Thursday morning and the industrious people of Tokyo are going to work, teeming through packed subways in swarms more numerous than the corpuscles flowing through your veins. Every train is full, every walkway jammed; there’s little jostling in a society with a highly developed sense of politeness, but everyone is moving with purpose.

On the streets above, the traffic is mostly a snarled mess of odd little wheeled boxes and chrome-laden minivans. Here, in the Japanese capital, it’s not uncommon to see a European car like a BMW or Mercedes, but something like a Chevy Camaro is more rare than a Ferrari.

Big trucks shunt with micro-engined minicars. Scooters battle with station-wagon variants we only wish we got. Hybrids are everywhere, as are diesels, and every machine glitters in the bright sun like it just came out of a car wash. Traffic doesn’t move so much as it oozes; everyone’s in a rush, hardly anybody is actually getting anyplace.

By contrast, the efficiency of the people-moving apparatus below the surface can scarcely be believed. A map of the Tokyo underground looks as complex as the wiring diagram for a hybrid Lexus, but trains keep coming and going, the people getting off and on, doors opening and closing to a soundtrack of a mechanical voice chirruping in Japanese to stand clear, watch your step, mind the gap.

Here, I am in the nerve cluster of the whole network – Tokyo station. It’s an endless maze of walkways and underground shopping malls, and the odds of finding a single store in all this madness seems slim, especially as most of the maps are in pictographic script. “You are here,” one says helpfully, a lone triangle in a sea of multi-coloured boxes that surely mean something, but what? Overhead, the bullet-trains rumble into the station and disgorge even more worker drones, a city of thirteen million swelling its ranks for the day’s business.

Finally, I find what I’m looking for – a cheery red-and-white sign that reads “Tomica Shop.” Everybody else might be headed to work – let’s duck out of the rat race and go play with some toy cars instead.

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Just as the Japanese manufacturers of full-size cars began their heyday in the 1970s, so too did Japan’s premier diecast car-maker. In the US, the battle between the flashy Hot Wheels and the well-entrenched Matchbox scale models was just heating up. Small diecast cars had been around for ages, but demand was suddenly increasing.

In September of 1970, not long after Datsun introduced the legendary 240Z, the half-century-old Takara Tomy Corporation introduced a new line of 1/64 scale cars. The sub-brand was to be called Tomy Mini Cars, or Tomica, and the idea was to produce highly accurate versions of the cars that Japanese kids might dream of owning.

The first run amounted to just six models: a Datsun Bluebird SSS coupe (better-known here as the Datsun 510 coupe), a Toyota Corona Mk II, two Toyota Crowns (one a policecar), a Toyota 2000GT, and a Datsun Z-car in a special Japan-only variant, the Z432. Packaging for the tiny cars was similar to Britain’s Matchbox, each one coming in a small cardboard container with a picture of the car on the front, laid out against a black background.

The immediate appeal of these little cars was the same in Japan as the appearance of Hot Wheels had been in the North American market. By 1972, there were over sixty different models ready to do battle on a carpet racetrack. By 1974, there were a hundred.

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Uniquely, all the initial-run cars were made in Tokyo, a tradition that would continue until the early ’90s when production was moved to China and later Vietnam. In ’74, the first Tomicas started showing up in Canada and the US as “Pocket Cars,” packaged in the plastic blister-packs that Hot Wheels was using to great advantage. To expand their appeal both abroad and at home, Tomica launched their foreign line cars, adding American, Italian, British and French cars to their lineup in 1976. Early models were marked with an “F” to distinguish them from the main line of vehicles, and in the Japanese home market, the boxes included the national flag of each scaled-down marque.

A new, bigger box was also debuted, containing longer vehicles like haulage trucks and trains. In the same year, Tomica cracked a major milestone: 100 million cars sold.

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In 1980, Tomica was producing over 260 different types of cars, both domestic and foreign. Along with the standard models that represented the ordinary cars that might appear on the streets of cities around the world, there were supercars, heavy-duty trucks and trains.

But the ’80s were a time of global recession, and just like the manufacturers of full-sized cars, diecast car makers would take a major hit. The market contracted, and Tomica eventually pulled out of the US and Canada. Travellers to Japan and Hong Kong could bring home vehicles for their kids – in particular, the strange Japanese police cars seemed popular – but by the mid-80s there were no official Tomica dealers in Canada.

In 1983, the son of Tomica’s president got married, and a special eight-car set was created as a gift for wedding guests only. Rare in and of itself, there’s a rarer subset still: originally, the wedding photographers didn’t receive their gift, and when the set was sent along later, it contained a unique version of a London Bus. Highly sought after by collectors, this impossible-to-find model is extremely valuable.

However, the most expensive Tomica ever made is something else entirely. For the company’s thirtieth anniversary, a special edition version of the original Bluebird/510 flagship model was crafted out of 24K gold. It sold for an unheard-of one million yen—almost $11,000 at the time—and remains the costliest Tomica ever produced. The company would repeat the precious metal feat in 2010, with a platinum Datsun 240Z that fetched slightly less than the solid gold Bluebird.

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While Tomicas were common enough on toy-store shelves, it wasn’t until 2005 that the first dedicated store opened, here in Tokyo. There are now five such stores throughout Japan.

Inside, you’ll find a range of extras like Tomica-labelled backpacks and t-shirts, and even shoes shaped like model cars. Like most toymakers, Tomica has jumped on the licensing bandwagon, and sells models based on Dreamworks’ Cars franchise, as well as Disney-themed vehicles.

But there are other cars here, ones that you’d not normally find at your local Toys R Us. For instance, up front is a panda-coloured Toyota Corolla GT-S with the slogan of the Fujiwara Tofu Store emblazoned on its right-hand door in kenji script. Anime fans will recognize this as the car driven by the hero of Initial-D, a popular animated series following the fictional underground street-racing exploits of a tofu-delivering teenager in the high mountain passes of Japan.

But hang on: I think Hot Wheels has started making a similar model as part of its expansion into Japanese nostalgic cars. I’m fairly confident, though, that they don’t make a car that’s shaped like a giant cartoon gerbil. And they certainly aren’t putting out an 1960s Isuzu Bellett.

This last is part of the Tomica Limited Vintage series, which is just what it sounds like: highly detailed models made to look like classic Japanese cars from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. The scale is small, but the craftsmanship is particularly fine, and the temptation to buy the entire set is huge. Unfortunately, at prices of $15-17 bucks a pop, maybe just the one for the desktop.

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As the sing-song Tomica theme tune loops endlessly over the shop stereo – it’s cutesy at first, but by the third repetition I’m ready to stab my eardrums out – I delve deeper into the shop, clutching a few carefully selected treasures. Here, for some reason, is a miniature bowling pin set. There’s a machine filled with micro-sized Tomicas that can be picked out of a bin with a robotic claw.

Up near the counter is a factory assembly line: pick from a number of options for interior and exterior colours, and the friendly shop attendant will rivet you together your own custom Tomica: a bus, in this case. There are stamps, pencil cases, miniature garage playsets. I find my will weakening, and add a kenji Tomica sticker to the basket.

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In many ways, Japan is a very odd place. There are cartoon faces everywhere, from a helpful racoon telling you not to get your fingers caught in the subway door to a hyperactive samurai shilling potato chips. The noise is endless, a series of videogame bleeps and boops and canned rapid-fire Japanese – even the fire trucks and police cars shout as well as use their sirens.

In the pulsing square of Shibuya, up to three thousand people cross the street in a single light change. Almost all the women wear scandalously short skirts and long stockings, and there’s not a pair of ubiquitous yoga pants to be seen. The men have business suits or improbable hairdos. A pop duo with the unlikely name of Porno Graffitti has apparently just released an album of greatest hits, judging by the flashing billboards.

In the press and the noise and the strange sights and the confusion, the traveller can feel completely adrift and alienated. And yet, in the far back corner of this brightly lit toy store is an all-too-familiar scene: a little boy with dark hair is steering a toy Corolla across the floor, making engine noises as he does so.

Prior to the Toyko Auto Show, a panel discussion was held featuring the various executives of all the major Japanese manufacturers. They spoke of the future of the autonomous car, and the importance of sustainability, and faced questions about a generation that’s apparently falling out of love with the car.

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But in the midst of a city full of brightly-lit digital distractions, the model car seems to hold the same appeal it always did. Sure, when you look at the makeup of Tokyo’s rush hour, it’s mostly practical cars, taxis, and mass transit. Come the evening though, and a different sort of car emerges from hidden garages and takes to the road: tuned customs, classics, Japan-only sporting models.

Here, some drivers still carry a torch for the automobile. What’s more, that spark was lit just as it is at home, with a diecast car, a flat surface, and a child’s imagination.