TOKYO—On their recent honeymoon in Japan, Jason and Nicole Francis savored the temples of the ancient capital of Kyoto and unwound at a resort with a private hot spring. Later they dressed up as a lime-green dinosaur and an Italian plumber and sped through the streets of Tokyo in go-karts.
“I picked Yoshi because I always pick Yoshi in the game,” said Mr. Francis, a 35-year-old emergency-services worker in New Jersey, explaining his decision to don the dinosaur costume.
The game is Mario Kart, a racing challenge from Japan’s Nintendo Co. , introduced a quarter-century ago and now played on video game consoles globally. A new business here takes advantage of Mario Kart’s popularity and loose regulations on go-karts to offer self-driving tours of Tokyo and other cities, with costumes of characters from the game provided. The company, MariCar, says it books thousands of trips a month and most of the customers are non-Japanese.
It’s part of a tourism boom that is changing the face of the world’s third-largest economy. Many businesses are selling a slice of what foreigners perceive as authentically Japanese. But while visitors are enjoying thrill rides in city streets, plucking off cherry-blossom branches for souvenirs and taking selfies in rented polyester kimonos, some locals are not amused.
“They really are a nuisance,” said Akio Arinaka, a Tokyo-based taxi driver in his 60s, of the costume-clad MariCar riders. “When I see them driving close by it’s scary, especially since they drive in large groups.”
Over 24 million foreign tourists visited Japan last year, nearly double the level two years earlier. The government has set a goal of attracting 40 million visitors a year—almost one-third of the national population—by the time Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics in 2020.
The influx raises an array of challenges for Japan, where English isn’t widely spoken. The country’s high-tech toilets, for instance, often mystify tourists who have trouble distinguishing between functions such as the bidet and seat warmer. Earlier this year, makers of the seats said they would standardize the icons to reduce mishaps.
Most of the visitors are from elsewhere in Asia, with Chinese making up one of the biggest contingents. Locals recoil at videos of Asian tourists shaking cherry trees to create a snow-flurry effect from falling blossoms. Ahead of the flowering season last year, when many Japanese gather for picnics under cherry trees, the Chinese Embassy in Japan published an advisory on its website asking tourists not to climb the boughs or break off branches.
In Kyoto, the kimono industry has mushroomed as new businesses have cropped up offering cheap, bright-colored versions of the garment for daily rental. Keiko Enomoto, who has worked in the industry for 30 years and runs a kimono store in Kyoto, is not impressed. She calls some of the newer rentals “awful” and “too gaudy.”
Many visitors are drawn to the tech-infused side of Japanese popular culture, says Tim Oakes, Australia branch manager for travel company InsideJapan Tours. One of the company’s most popular group tours is the 11-day “HyperJapan J-Pop & Go!” trip, fully booked in several of the coming months.
The tour includes visits to a restaurant with a futuristic cabaret show of semi-erotic dancing robots and a museum for animation producer Studio Ghibli.
Japan is synonymous with videogames for many younger visitors, including Natasha Adamo-Parker, a 29-year-old nurse and self-declared Mario Kart obsessive from Australia. She joined a recent MariCar ride and said the experience topped skydiving and bungee jumping.
“What is so surreal is that within the strict culture of Japan you get to do this wild thing,” Ms. Adamo-Parker said.
Groups of MariCar drivers have become a common sight in downtown Tokyo, zipping through the shopping district of Shibuya or across Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo Bay. U.S. military personnel based in Japan are among the customers. Videos of MariCar riders spotted in Tokyo have been posted online by visiting celebrities Kim Kardashian and Hugh Jackman.
Rides are led by a guide and participants are asked not to race each other or throw banana peels or other items from the game onto the street.
The red karts and colorful outfits stand out among the mostly white, gray and black cars on the orderly streets of Tokyo, ranked by the Economist Intelligence Unit think tank as the safest city in the world in part because of a low level of deadly traffic incidents.
A spate of minor accidents, including one in which a go-kart driver hit a police station, has led to calls for tighter regulation by taxi drivers and other critics who have questioned the go-karts’ safety. Drivers aren’t required to wear seat belts or helmets, and the karts are treated similarly to mopeds under Japanese traffic laws.
Customers must possess a valid local or international driving license. MariCar said in May it would cooperate with a police request to tighten safety procedures, including by banning the use of smartphones while driving. It declined to comment further. Kazuki Omura, manager of one of the Tokyo branches of MariCar, said customers are given a safety briefing and their driving skills are checked before they drive.
Meanwhile, the company is battling a lawsuit by Nintendo accusing MariCar of copyright infringement. MariCar, which opened its first branch in Tokyo early last year, says it obtained an understanding from the videogame giant before launch. Nintendo declined to comment beyond its initial statement announcing the lawsuit, which called for a ban on the service and damages. The two sides made opening arguments in court in April.
MariCar offers costumes of game characters including Yoshi the dinosaur. Many drivers pick the main character, a portly plumber named Mario who has become an iconic Japanese figure even though he is nominally Italian. During the closing ceremony for the Olympics in Brazil last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared dressed as Mario.
Executives from Universal Parks & Resorts, a unit of Comcast Corp.’sNBCUniversal, wore big red Mario hats and white gloves at a June 8 groundbreaking event for a Nintendo area at their theme park in Osaka, Japan, scheduled to open in 2020.
One of the main attractions: a Mario Kart ride.