By on September 10, 2013

Toyota Supra

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.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

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.

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40 Comments on “Ashes To Ashes: My Visit To A Japanese Junk Yard...”

  • avatar

    Sounds, uh… Welcoming. So, what do the Yakuza drive?

    • 0 avatar

      Big , flashy American cars , as mentioned .


    • 0 avatar

      It depends upon their level and, of course, fashions have changed with the times. The low level guys do like flashy cars, although today I think most of them are probably running lowered Japanese sedans like the Gloria, Cedric, Crown etc. A lot of American cars in Japan have this same look, lowered a couple of inches and with really nice aftermarket wheels. They look tough, honestly.

      High level Yakuza are like typical high level Japanese CEOs. They aren’t flamboyant at all. I was on the street when a bunch of thug looking guys lined up and bowed to a little old man as he climbed into a top of the line Alphard van which seems to be the vehicle of choice for executive transport these days.

      I’m pretty sure the guy who ran one of the apartment buildings I lived in was high up in the organization. Maybe he really was an “art dealer” I don’t know, but he was a really cool guy who regularly invited all the foreigners in the building to nice restaurants. He treated us really well.

  • avatar

    I love it ~

    I’ve loved Junkyards since I was a kid and always wondered why Junkmen (and Women) always make such a point of being surly and unhelpful when they’re selling basically trash and always making a flat killing $ wise .

    My all time favorite job was running a VW Junkyard in the glory dayze of the Air Cooled VW’s , in a College Town no less .

    I never tried to overcharge nor sell bad parts , I was pleasant and easy going so of course , I sold the living hell out of those used parts .

    Most Junkyards work diligently at chasing you away with absurdly high prices then whine and carp about poor sales before doing the bi annual clean out and crushing of good stuff you refused to sell for reasonable prices , for scrap value . this is beyond ignorant , it’s stupid .

    Glad you had a good time (I think) and found what you needed .


    • 0 avatar

      I, too, never understood why most junkyard personell(sp) in the olden days were so unpleasant. The only two I remember that treated me like they were glad I was there were both in Portland, Oregon. One was Johns Auto Parts, oddly located in a good section of downtown in a four or five story building, obviously a joy to pull parts when you have a clean, dry place. The other was mostly a Honda yard near the St Johns section, who became friends of mine as I was shopping there so often for Civic and 600 parts(yes, this was a while ago).

    • 0 avatar

      Hell, a friend and I once looked into having a lawyer draw up a generic release that we could present to junkyard staff, to overcome their standard objections to letting us into the yard.

      The best excuse we got was from one yard who wouldn’t let us in because he said he couldn’t remember where all the dogs were.

      At the time, I was thinking, “Dude, we’re two guys who both weigh over 200, and we’ve got big-ass hammers and breaker bars. We’ll be okay.”

      God, I love junkyards, but you’re right – junkmen seem not to be good businessmen. It’s as if they’re hoarding all that stuff as a personal stash, and get really defensive about anyone wanting to buy it.

    • 0 avatar

      I love going to junkyards, but also hate dealing with the staff.

      When you’re not dealing with outright hostility, it’s the absurd haggling where you have to pass on the part and walk to your car with someone chasing after you and saying “okay” to your price which is more than fair.

      I’ve actually found it cheaper and a better buying experience to just go through Ebay, but I still love to wander junkyards.

  • avatar

    ” 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. ”

    I’ll remember this for the next time I hear/see someone make a stink about parking restrictions at assembly plants.

  • avatar
    hands of lunchmeat

    Being devils advocate as usual, and having sold my share of used stuff, I will say that quite a few people who go to junkyards are the delightful combination of being insanely cheap, and lacking the ability to make bowl of cold cereal, let alone possessing any real wrenching ability. Dealing with them on a daily basis can be a bit grating.

    Tom I’d hate to say it, as this is definitely a cool story, but picking the wrong part, working on your car on their premises, and doing a burnout in their driveway pretty much checked all the boxes for that old bag.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s me. Living up to people’s expectations every day of my life…

      • 0 avatar
        Piston Slap Yo Mama

        I had a Japanese cafe owner threaten me with a broom in his parking lot as I rode up on my bicycle. He really didn’t like Gaijin. I thought about making him eat his own broom but then considered the ultimate outcome: me in a Tsukuba jail. I’m happy to report that experiences like that were not the norm for me there. It is very instructive to spend a year or more of one’s life as a minority somewhere, I value the perspective that it gave me.

        As I was on a bicycle, my capacity for doing burnouts as I exited his parking lot was limited.

        • 0 avatar

          I spent 9.08-9.09 in South Korea, and didn’t have one threatening experience! If anything, many people were a little intimidated by my whiteness.

          • 0 avatar
            Piston Slap Yo Mama

            A lovely female friend of mine spent a year in S. Korea teaching. It’s apparently not the same story when you’re a woman. Obviously that won’t deter me but I wish she’d had a better experience. Wouldn’t have happened in Japan.

          • 0 avatar

            I don’t know of any females while I was there having an issue either. What part of Korea was she in?

            I was mostly treated like a celebrity everywhere I went. That slight mix of admiration and fear. Lol.

  • avatar

    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.//

    So you were living in Japan (Tell all, brother, tell all), driving a TT Supra (TESTIFY, brother…tell all)…with a slushbox trannie ([email protected], brother, I don’t believe I’d’ve told that).

    • 0 avatar

      I think I have mentioned it on several occasions – even in the article where I admitted that, thanks to the automatic transmission in my Supra, my wife’s Kei Car Carol was actually faster stoplight to stoplight.

      The other evil secret is that my “awesome twin turbo” Supra was actually a JDM 2.0 liter six cylinder twin turbo. But that’s better off left unsaid. If that gets out, I’ll lose my street cred.

      • 0 avatar

        “I’ll lose my street cred.”

        _NOT_POSSIBLE_ Thomas ~ you’re a Globe Trotting great Storyteller , this makes you impervious to the whims of jerkhoffs who care about B.S. street cred =8-) .


      • 0 avatar

        I dunno Thomas. I’d rather have your little 1G-GTE twin turbo than the boat anchor head-gasket-eater 7M-GE that came in the base US MKIII. I’m sure the sound of those twin CT12 turbos makes up for something.

        Shame about the auto.

  • avatar

    Having known a junkman, he hated us because:

    1) People stole parts religiously.
    2) People came through the yard during the day casing the place to come back late at night to steal parts.
    3) People would break the $100 dollar part they did not want trying to remove the $10 part they needed.
    4) People would complain about the price of a part even though it cost a fraction of a new part.
    5) People always wanted to borrow tools to remove parts and then would not return them.
    6) People would complain that the yard was not `tidy` enough.
    7) He sold the business to one of the big metal recyclers and now enjoys hearing the people who always bitched to him complain about the new `impersonal` corporations lack the personal service he used to give.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t understand why people think it’s okay to steal from the junkyard.

      Then again my local one is very good, well known and well liked. Tidy, organized, cars are all off the ground. Their web site lists all the cars present. They ID credit card users and basically run the business well. It’s on the level. I have never even felt tempted to steal there.

      On the other hand, one in the next town over is run by a real jerk. He doesn’t pretend to get along with anyone, has no price list and will rip you off if he sees the glimmer of an opportunity. Nobody goes there unless they can’t find the part elsewhere, so he can get away with it.

      That doesn’t justify me stealing but I might be more tempted in that yard…

    • 0 avatar

      How ’bout displaying rules of the junkyard in the office…

      1. We paid cash for that car that you’re removing parts from. Make sure you’ve paid for the part before you leave.

      2. Our employes go home at 6pm. Our dogs work after that. Sometimes, we forget to leave food out for them. If you need to come back, try tomorrow morning when we’re back.

      3. Figure out on your own car how the part can be removed, and allow yourself enough time to do it here. Don’t learn here, and don’t waste a bigger part here to claim your (whatever brand lens,etc)part that you only need.

      4. This isn’t ‘would you take this much’recyclers. We know what that part costs new, and we know what it’s worth used. If you wanted ‘new’, you wouldn’t be here.

      5. We don’t loan tools. Our employes use them to do their job. Please bring your own.

      6. We know the yard’s messy. This is NOT Maids R Us.

  • avatar

    Going to the junkyard with my dad was the best thing ever. He was known as the fix-it man throughout the community and hardly a week went by without a neighbor’s car in his shop.

    I was looking forward to taking my boy with me the last time I went. I guess I’d never noticed the “no one under 15 allowed” signs on my previous visits. We were both disappointed that day.

    I wonder if all the lots are like that now or just the more corporate ones you’re more likely to find around cities.

  • avatar
    71 MKIV

    Last visit I paid to a junkyard I commented to one of the yard hands sitting next to the entrance
    “don’t see any dogs around here, isn’t a junkyard supposed to have a dog?”

    He looked at me from suspiciously rheumy eyes and a bright red nose and spoke from a mouth like a Harley transmission, (one up and four down)

    “We had one, but I bit it and it died”

  • avatar

    While there are several junkyards in my area, none of them will actually let someone go in themselves which is a real shame.

  • avatar

    I’m really grateful for the advent of the self-service junkyards. The parts prices and yard rules are clearly posted up-front and the employees seem to be a little more human than some of the ones described above (all of which I’ve dealt with myself over 30 years of driving and wrenching.) and there’s never any question about whether you can go in and wander around for 15 minutes or all day. It’s worth the $1 admission charge to me. It seems like their business model is primarily based on the gross scrap value of the metal in the car (along with the value of some parts they don’t resell, like catalytic converters) so they don’t really care if you ruin other parts to get off the small items you need. A few years ago I broke 4-5 Subaru Loyale windshields at one self-serve place in an honest attempt to pull one good one. I felt guilty about it later and reported it to the manager and they didn’t really care. (On the other hand, I’ve seen entire engines and trannys ripped apart just to get some small internal component– that’s annoying to me as a fellow customer.) Fortunately, most of the old-school, crusty, sub-human junkyard owners in my city seem to have crawled under rocks and died, and even the full-service yards I deal with these days are run by people who can communicate in full sentences.

    I think I’d cry if I went to a Japanese junkyard seeing as how their stringent inspection rules result in the scrapping of cars that are newer and better than most anything I’d ever drive.

    • 0 avatar

      Well ;

      LCQ Corporation is busily buying up all the self service junkyards it and and guess what ? the _first_ thing they do is raise all the prices .

      $175.00 for a 28 MM single barrel carby ? I think not .

      The Manager who apparently is yet another College graduate with neither any experience nor common sense told me ” yes but if it were the Six Pack carby from an old Dodge Hemi , it’d be the same price ” ~ duh no shyte sherlock I thought as I dropped said $25 carby into the scrap bin on my way out the gate .

      Enjoy you total loss of revenue on that worthless bit of scrap pot metal you jerk .

      I do buy lots and lots of parts at the self service yards , they keep me afloat and also many local indie garages as well as 90 % of all the So. Cal. “curbstone repairs for less !” gus .


  • avatar

    “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.”

    I’m surprised that didn’t also cause the vehicle to overheat. The thermostat is designed into the cooling system to act as a restriction when fully open so the coolant doesn’t circulate too fast. Without the thermostat, the coolant can flow too fast and not absorb enough heat from the engine nor dissipate enough heat through the radiator.

    Interesting story. Thanks for the good read.


    • 0 avatar

      More flow equals more heat transfer at both ends, so excess flow can only overcool the engine. The only way overheating could happen by increasing flow is if the pump is putting so much energy into moving the fluid at high velocity that it was adding more heat than the radiator could remove. Practically impossible, as the water pump could never put out anywhere near the energy of the engine’s waste heat.

      • 0 avatar

        “More flow equals more heat transfer at both ends, so excess flow can only overcool the engine.”

        Not .

        Thermostat removal ruins more engines and causes more running issues in new cars than anything else ~ .

        The coolant can and will , fail to absorb the water jacket’s heat if it circulates too quickly , older Mechanics and Racecar Drivers will remember ” blanking sleeves ” fitted in lieu of ‘stats , FlatHead V8 Fords we’d put large flat washers in the upper radiator hoses (that’s right : plural , there were two water pumps and four radiator hoses) to slow down the coolant flow and allow it to pick up more heat when running the engine hard .

        On newer engines , removing the ‘stat causes the coolant to never get hot enough to properly run the various fuel management (F.I.) and/or spark & E.G.R. devices so the engine typically overfuels as well as running ” open loop ” , all are bad things .

        Heat = efficiency so all my oldies run the coolant as close to 212° F as possible , I also always fit custom made three row or larger radiators and allow the thermostat to do the scut work of controlling the temperature .

        This works perfectly , even when I drive through Death Valley in summer ~ I simply do not have over heating troubles , ever .


        • 0 avatar

          Well I learned something today. I figured it would be just fine and that the only downside would be a slower warm-up.

          I never had any issues with it, by the way. I owned it for about another year after I made the swap but in that time I may have put a thousand miles on it. If I had known that I was going to end up back in Japan just a couple of years later I would have tried to sotre it or something – especially since I got ripped off when I went to sell it – but I imagine that would have been a whole other problem.

          I have a hard time throwing away something that other than just being a little old has no real problems.

          • 0 avatar

            I have a short sell-off tale. I owned a S2000, was out of work for many months, wasn’t sure when that would change and sold off the S2000, which I was very fond of. Of course, just two months later, I joined Honda. If only I’d known.

      • 0 avatar

        “The coolant can and will, fail to absorb the water jacket’s heat if it circulates too quickly”

        Can anybody explain how this is possible? Increasing the velocity and turbulence in the hydrodynamic boundary layer can only increase heat transfer, as far as I know.

        I also don’t understand the fundamental difference in engine cooling design that would cause an older engine to overheat due to excessive coolant flow while a newer engine is overcooled by the same condition.

        The only theoretical scenario I can come up with to explain this phenomenon is that the engine is overcooled due to increasingly turbulent flow through the coolant passages while the flow through the larger passages of the radiator remains laminar. Actual engine temperature would be lower but coolant temperature could increase in that scenario, possibly resulting in an apparent overheating of the system despite an increase in waste heat removal. Modern radiators may be too large and efficient to allow such a thing to happen.

        • 0 avatar

          I got my ME degree in ’88 so it’s been a long time since I took Fluids and Thermodynamics. Perhaps it has something to do with the coolant’s Convection Coefficient. Anyways, if the coolant is flowing too quickly, each molecule of coolant (water and ethylene glycol) doesn’t come into contact with a metal surface long enough to conduct as much heat as it would if it were flowing slower. So the coolant is “under-utilized” and the engine runs hotter.

          On an unrelated note, I was a USMC Motor Transport Officer in the Gulf War 90-91, and our 5 ton trucks (M813s and M923s) with Cummins 250 diesels would overheat with the thermostats taken OUT. We never could figure out why until I came back to the states after the war and did some research – this was pre-internet.

          • 0 avatar

            I don’t buy that explanation. Since a water cooling system is a closed loop, the water stays in contact with engine the exact same amount of time, no matter how fast it flows.

            For example, if the total volume of coolant is split 60% radiator 40% engine, the coolant will still spend 40% of the time in the engine no matter how fast the circulation.

          • 0 avatar

            Fellow ME here, and I’m pretty stubborn when it comes to accepting any mechanical explanations until they make sense to me! I had all my heat transfer, fluid mechanics, and thermodynamics textbooks out last night trying to find something to light the idea bulb. My theory seemed unlikely to me at first, but now it’s actually starting to feel plausible.

            Regardless of the Reynolds number in either heat exchanger (engine and radiator), I really think the faster moving coolant is just soaking up more heat from the engine than the radiator can purge. In that case, it’s the cooling system that’s overheating, not the engine. Which, of course, eventually leads to the engine overheating once enough coolant boils off. If maximum cooling system pressure is increased to accommodate a higher operating temperature and the actual temperature of the head is measured rather than the coolant flowing through the heads, I believe the engine would be shown to run cooler at higher flow rates.

  • avatar

    Yet another good story, Thomas.

    These days it’s hard to imagine going to a junkyard for mechanical wear parts apart from the major drivetrain components. A new radiator with a two year warranty for an ’86 Supra can be had for as little as $100.

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