sat parked in neat lines and I surveyed them with an experienced eye as I picked my way across the yard to the small tin shed in the middle of the property. Among the cars I noted at least three Supras similar to my own and I suspected the same part would likely be on each of the dozens of other Toyota sedans scattered in the mix. Any number of cars on the lot could be possible donors, I thought happily.
My good mood was broken by the little old woman at the shed who greeted me with a dour, unpleasant expression and suspicion in her eyes. She wasted no time at all in telling me they didn’t have what I was looking for. It didn’t matter if they actually did, I was a gaijin and she plainly didn’t feel like playing pantomime with me. Despite her attempts to wave me away, I pressed in on her with my less than fluent Japanese and once she figured out I wasn’t going away, our conversation was brief and to the point. She waved a weathered hand at the yard and told me to have at it.
I went back to my car, gathered my tools and found my way out to a dark blue Supra that upon first glance seemed to be in better shape than my own. I popped the hood and examined the scene before me, it was all there and in less than twenty minutes I had the radiator pulled. I paid the old woman, still scowling, at the shed and headed back to my car. Reasoning that the junk yard was as good a place as any to change my radiator, I popped the hood and went to work right there. I pulled my own radiator out in no time at all and slipped under the front of the car to hook in the lower radiator hose and the transmission lines. It would have gone swimmingly except for the fact that my “new” used part didn’t have the fittings for the transmission cooler – I had pulled the radiator from a car with a manual transmission.
Radiator in hand I made the trip back to the old woman in the shed. She regarded me as dourly and unhelpfully as she had been before but based on my previous persistence she knew I wasn’t going away without a fight. Eventually she relented but looked me with dark eyes devoid of any humor, “I can’t have you out here tearing all these cars apart. Get it right this time or get out.”
My second trip out into the junkyard was more tentative and I selected to the next donor with greater care. With my own car in pieces, the old bat had me over a barrel and I believed her when she told me that I had just one more shot. Frankly, I was pissed. When I finally found a car that looked right, I started by ensuring it had an automatic transmission and then went over the radiator with a fine tooth comb prior to putting a single wrench on it. I was lucky and the radiator seemed perfect, with good solid joints and not a single bent cooling fin. With two radiator removals already behind me that day, I attacked this new job with experience to back my determination. I pulled off the shroud in less than five minutes cut the hoses with a razor knife and snapped off the steel transmission lines with a pair of wire cutters. With the radiator free, I pulled off all the excess parts right there at the front of the car and left the mess for someone else.
I made quick work of the install and, reasoning that the whole problem may have been caused by a sticking thermostat decided I was better without one so I pulled the part and left it in the dirt. Once I had everything buttoned back up, I added my coolant and water and sat there in the yard while I ran the engine up to operating temp. After about 10 minutes of idling in the summer sun, I checked for a tell-tale feather of steam and sniffed around for the sickly sweet aroma of antifreeze. Satisfied with the lack of either, I took one last look at my handiwork and closed the hood.
The old woman told me to throw my used up radiator onto a pile of metal headed for the recycler and then glared steadily at me to make sure I didn’t steal anything as I made my final trip back to my car. She was there as I climbed into the Supra and watched as I paused one final time to knock the insidious powered earth off my shoes prior to pulling my feet into the cabin and closing the door. I backed out of my spot and looked for her in my rearview mirror. She was still there in front of the shed, still regarding me with a sullen malevolence as wisps of dust disturbed by my tires licked up and around her in the breeze. I slipped the car into gear and our eyes met one final time in the mirror. Covering the brake with my left foot, I mashed the gas to the floor and the face was lost as a great cloud of dust began to boil up from my tires. The wind was just right. It was glorious.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.