Japan’s enthusiastic Land Cruiser community was dedicated to making our journey in their country memorable in every possible way. Their mission was successful. They managed to get us a tour in the Land Cruiser factory. Yes, the same factory where our own faithful home on wheels was built.
How special is that?
Our Visit to The Land Cruiser Factory
“No photos inside the plant.”
For the third time our host emphasized that we couldn’t take pictures. Armed with just a notebook and a pen we exited the elevator and followed two white coats, the security helmets and headphones feeling like strangers on our heads.
Via a narrow hallway we stepped outside. We halted for a moment beside a dozen chassis that had been manufactured elsewhere, and walking on were almost run over by a small robot that was driving a rolling chassis to the assembly hall.
We still couldn’t believe we were actually here, the plant where our Land Cruiser had been driven out of the gate 33 years earlier, exactly where we had parked it half an hour ago.
To Prepare your Overland Journey in Japan
The Tour in the Land Cruiser Factory
The noise and size of the first hall, where all the bodywork is pressed, left us speechless. For a moment we stood still and looked around in wonder. We saw massive presses that transformed plates of steel into a Land Cruiser part with mind-boggling power. Even the largest part needed just one thrust to produce the roof of a Coaster bus.
Possibly even more impressive was the library of dies, which covered about a third of the work floor and we watched how an overhead crane was changing dies. Next to the presses electronic screens indicated how many spare parts were required and how many still needed to be manufactured.
The numbers were minimal, 150 of this, 134 of that, which showed that we were not in a factory of mass production; all trucks were built to order.
Everything was welded by hand until fourteen years ago, when robots took over. These days, a worker still puts the individual parts in the placement receptor but robots pick them up and weld them together. A fireworks of sparks lit the workstation, which was partitioned off from the main hall by transparent walls.
The welded parts were put on an assembly line where the floor components, side panels, roofs and doors were mounted. As we strolled along the line, bodyworks were slowly growing into a truck and at the end of the belt, 70 and 200 series stood ready to be painted. Within an hour we had seen the entire process of the transformation of plates of steel into a truck.
During the next phase the work was more detailed. We spotted the small robot again and followed it into another hall. Here the assembly line was turning and twisting through an open, two-level building. The trucks moved on the belts at a snail’s pace with workers along the side adding the smaller parts such as mirrors and windshield wipers.
A Land Cruiser consists of some 8,000 parts, which makes for a complex production process. (By comparison: a ‘regular’ car has about 3,000 parts). Bodyworks were lowered from the upper belt and descended exactly on the correct chassis.
It takes 48 hours for the Toyotas to be spit out at the far end. We admired a variety of freshly painted coaches in all kinds of colors. It was time for some further fine-tuning. Workers installed windows, put chairs into place, and added accessories. After various tests, among which a waterproof test, the trucks were fueled up with a gallon or two and shipped to the client.
95 percent of the cars that leave this factory is exported – most of the 70-series to the Middle East. This we had already noticed on the assembly line: a lot of left-steering vehicles with Arabian script on mirrors and prominent ornaments on the hood. Many of these trucks went through another part of the hall for specific additions.
Sponsorship from Toyota?
Contrary to what many followers of our journey throughout the world predicted, we didn’t get a new truck and no, they didn’t offer to rebuild ours. How often have we heard the words,
“Toyota must be proud of you and will sponsor you.”
“That oldie surely goes into the Toyota Museum and you will get a new one.”
But it was with a mechanical pencil, a picture and a big grin that we left the premises. It’s not Toyota that cares about us or who invited us to take a look in the factory that is normally closed to visitors.
It was Japan’s Land Cruiser community who organized this. But not only this. They did much, much more.
Check it out: The Land Cruiser in Japan T-shirt & Clothing Collection
Meet Mr. Nakashima
During our first days on Japanese soil, seven months earlier, we had been invited to a Land Cruiser get-together on the island of Kyushu. It had been the start of a chain of events that connected us with the Land Cruiser Community throughout the country.
Our host during the event was Akihiro Nakashima, who owns Friendee Auto, a workshop in Kagoshima in south Kyushu, that specializes in the 40 series. He insisted we drop by to give our Land Cruiser some TLC. That was very kind of him and on arrival we were hoping he could fix a sprung freeze plug and maybe manage to get the slave cylinder replaced.
Read More: Joining the Land Cruisers Festa
In no way were we prepared for Akihiro’s thoroughness. Before we knew it, our Land Cruiser was high in the hoist and Akihiro sat underneath, on his knees, with a flashlight.
“Look, Coen San, here is oil and there is slack,” he said while pointing at the respective parts.
“I want to check the transfer and rear diff as well. I think all this will take at least a week. Meanwhile, please be our guests in our home and use this BJ40,” he said while handing Coen a set of keys.
For the first time in our journey we left our keys in the hands of a workshop. The idea was weird, unnerving even, because Coen is always present when the Land Cruiser is being serviced. However, his concern quickly switched to a feeling of euphoria when he drove a right steering, short BJ40 across the hills of Kagoshima.
On our return all of us went to a restaurant where we sat with our legs folded under us on tatami mats around a long, low table. It was a fun and easygoing evening. None of the Japanese spoke a whole lot of English and our Japanese was zero.
The smartphones with Google Translate worked overtime as the bowls of rice, fried fish, sushi and deep fried vegetables were passed around and glasses continued to be topped up. It took a while to figure out that we were here with Nakashima’s family and all his employees, their wives and kids.
We were truly accepted by Kagoshima’s Land Cruiser family. What a privilege!
Friendee Auto Workshop
The reception was overwhelming and set the trend for the following three weeks. The original list of maintenance grew as Mr. Nakashima kept adding more. We slept, ate and lived in their home while in the weekends the mechanics took turns opening their homes to us.
In the Friendee Auto Workshop Coen couldn’t stop grinning. All these new gadgets, fancy work tools – he had landed in paradise. Like the mechanics he was given blue plastic gloves to wear and for every job there was some kind of air tool. After nine years in South America, where everything is still pretty much done by hand, this was heaven indeed.
You need a new part? You fax (yes, well, the fax is still very commonly used in Japan; it’s a fascinating country full of contradictions and extremes, but that’s for another story) in the morning and late afternoon or the next day a small white Toyota bus delivers your part to the workshop.
After all those years in southern Asia and South America we were astonished to learn how much you can accomplish in three weeks if only there is an efficient workflow, people are working with joy and dedication, and proper tools are at their disposal.
The following are among the replaced parts: the complete braking system (master cylinder, master vac, vacuum pump, rebuilt the calipers, brake disk, rear drums and wheel cylinders, all brake linings and pads). The water system (radiator, water pump, thermostat, hoses, heater water valve, windshield washer and motor) was overhauled, and the drive and propeller shafts serviced.
The Land Cruiser got new tie rods and ends, new V-belts and headlights, and last but not least new rear-door weather-strips. Of course, all original Toyota.
On that note: there’s no need to ask if we will be replacing our rusty, battered Land Cruiser any time soon. It is running like clockwork again!
How much we were adored we realized only when, months later, we returned for the last time shortly before our visa ran out and had come to say goodbye to these wonderful people.
Akihiro and his wife Miki had dedicated a small corner in the workshop to Landcruising Adventure, with Coen’s old overall (which he had autographed after Akihiro gave him a new one), Toyota Trails with our Land Cruiser on the cover that, at their request, had been autographed by us, some of the old parts among which headlights that had been completely sandblasted as a result of all the off roading and about which we now wondered whether they still gave any light at all.
Read More: The full story on the Friendee Auto Workshop
Meet Masa and Taku
Among other people we met at the get-together I mentioned earlier was Masa. He speaks good English and invited us to his home in Minamiaso, where we spent a couple of days with him, his wife Yasuko, and their ten-year old Masaya.
They had lived in the Philippines for a number of years and Masa buys and sells classic European sports cars and Land Cruisers from and to Australia, Japan and the Philippines.
Because Masa knows ‘everybody’ and speaks English, he quickly became the central unit of our support group. He set up two message groups, one in Japanese and one in English with him translating between the two. We were expected to check in every couple of days or so because people wanted to know where we were. Not only did it feel warm and welcoming, but their kindness was beyond anything we had ever experienced.
A couple of months later we got stranded with a broken clutch late afternoon east of Tokyo. We were parked along a busy highway because Coen could no longer shift gears when the engine was running. He could only drive without the clutch. That was fine for a short stretch but not amidst heavy traffic with traffic lights all over the place (Japan has no green waves).
When Coen was tinkering under the Land Cruiser, in a freezing wind, it started to rain.
“I give up,” Coen sighed, frustrated, and climbed back into the truck.
“I checked everything twice. No leakage, the clutch fork works and, when the engine isn’t running, I can shift all gears. I have no clue where to look next.”
“Why don’t you ask Masa if he can help,” I responded while handing him a hot cup of coffee.
An hour later Coen checked his phone.
“Taku will be with you at 8 a.m.,” it read.
We had no idea who Taku was. The following morning a man with an open face and a big grin knocked on the window, “Hello! Good morning.”
Taku had driven 110 miles to get here and had left right after a full day’s work in the hospital. I did what I do best in such situations and brewed more coffee while the men changed into overalls and slid under the Land Cruiser on their backs. They discussed, prodded, and called around.
After an hour of flinging wrenches and a few test-drives we could drive again. Taku sped home, back to another work shift but we would see him the following day after having driven the 110 miles at our own snail’s pace. In Taku’s workshop the men replaced the broken clutch with a heavier version of a Toyota Dyna after they had taken the old one apart and saw a loose spring had jammed the pressure plate.
Thanks to the Land Cruiser Community we were received throughout Japan in the homes of Land Cruiser aficionados. Of the four annual big Land Cruiser meetings we could attend a second one which hosted 200 other 40 series, the Land Cruiser 40 Meeting East. We left the country with an overwhelming feeling that the Land Cruiser community in Japan is unique in many ways.
First published in Toyota Trails
Check it out: The Land Cruiser in Japan T-shirt & Clothing Collection
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