East Meets West

A weekend of cherry rides and zoot-suited friends

Japon-ese!

Hideji Moritoki -- Sensei to his friends -- is showing off a large "Techniques Car Club" logo etched on his back to a handful of ink aficionados at a tattoo vendor's booth inside the 25th Annual Arizona Lowrider Super Show. Another tat of a winged Virgin Mary on his arm is one of several images that make this guy's body a canvas of art that's more East L.A. than East Asia.

By the time he got to Phoenix -- specifically the cavernous Civic Plaza downtown, on a mid-August weekend -- Moritoki had traveled more than 6,000 miles from his small hometown outside of Osaka, Japan, where he is a schoolteacher. He makes the annual trek to the Valley for the Arizona Super Show, one of the best and largest collections of exquisite renditions of Detroit classics in the country. There are rows and rows of cherry rides, some worth as much as $30,000. The crowd favorites are the early '60s Chevy Impalas made popular by gangsta rap videos, particularly the boxy "six-four." "My son likes. Favorite car for him," Moritoki says.

Far East Lows: Hideji Moritoki (right) poses with a zoot-suited compadre.
photos by Dan Cortez
Far East Lows: Hideji Moritoki (right) poses with a zoot-suited compadre.
Ain't nothin' but a G thang: Moritoki (left) shows off his tats.
Ain't nothin' but a G thang: Moritoki (left) shows off his tats.

Walking back inside the beer garden, he has to show ID. The youthful-looking 41-year-old whips out a passport. "That's me," he tells the plaza guard. The guard studies it. "Wow." Moritoki is surrounded by members of other Technique chapters from L.A. and beyond. They hook up several times a year, in Phoenix, L.A. and other cities in the Southwest. Moritoki's a seasoned traveler, but his compadres still keep a watchful eye.

Moritoki stands out in what looks like Greek Week, Chicano style. Groups of bald and burly, heavily tattooed men wear their club tees. He poses comfortably with some zoot suiters for snapshots. It's a riot. Not because he looks funny, but because it's a firsthand and somewhat quixotic view of just how much the lowrider culture has become a worldwide phenomenon.

"I am crazy," Moritoki says, describing his affinity for the low and slow lifestyle. He attributes this to a chance peek at a copy of Lowrider Magazine 16 years ago. "It was the first time I saw them. Only way to study was magazine," says the Chicano-at-heart Japonese. "They are very popular in Japan."

When Moritoki heads home, the Mexican food junkie doesn't have to pine for his favorites. He makes them. Just listening to him enunciate his favorite dishes is a real treat. "Ah, tac-oh. Menud-oh. I make enchilad-ah." Tacos, maybe, but menudo? "Yes! Horchata too! I love horchata! I make cilantr-oh, carne asad-ah. I like Mexican food. My family does, too."

Good food isn't all Moritoki fancies. Asked about the pretty Latinas in attendance, he gazes around and says in a respectful tone, "The girls -- very nice."

Then he cracks up like a teenager.

To escape his apparent embarrassment, Moritoki changes the subject. "The cars, very nice." That's when he really lights up. Moritoki estimates that he has spent around $50,000 on his '48 Chevy Fleetline. He is intensely proud of his car club. As he looks around at his U.S. homies, he gets serious. "Technique Japan number one," he says, pounding his chest. "Muy chingon," he says, making it clear he's a bad-ass.

He has his share of friends, but some see Moritoki as responsible for the early '60s-era Impala's Eastern exodus. If he and others like him are siphoning the limited supply of the coveted Chevy sled (there are estimates of hundreds of Impalas leaving U.S. shores annually), there won't be enough for the Impala freaks over here.

Danny Ochoa, the 36-year-old president of the Mesa-based Society Car Club, puts the Impala craze in perspective, family-style. He laughs a little nervously when he tells a story of the time his older son took a liking to his own Chevy. "My son asked me if he could have my '64 when I died. I said, Man, I'm not even 30 yet.'"

Both Ochoa and Moritoki have young sons with boxcar dreams. "My son likes," he says again, pointing to the majestic chariot, explaining that the 10-year-old speaks "poquito Spanish. De nada, gracias."

When Ochoa's younger son, Matthew, is asked what his favorite car is, the shy 8-year-old looks at his beaming dad for an approving nod and says politely, "A '64 Impala."

And somewhere across the Pacific, a kid sells a Pokémon collection and starts to save his money.

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