Top Secret: Part I

Japan is an amazing country. I’ve been lucky enough to travel there a couple different times in the last few years. We all read the blogs and watch the videos; the mystique that surrounds the country’s culture and automotive tuning scenes is something everyone would like to see for themselves one day. The only way to truly scratch the surface of an industry far richer than our own, is to experience it firsthand. For me the quintessential Japanese tuning shop will always be Top Secret. I remember watching Smokey Nagata, on YouTube, back before anyone knew what YouTube was. I found tons of videos featuring Smokey doing top speed runs in all kinds of amazing cars. It was some of my first exposure to what the JZA80 Supra and R34 GT-R were capable of. I became a big fan of the shop and from then on, I knew I had to make the pilgrimage one way or another.

In June 2007, I took my second trip to Japan. I never went to Japan with the intention of doing anything car-related. I planned to stay in Tokyo and check out all the city had to offer. Upon our arrival, I was connected with a good friend of mine from school. He was spending the summer in Japan visiting his family and offered to show us around the city. Well, one thing led to another, some phone calls were made and before I knew it, we were in his car heading to Ginza where Top Secret’s headquarters are located.

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It’s really hard to talk about visiting Top Secret without sounding like a fan boy. Anyone I’ve known who’s been to Japan and seen the same kind of thing shares a mutual giddiness when the topic comes up in conversation. There’s really nothing like it in the United States. We’re slowly getting there with shops like AMS and SP Engineering, but Top Secret is on a completely different level. It was hard to get me to do anything but stare in amazement upon arriving. But we headed for the showroom to meet with the shop’s manager. Japan is a society based on respect and politeness. Our first order of business was to thank the manager for allowing us to come and visit the shop. We had no intentions of spending any money there, so it was very nice of them to let us come and take pictures and have a look around. Through some broken English to Japanese and a little translation from my friend, we were able to speak with the manager and gather a bit more information on Top Secret. We asked if we could meet Smokey and take a picture (I know, fan boys), but he was too busy tuning customer cars.

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The showroom at Top Secret is surprisingly small, but they’ve managed to fit a dizzying amount of parts and memorabilia into the space. The company’s showroom is a homage to all things Top Secret and JDM. Option Magazines and DVD’s are scattered throughout the room, as well as a long list of original parts from the company.

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One of the first things I noticed were all the awards and achievements this shop has earned over the years. It’s a testament to how the Japanese do things. It’s a “go big or go home” mentality that plays a role in all aspects of their lives. It’s this philosophy that Top Secret and most other Japanese tuning shops operate by. You quickly notice how these guys are on a completely different level than anything going on in our own country.

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A neglected SR20 that was once the heart of Top Secret project, now serves as an ornament on the showroom floor.

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As a brand, the company has found endless ways to market themselves. From R/C cars to their own line of engine fluids, they seem to have all the bases covered.

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All sorts of aero pieces hung from the walls and ceiling. I remember seeing this GT-R carbon diffuser for the first time; the quality was something else. The main idea behind having a showroom is to allow customers the opportunity to see the parts that could eventually adorn their cars. It’s a place to meet with an advisor and discuss the technicalities of the build. Clients are made to feel right at home with drinks, snacks and cigarettes. I noticed about 3 or 4 meeting tables that were setup throughout the showroom. Modifying cars is a serious business in Japan and it’s not just for young people. Enthusiasts of all ages participate in this past time and it’s not taken lightly.

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Interested in a custom manifold? Well making the decision is just as easy as walking over to this display and seeing all the shop’s offerings firsthand. In this country we pick and choose parts from a huge variety of vendors. We may order an an exhaust from Shop A and have it installed and the car tuned at Shop B. In Japan it’s about the complete car. Shop loyalty is big and once you pick a shop, you stay with that shop. As a result, everything from turbo upgrades to interior reupholstering is done at or through that particular shop. It’s a completely different level of service in Japan and it’s about the whole experience, not just the end result. Checking out the parts and memorabilia was like being a kid in a candy store. But the reason you come to Top Secret is for the cars and there was plenty to see outside.

Stay tuned for Part II.

Top Secret: Part II

Top Secret: Part III

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8 comments

  1. Very cool post man! Can’t wait for part 2. Very interesting about the tuning culture in Japan. I’ve been following the scene for the last 10 years or so and the difference between Japanese culture is big. You should read “The Machine That Changed the World”. It talks about Toyota’s lean manufacturing system. Even the way the Japanese sell their cars is amazing and the way they obtain brand loyalty.

  2. Livin’ the dream dude. I hope to visit Japan someday myself. I’d love to make the rounds to a lot of the well-known shops at least once in my life. Can’t wait for part 2!

    1. Yeah, I haven’t even scratched the surface. I’m hoping to check out T&E/Sui Vax and Yashio Factory next time I’m out there. Part II should be coming up later today. 😉

  3. Very nice post, you described Japan exactly the way I see it and you couldn’t have been more precise in your write-up. Looking forward to more parts!

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