Hello to Japan’s ultimate green cars

In this age of environment-friendly vehicles designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some tinkerers in Japan are going green in a more literal sense: They grow plants on their cars.

The cars, decorated with a variety of things from artificial turf to ornamental plants, do not necessarily look cool. But they are definitely eye-catching and are sure to make passers-by smile.

So we had little problem finding Nobuya Ushio at lunchtime at a busy train station in Himeji, in western Japan. As he appeared, everybody’s eyes were glued to his “Shiba (turf) Car,” which is completely encased in grass.

It all started three years ago when Ushio, 37, a landscape gardener at Ushiorisshoen, made a lighthearted attempt to put artificial turf on the seat of his green-painted motorbike. Then he thought, “Why not grass on a car?”

After much trial and error, he completed the work of covering a car entirely with artificial turf, making the seams as smooth as possible on surfaces and doors to create beautiful flowing curves.

Because of the turf, the car is now about 6cm wider and has to be registered as an ordinary passenger vehicle rather than a minivehicle. His license number is “482,” whose pronunciation is a pun on the Japanese word “shibafu,” or grass.

The artificial turf is actually functional — it not only keeps the car cool, but provides effective publicity for his landscaping business, both on and off the road, he said. Because people often post photos of his car on social media as they spot it, “I can’t hide my whereabouts,” he said with a smile. Two years ago, he traveled all over Japan in the car.

In Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, just outside Tokyo, Ryo Yoshida is happy with his artificial turf-covered sports car. “My friends said don’t do it, but don’t you think it’s interesting?” the 37-year-old company owner said. His clients sometimes ask him to come to their offices in the car.

He bought the vehicle last year and covered it with artificial turf. Police, though apparently confused, said it is unprecedented but not dangerous. The car passed a regular safety inspection test.

The grass was put on Yoshida’s car by AS Green, a Tokyo-based maker of artificial plants. The company has turfed three vehicles, including Yoshida’s, at a cost of 300,000 yen to 500,000 yen ($2,530 to $4,230) each. Once the customizing is complete, the car receives much attention, and it is hard to undo the grass covering. “It takes guts to do it,” said Atsushi Shimizu, AS Green’s president.

Others use real plants. The Jungle Car, as the name suggests, has a miniature jungle on the roof. “It feels like I’m always driving in the shade,” said Mitsuji Chinen, the 59-year-old owner of the car. He lives in Naha, in the southern prefecture of Okinawa, and works at a center for the disabled.

About 10 years ago, the air conditioning system of his car broke. Fixing it would have cost money and his mother did not like air conditioning, so he decided to put greens on the roof. He created a three-layer base by weaving together a gardening ground sheet, diapers for the elderly and other materials, which he tied together with line. He then put turf on it and installed it on the roof.

But he got tired of all the attention he attracted whenever he drove the car, so he removed the jungle structure. Then media from all over the world started asking him about it, so he recreated it, and now the Jungle is a six-layer structure dotted with purple flowers.

The jungle has grown diverse over the years, and there are now more than 10 different plants growing on the Jungle Car, including banyan, ferns and a fig-like tree. He waters the jungle every three hours. For its regular auto safety inspection, he has to remove the jungle structure, which is considered cargo.

Chinen has been travelling all over Japan in the latest edition of the car since August 2015. Wherever he goes, families with children gather around with smiles on their faces. Some schoolchildren say that spotting the car is good luck. His fans check his schedule on social media and wait for the Jungle Car’s arrival. Some have secretly sown seeds, adding diversity to the car’s ecosystem.

On highways, he drives at the slowest allowable speed to prevent plants and parts from falling off. This is getting a little tiresome. “I want to drive like I used to,” Chinen said. He plans to retire the vehicle in July 2018.

In Kishiwada, Osaka Prefecture, Kazuya Izuhara, 58, picks up customers’ laundry in his mossy car, which he dubbed “Yaane kokechakkaa” — meaning, roughly, “Oh no, moss on my car!”

Izuhara became interested in incorporating plants into the urban environment when he was a teacher at a horticultural high school. Five years ago, he covered the 3.5-sq.-meter roof of his car with moss that can withstand direct sunlight and dryness. He installed a mat with spikes to deter cats, and makes sure the moss does not stand taller than 5cm so the car can pass its auto safety inspections.

Thanks to the mossy top, Izuhara hardly needs air conditioning during summer if he leaves the windows open. Because moss photosynthesizes — takes in carbon dioxide and produces oxygen — the car “may be the ultimate eco-friendly vehicle, in a sense,” he said. One problem with the car, he said, is that he cannot use a commercial car wash.

The drivers of these innovative green cars have one thing in common: Harsh words from their family members who either refuse to sit in the car or simply ask them to stop driving it because it is “too embarrassing.” Driving the ultimate green vehicles requires a strong will to maintain one’s courage.

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