SENDAI, Japan—The first time I saw a real, live dekotora truck, I was mid-stride on the eerily empty streets of Tokyo, trying to shake off a serious case of jet lag with a just-before-sunrise run. But when it passed by, I stopped. I couldn’t help but stare, wide-eyed, with all the heart-pounding enthusiasm of a fangirl seeing her favorite movie star in public. It was even more magical than I had imagined.
I would later realize this wasn’t even one of the fully tricked out, chandelier-on-the-inside 18-wheelers that have defined the dekotora culture for many and become such popular Internet fodder. No, this vehicle was an honest-to-goodness, trash-hauling garbage truck that had been painted ever-so-gently with the dekotora brush. There were runners of rainbow lights pulsing along the undercarriage, chrome extensions jutting out the top, hot pink lightning bolts blasting down the side. To me, it was still perfect.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a more-than-middling interest in trucker culture, even procuring my own CB radio handle by the time I reached middle school (it’s Croque Madame, if you ever want to chat). My playlists are often found littered with songs like “Freightliner Fever” by Red Sovine and “Truck Driver’s Blues” by Ferlin Husky. So when I learned about a Japanese subculture inspired by the height of the American trucking craze in the 1970s, it seemed almost too good to be true. But as a recent trip to Japan only confirmed, it is—gloriously—real and spectacular.