The elaborate customized cars of Japan’s ‘lowriding’ subculture

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Osaka, Japan CNN  — 

Parked in a row, their undersides almost glancing the asphalt, these ornate and outsized American cars stand out in a sea of Hondas, Toyotas, Nissans and Subarus.

A gold-colored 1954 Chevrolet 210, christened “Sphinx,” squats either side of “Eltesoro,” a creamy green 1936 Dodge sedan, and “La Vida Rosa,” a bright pink 1954 Mercury Monterey. All three are customized vehicles belonging to one of Japan’s oldest lowrider clubs – Pharaohs.

Lowriding was first popularized in southern California in the 1940s, when Mexican-Americans emblazoned US-made cars with vivid designs and colors, customizing them to cruise “low and slow.”

As the culture expanded across the States in the decades after World War II, its appeal – based on a marriage of mechanics and art – also grew overseas.

In the mid-1980s, at the height of the country’s bubble economy, Japanese car enthusiasts started importing models such as the Impala and the Ford Mercury, replete with Chicano artwork and hydraulics.

"There's the pleasure that comes with driving a cruiser but also the excitement that goes with customization," said Pharoahs member Hisashi Ushida.

Pharaohs member (and owner of the aforementioned “Sphinx”) Hisashi Ushida, 46, first saw lowriders on the streets of Nagoya when he was in high school. While he recalled being immediately hooked, Ushida didn’t have the means to splash out on American cars.

“Instead we bought small trucks and tried to remodel them like lowriders,” Ushida said in a phone interview. “Things got more genuine when I met the owner of Paradise Road, (an import and custom garage) run by Junichi Shimodaira. He was the one who really showed me how to remodel aind customize cars.”

A trans-Pacific partnership

Shimodaira is considered a pioneer in lowrider circles on both sides of the Pacific. After spending time in southern California in the early 1980s – touring, meeting and connecting with lowriders – the 58-year-old returned to Nagoya, a city with strong links to car manufacturing, and founded Pharaohs.

Nagoya was already known as the home of Lexus (and is within an hour’s drive of Toyota City, where the eponymous carmaker assembled its first vehicle). But Shimodeira was instrumental in promoting customization in the city, bringing a new flavor and car culture to its streets.

For the members of Pharaohs, their regular get-togethers reflect the club’s age. “We go cruising, go for picnics and, occasionall