The road map looks like a snake with the hiccups. The scenery looks like the backdrop to one of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics. The car smells of fuel and leather and legends of the past, its triple carburetors hissing as the straight-six revs higher.
This is a touge, a traditional winding mountain road, and this is a 1971 Nissan Skyline GT-R, or hakosuka. Forget your image of Japan as a place of trains and traffic and boring little commuter boxes: the place is still alive with car culture.
This Skyline, for instance, isn’t some museum piece reserved for the few. If you’d like to drive it, it’ll cost you a ticket to Tokyo, a couple thousand yen for the road tolls to get here, and the equivalent of few hundred dollars for a guided rental. If you’d like your cars more modern, all six generations of the GT-R are here, as well as both modern and classic Acura NSXs, Japan-only Subarus and Mitsubishis, and even a panda-coloured AE86 Trueno, the world’s most famous Toyota Corolla.
How do you get around? Where should you go? Below, find all your answers to fully exploring Japanese car culture.
What to rent
Specialist car rental is fairly expensive in Japan, so best saved for a special treat. To get you around for the rest of your trip, you’re going to want something that’s as small as possible. Standard GPS apps like Google Maps work well in Japan, but they do have a tendency to send you down the occasionally narrow lane as a shortcut, so you’re going to want small.
Small doesn’t have to mean boring, however. Toyota Rent-A-Car offers the 86 coupe in limited availability, and Times Car Rental will rent you a Mazda MX-5. You don’t need a sports car either, as something like the Mazda Demio (analogous to the old Mazda2) provides a bit of zip at a thrifty price.
Not factored into the cost of renting is fuel (a little more expensive than in Canada), and tolls (a lot more expensive). If your rental company has the option to rent an ETC toll card, take it. Getting around through the dozens of toll roads becomes a real pain if you're always stopping to count out change.
I rented the hakosuka GT-R from a place called Fun2Drive, which specializes in tours and dream drives. There's also Omoshiro Rent-A-Car, which provides a host of late-model sporty cars at reasonable rates.
If you’re a fan of Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Subaru or any other specific manufacturer, there’s a worthwhile museum in Japan for you. These range from cramped lesser-known places, to sumptuous multi-storey galleries.
Nissan’s Zama heritage centre is located about 50 kilometres southwest of the middle of Tokyo and requires booking in advance. It’s well-worth planning in advance, as the cars here on display are jaw-dropping. It’s all a bit crowded together, but you can see everything from built-under-licence Austins from Nissan’s earliest days to the mighty Le Mans Group C cars that are still some of the fastest machines ever made.
The Honda Collection Hall in Motegi is a bit of a drive north from Tokyo, but also well worth a visit. Divided nearly equally between motorcycles and road cars, it has everything from Honda’s earliest mopeds to the Formula 1 racing cars of Ayrton Senna era. You can even see racing versions of the tiny S600s like those that Honda brought to Canada in the mid-1960s.
Toyota has a couple of museums, with the one located in Toyota City itself being more of a tribute to engineering. The Toyota Automobile Museum, located near Nagoya, mixes in other manufacturers to more comprehensively tell the story of the company's development. Either makes a nice stop to break up a trip if you're headed to Kyoto's temples.
Should you make it all the way down to Hiroshima, which I highly recommend, a visit to Mazda’s museum is combined with a factory tour. The museum is small but filled with important cars, including very early three-wheeled vehicles from the postwar period.
Japan has two premier racing series: Super GT and Super Formula. Of the two, Super GT is the more popular, and you should try to attend one of the seven races, even if you’re not ordinarily a motorsport fan.
Racing in Japan is similar to baseball, in that it’s regarded as family entertainment and appreciated for the spectacle as a whole. Win, lose or draw, the fans are there to have a good time, and there’s very good up-close access to the teams. Further, the racing itself is extremely exciting, with lots of overtaking and mid-pack battles to watch.
Formula One comes to Japan in early October and is held at Suzuka, a track with a distinctly old-school feel. Also in October, the Word Endurance Championship has a six-hour race at Fuji Speedway. Both events give you the chance to experience top-level racing mixed with omotenashi – Japanese hospitality.
Also worth planning a trip around is one of Japan's heritage events, such as the Nismo Festival or Sound of Engine. The latter is a mix of supercar craziness and throwback racing cars you won't really see anywhere else.
Less obvious than events and museums is the stuff you can find in Japan when you get out by yourself and go exploring. If you’ve made the trip down to Hiroshima, for instance, you’d be well advised to get out of town, especially towards the western hills. Some amazing driving roads are tucked away in the folds of the mountains.
Closer to Tokyo, almost all of the roads around Hakone are noted for their winding perfection. The Hakone Turnpike itself is a popular tourist destination, but there's plenty to see and explore. You'll also see plenty of interesting and exotic cars on the roads, as this is where the enthusiasts come to play.
If you want to catch up to the gearheads in Tokyo, pick any weekend and head for one of the big parking areas located off the Shuto Expressway toll road. Daikoku is the largest of them, an amphitheatre surrounded by looping offramps. It’s a bit tricky to get to (don’t trust your GPS), but worth it. Go at night, and you’ll find it filled with brightly lit-up exotics; go on Sunday morning for a buffet of everything.
The cars come and go all morning long, disappearing up the spiralling causeway in sound and fury. You’d never know they were out there, unless you knew where to look.
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