Tigers and dragons snarl. Missiles and rockets soar above a dozen Mount Fujis. Inside, a chandelier sways over plush velvet. Around the fender, Chinese characters for “art,” “tradition,” “landscape gardener” and “love” salute the important things in life. All moving at a respectable 75 kph on the highway.

The men at the wheels of dekotora (decoration trucks) are some of the nation’s most conscientious drivers. After all, many of them have lavished tens of millions of yen or years of painstaking effort on their heavyweight transports — hauling nothing more glamorous than tuna or turnips — to remake them into one-of-a-kind artworks on wheels.

“I don’t think I would ever forgive myself if anything happened to Yuka-maru,” says truck operator Hiroyuki Sano, who named his truck after his son Yuichi and wife Yuka.

“If I could stop an accident by throwing myself in front of Yuka-maru, I would. A broken bone heals. A bent bumper has to be replaced,” says the truck’s owner, Sano, who is chairman of Otohime-no-kai, a truckers’ association named after the fairy-tale princess of an underwater paradise.

Strikingly emblazoned

Multicolored Yuka-maru is strikingly emblazoned with a huge flying fish leaping toward the sun on the passenger’s side and a scowling ogre on the other. Tailgaters are treated with a frowning Kintaro, the legendary boy who wrestled bears. The air-brushed paintings — on which Sano has lavished more than 20 million yen — mean the truck must be carefully cleaned by hand, as machine washing would quickly damage the graphics. It takes Sano seven hours to do.

A vivid sight by day, at night Yuka-maru literally sparkles, when its strobes and lights flash in neon colors worthy of Disney’s “Electrical Parade.”

Yuka-maru is a hit at meetings of dekotora drivers’ associations, of which there are an estimated 400 nationwide, according to Truck King magazine editor-in chief Masakuki Takakuwa. “They talk about new artwork, they do charity fundraisers for the community. Trucking is a lonely job. It’s a time to bond,” Takakuwa said.

Once a month, Sano piles his wife and son into Yuka-maru for family outings. That’s about the only real “work” his treasured truck does, as when he’s working for Sagawa Express Co. hauling vegetables on one of his regular runs from Narita in Chiba Prefecture to Sendai in the Tohoku region or south to Shizuoka Prefecture, this free-agent owner-driver uses a different one.

Long-time aficionado

“I love American trucks — they’re just so big,” says Tamegoro Sudo, former actor and long-time dekotora aficionado. “But only the Japanese truckers put so much of themselves into their trucks.”

Asked to explain why truckers literally spend their savings just to make their trucks look pretty, Sudo gave this reporter a look of pity for her failure to understand.

“Driving a truck cross-country is hard on both body and spirit,” he said after a pause. “It’s an expression of self.” After all, who could feel lonely on the long night road when surrounded by emblems of one’s passions?

As for artwork and truck interiors, anything goes. Some are inspired by omikoshi (portable shrines), ukiyo-e, kabuki, anime characters and even, a few years ago, by the teenage aidoru (idol) Ayumi Hamazaki. But the most beloved ones are those that speak of the Japanese spirit, admirers say. At least that’s the kind of artwork game-maker Spike Co. chose when producing their “Boso Dekotora Densetsu (Reckless Dekotora Legend),” in which players can choose from a colorful array of trucks decorated with samurai, cranes, geisha, falling cherry blossoms and the like.

Images from the games evoke a time when people truly knew their Chinese characters, when men were men — simple, straightforward and compassionate, with lives governed by an unspoken code of conduct.

Sudo has just finished producing his third movie in the Dekotora-no-Shu series, featuring a tough-looking but kind-hearted trucker, his dekotora and their romantic mishaps.

In the movie, Yuka-maru is the hero’s dekotora, and though he was working on a tight, 5 million yen budget, Sudo focused on making all the trucks look good on screen. But while he could shoot most of the other trucks in single takes, Yuka-maru took dozens. “There’s simply so much packed on this one vehicle,” he said.

“It takes so many images to convey all the things one single man comes to take pride in in a lifetime.”