I am walking through Ginza, Tokyo's glitziest district, one evening when I notice a crowd outside the Nissan showroom. The windows have been opened and men in boilersuits are preparing to manoeuvre a multimillion-pound concept car down two wooden planks. The car is Nissan's electric commuter concept, the Pivo2, a kind of goldfish bowl on wheels. It is beginning its journey to become one of the stars of this year's Tokyo Motor Show, which runs until 11 November.
Planks in place, it drives down on to the pavement under its own steam. Quite a feat for a concept car, I think to myself, most of them don't even have engines. But then the driver presses a button and the entire cabin rotates through 90 degrees. Then all four wheels fold outwards, enabling the car to crab sideways on to the street. My mouth gapes unedifyingly, a hundred camera-phones click-whirr around me.
Fast forward a week or so and the Pivo2 and I meet again. Its funny, dash-mounted robot head (which reads the driver's facial expressions and tells him to calm down if it detects frowns) is bobbing up and down fighting for the attention of the world's media. Alongside it on the Nissan stand are the cheeky looking R.D/B.X (short for Round Box, though in truth it's neither round nor boxy) and the NV200 minivan (the ultimate niche vehicle, it is designed specially for ocean photographers).
This is the 40th Tokyo Motor Show, which roughly corresponds to the time it has taken Japan to conquer the automotive world. No company epitomises that relentless striving for global dominance more than Toyota, which also happens to be celebrating a milestone – its 70th anniversary – and, more importantly, its new status as the world's number-one car manufacturer.
"There is no real sense of celebration," a Toyota spokesman told me blankly as we perused the company's eight concepts. "It is more about monitoring feedback to define how we move forward."
Quite how the RiN, the world's first "health car", moves forward – both in terms of reaching the market, and literally – is a mystery. "It is designed to improve your mindset, to help you be more dignified," the spokesman explains. How? "The seat automatically corrects your posture and, as you hold the steering wheel, it measures your heartbeat and provides bio-feedback on your emotional state. If you are stressed it will calm you down with lighting and music." Yes, but does it have to look like an invalid car?
Rather more edgy was Toyota's Hi-CT, said to have been inspired by the shape of a gorilla but perhaps more redolent of a top-loading tumble dryer. It is a hybrid with clever adaptable luggage space and, for once, it lived up to the PR hype about being a revolutionary way to design and package a car. The Hi-CT manages to seat five; the iReal, the company's latest take on the so- called "personal mobility" genre, seats just one: imagine a Dalek designed by Philippe Starck. Were they serious, I asked my friend from Toyota? "Oh yes, we see them being used in large- scale shopping malls, for instance."
This kind of jumped-up Segway is a minor trend at Tokyo this year. Suzuki showed another upright, low-speed single- seater – the Pixy – which can dock inside another of its concepts, the Suzuki Sharing Coach (SSC), a fuel-cell powered bread bin with solar panels in its roof and windows. Suzuki says they'll be all the rage around 2030. In the meantime, we will have to make do with the Splash, to be built in Hungary and aiming to steal sales from the Fiat Panda in the UK next spring.
There was, of course, also much talk about the environment. These days, car shows are about little else and everyone had either hybrid, electric or hydrogen cars, or at the very least, ultra-clean diesels on show. If anything there was more of an emphasis on reducing weight than emissions (everyone seems to have gone suspiciously quiet on the subject of biofuels). Hyundai, for instance, showed us its QarmaQ, a pseudo off-roader made, a spokesman informed me, from plastics weighing 60 per cent less than steel. How much does it weigh. "Ahm, we don't know. We haven't weighed it." I guess we'll just have to take their word for it.
With foreign cars only accounting for eight per cent of domestic sales in Japan, European and US brands tend not to bother much with Tokyo – Aston Martin and Fiat didn't even turn up. But Mercedes won the prize for deepest carpets on any stand and brought along its swanky F700 touring saloon concept. Audi revealed its foxy little Metroproject Quattro; we will come to know it better as the A1 when it's launched in a couple of years. And VW made a late bid to steal the show from underneath the host's noses with the very cute Space Up!, a four-door version of the rear-engined concept they showed last month at Frankfurt
And the star of the show? A quick poll in the press room gave the vote to Mazda's Taiki, a low-slung and breathtakingly beautiful coupé. But the car I would most like to have driven home in? I fell in love with the Mitsubishi i-Miev Sport, a funky little, scarab-backed electric prototype. Although in truth, in Tokyo, you are invariably better off taking the train.
Michael Booth flew to Japan with British Airways, which offers twice-daily flights to Tokyo from London Heathrow from £604 per adult (www.ba.com, 08708 509 850). He stayed at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel ( www.mandarinoriental.com, 00 81 (3) 3270 8950) which has doubles from £185 per night; and Oakwood serviced apartments ( www.oakwood.com, 00 81 (3) 5786 7800), from £40-70 per night. For more information, visit www.seejapan.co.uk and www.tokyo-motorshow.comReuse content