Land of the driving run
Beginning in Hiroshima, a humble hub of Japanese auto history, Brendan McAleer travels the Sanyo Expressway behind the wheel of a graceful Mazda MX-5, soaking in the country's car culture while outrunning one of the season's great storms
The storm hit at daybreak, but the little open roadster was already miles ahead. Typhoon Lan had lashed Japan's archipelago with Category Four winds and rain, a sustained battering that saw as much as 500 millimetres of precipitation falling over a 72-hour period.
Just ahead of the storm front, I had the roof down on the Sanyo Expressway. At speeds above 80 kilometres an hour, the rain flowed right over this Japanese-market Mazda MX-5, giving the sensation of surfing some massive wave. Punch into a tunnel, bring the revs up on the revvy 1.5-litre jewel of an engine, then blast out the other side like you were shooting a barrel.
I recommend wearing your hat, but otherwise this is wonderful fun despite the weather. Bless the people of Japan for providing us with a lasting interpretation of the small, British roadster; the MX-5 is as light and perfect as an origami crane, and it's the perfect vehicle for taking a Mille Miglia's worth of some of the hidden gems of Japanese car culture. Typhoon be damned.
We begin in Hiroshima, with the running of the bulls. Hiroshima is a small city by Japanese standards – a Canadian executive stationed here once called it "The Saskatoon of Japan." Nevertheless, Hiroshima has its own distinctive culture, landmarks and its own automotive brand, Mazda.
Should you choose to visit, I highly recommend the Memorial Peace Park, the Itsukushima Shrine and Mazda's own heritage museum. The latter is open to the public, and features wonderful oddities such as the Autozam AZ-1 and Mazda's Le Mans winning 787B race car.
However, we came to find the unusual, and to do so we'll need a guide. Tomohiro Aono picks me up for some okonomiyaki (a savoury pancake that's a local favourite), and we head over to check out his newest purchase.
It's a carbon-fibre-bodied Ferrari Maranello 550 GT.
Perhaps owing to the spectacular canyon roads that branch throughout the area, Hiroshima's locals all seem to be driving nuts. In the case of Aono, he's got a small collection of supercars, and he drives them all on the street.
Tucked in the shop with Aono's widebody Ferrari is a Lamborghini Murcielago RG-1, a Bentley Turbo R and a Vector M12, of which only 17 were ever made. The Lamborghini, despite being a roll-cage-equipped racing car, has licence plates. If it weren't for the approaching typhoon, you might find any of these cars out on the prowl on the city streets.
Sated by local delicacies and imported Italian firepower, the next step is to drive the dozen or so hours from Hiroshima to Tokyo. Back in the early 1980s, a couple of British car enthusiasts managed to talk Mazda's then-CEO into taking this same drive in a Triumph Spitfire. He loved it, and the purse strings were opened for research and development on the Miata.
Taking the long route rather than one of Japan's excellent high-speed trains costs a bundle. Toll roads are everywhere, and if you don't have a transmitter, you have to stop and exchange pleasantries (and cash) with one of the friendly, hard-hatted toll-booth attendants.
Another feature of the Japanese highway is its plentiful roadside parking areas. Every few kilometres, you can pull off to use sparking clean facilities, visit a restaurant or – as I did – buy a can of hot coffee out of a vending machine.
Rather than heading straight to Tokyo, a brief stopover in Kyoto had to be made. Japan's original capital, Kyoto is a beautiful city of ornate temples and shrines. Here, however, we stop not for the architecture, but for an automotive ancestor: the national Toyota 2000GT club has braved the weather.
The 2000GT is Japan's first supercar, and most valuable collectible automobile. Values are well past the million-dollar mark, yet seven of the cars have opted to weather the storm. One owner even drove down from Gunma – we'll visit his collection shortly.
Meanwhile, it's back in the saddle for the push to Tokyo. Coming into town, the multilevel highways form a maze, with the brightly lit buildings and advertisements giving everything a Blade Runner feel.
The next day, I run over to Yokohama to visit the Mooneyes café. A name that'll be familiar to any hot rodder in the audience, Dean Moon's old company is steeped in Bonneville Salt Flats speed runs and California car customization. However, its headquarters are in Japan.
Owner Shige Suganuma started hanging around Moon's California shop as a college student, and eventually brought the brand back to Japan. His parking spot is empty today – he normally rolls up in a 1960s Ford Thunderbird – but pin-striper (Wild Man) Ishii is hard at work in the shop.
Then it's up to Gunma prefecture to visit Takeshi Moroi, president of the 2000GT owner's club. His collection occupies the entire upper floor of his factory, and includes a Porsche 962C, a Le Mans endurance racer that he occasionally drives on the street.
Just as Singer has had success reworking the classic air-cooled Porsche 911, Moroi has begun making small-batch tributes to the Ferrari 308. He's beginning with a Group A rally car, its body made of steel and carbon fibre, and will also produce 288GTO and F40LM tribute cars in very small quantities. The work is superb.
As if that wasn't enough, his shop has also just finished restoring one of the two convertible 2000GTs used in the filming of You Only Live Twice. Both cars will be reunited later at Toyota's museum, and you will be able to see Moroi's 2000GT at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles some time in the middle of next year.
As a last hurrah, I run the little Miata down to Odawara, and the Hakone. One of the most famous toll roads in Japan, this brief stretch of road curls up and into the mountains, full of loops and twists. A film crew and a Porsche 911 show up right after I arrive, as well as a couple of motorcyclists in full leathers with worn knee-sliders.
The attendant takes my ¥730 ($8.28), and bows politely. "Have a nice drive," he says, in perfect English.
I zip away from the toll booth, bounce the little MX-5's needle off the rev limiter and scorch off up the hill. Mount Fuji smiles down benevolently. It's a perfect day, the typhoon just a memory now.
The writer was a guest of Mazda. Content was not subject to approval.