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Sideways in Japan-78

It’s 12:20am, Thursday morning and we’re at Melbourne airport about to board a plane bound for Narita airport. Why are we heading to the Land of the Rising Sun? To live out a boyhood dream of drifting in Japan.

Going sideways in cars isn’t a new concept. Rally drivers and circuit stars have been balancing, controlling and fighting their cars’ rear ends since the beginning of the 20th Century. But Japan is where modern-day drifting was essentially ‘born’.

Started in the hills and on the streets, drift and drifting has evolved into one of the most exciting and flamboyant forms of motorsport the world has ever seen.

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I love drifting. I’ve loved it for ages. I’ve loved it since I first saw – and heard – a car sliding all the way through a corner, with smoke pouring out the back of the thing.

I first really got into drifting when I was about 18. I was already into Japanese imports, but I bought my first one – a silver 1999 R34 Nissan Skyline GT-t named Sammy – when I was 19.

It’s difficult to explain, but there’s something addictive and otherworldly about sliding a car around at your discretion. About being in control of something that is inherently out of control.

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The Drift Bible. Best Motoring International (BMI). D1. Keiichi Tsuchiya and Manabu (Max) Orido. Tanaka, Taniguchi, Suenaga, Kumakubo, and even Takumi Fujiwara. These names are where it all started for me. And they all come from Japan. I had to get to Japan to experience this stuff for myself. To watch it firsthand. To be there. To hear it. To smell it.

And now, 15-odd years later, it’s finally happening…

Booking flights last minute doesn’t usually help the bank account, but we’ve managed to wrangle flights to and from Tokyo’s Narita airport for around $400-ish each way, flying Jetstar. Nine-and-a-bit hours later, we touch down in J-land.

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Now, I have to confess. I have been to Japan before. Back in 2006, I spent two weeks there hoping to stumble across those in the drifting scene. I failed, and instead resorted to regular sightseeing.

I did, however, make the trek out to the Makuhari Messe convention centre for that year’s Tokyo Auto Salon, and it was an incredible experience in its own right.

This time, though, I’m working for CarAdvice and we effectively have a guide. With us is Driver Dynamics instructor and two-time Japanese G1 drift champion – and all-round friend of CarAdviceChris DeJager.

Apart from being genuinely devoted to practising and teaching safe and smart driving techniques and behaviour, Chris is also more than a touch handy when it comes to sliding cars around at high speed – particularly while keeping his car as close to other cars as he can.


 

Thursday – Day One

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After narrowly avoiding a hire car disaster – they cancelled our booking but didn’t let us know – we load our gear into a previous-generation Mazda Demio (costing us around $60 a day) and start the three-hour/280-kilometre drive north-east to the Ebisu complex in Nihonmatsu, in Fukushima Prefecture.

I say ‘complex’ because Ebisu is far from just a single track. Along with four dedicated drift tracks (School Course, North Course or Kita, South Course or Minami and West Course or Nishi), there are two skidpans, a flat track called Higashi (East) and a tight and twisty hillclimb called Touge, designed to simulate the public mountain passes where drifting began.

There is another area known as ‘Driftland’ – a safe, nothing-to-hit space that used to be the ideal playground for beginner drifters – but this was closed to the public after the elephants moved in…

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Elephants, you say? Yep. You see, drifting paradise or not, cut into the picturesque hills of Nihonmatsu, the Ebisu complex is also home to leafy landscapes, flowing streams and a safari park. The Tohoku Safari Park to be precise. Yes, this drifting holy land is as strange as it is Japanese.

Thanks to Chris’ past-life connections at Power Vehicles – an Ebisu-based workshop he used to work for that specialises in the purchase and support of drift cars for foreigners – we’re staying super close to Ebisu’s main gate, at what’s known at the Drifter’s Lodge (setting us back around $50 a night for cosy dorm-style accommodation). Before we dump bags, though, we have to get Chris’ car.

Parked away from Power Vehicles’ main shop front and garages, Chris’ four-door R32 Nissan Skyline sits door-to-door in a field of loved, and seemingly unloved, drift cars. Some are near-on show spec, while others look all but ready for the scrap heap. Chris’ turbocharged 2.5-litre straight-six RB25-powered R32 is closer to the latter… and it’s awesome.

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It has no front or rear bumper, semi-smashed headlights, no tail-lights, the front and rear quarter panels and all four doors have been repeatedly bashed in to, the front and rear reinforcements are bent, the rear doors don’t open, the boot only just shuts, and it’s sans a driver’s-side window. The only part of the car not sporting battle scars is the roof – wait, let me check again…

Inside, it’s all business. A driver’s bucket seat, a fan-favourite Takata harness bolted into a stripped rear, and an R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R passenger seat (another classic JDM or Japanese Domestic Market modification). The passenger gets a regular lap-sash seatbelt, while Chris’ main ‘tools’ comprise a Momo ‘Race’ steering wheel, an HKS shift knob, and a taped-up handbrake – just to add to the cabin’s purposeful ambience.

We pop the bonnet – which of course entails having one person push down on the bonnet while the other yanks the in-car release – reconnect the battery and turn the key. First time, every time. It starts up.

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With Chris in his Skyline and me in the Demio (badged a Mazda 2 here in Oz), we attempt to head to what will become our base camp for the large majority of the trip: the undercover pits at Minami.

There’s a catch, though. Although the car started, Chris already knows that his existing gearbox (an RB20 unit from the smaller capacity 2.0-litre RB-series engine) broke last time he drove it and it needs to be swapped.

Trying to go forwards, the car simply won’t play ball, the busted gears locking the wheels every few metres. Chris tries a few times, but you can’t fight the mechanics of the problem. So with a clear head, he simply drives around the issue. Literally…

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He casually performs a three-point turn, spins the car around 180 degrees and proceeds to drive backwards up the car lot’s steep entry and exit hill. Then through the Higashi pit area and its super tight concrete underpass, up the hill past Touge and Power Vehicles, and back out to near the safari park. All in reverse, all backwards, and all with the gearbox making a fairly horrendous clunking sound.

From here to Minami is all downhill, which means neutral can be used to go forwards, avoiding the need for gears altogether. A touch sketchy maybe, but no less impressive to watch – especially from behind the wheel of an automatic rental Demio.

It’s now 3:55pm and we’ve got two hours to make some sort of a start on swapping gearboxes. With light gone by 5:00pm, we manage to get the car up on ‘blocks’ (read: wheels), ready to be tackled first thing the next day.


Friday – Day Two

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Up at 7:00am, Chris and I start the day the best way budget-conscious gaijin (‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’ in Japanese) know how: by smashing down some packet noodles. Handy tip: UFO noodles are far superior to their most commonly available competitors.

We jump in the Mazda, head back to the track and drain the oil out of the old RB20 gearbox. Although Chris and I are both still feeling reasonably positive about things, some logistics have let Chris down in regards to the new RB25 gearbox and we could be in some strife.

A super-cute Daihatsu Hijet ute delivers the new gearbox, which is great, but there’s no tailshaft or gear shifter for it. And the respective RB20 components aren’t directly interchangeable with the new RB25 transmission. Things could be going more smoothly.

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Regardless, we soldier on, drop the old gearbox out, and after some swearing and general faffing about, get the new ‘box in. Sort of…

The new gearbox is bolted up to the back of the engine but we’re still yet to sort out the cross member (which will require some minor modification), a tailshaft and a shifter.

It’s 11:22am and Chris’ first competition, a round of the Japanese D1 Divisional series (a four-region drifting series where the series’ winner is awarded a D1 competition licence allowing them to compete in the country’s top-tier drifting championship), is two days away on Sunday. But neither of us, more importantly Chris, has had any time to drive, let alone practice. Preparing for the worst, we pinch a ‘spare’ car.

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Conveniently for Chris, his boss at Driver Dynamics, Kevin Flynn, caught the drifting bug a while back and has a four-door R33 Nissan Skyline that also lives at Ebisu. But again, there’s a catch.

Chris gets Kev’s blessing to drive the ’33 but also gets told about a water leak coming from the back of the engine. Unable to make progress with Chris’ own car, we decide to switch focus and instead tackle getting Kev’s car competition-ready… just in case.

Rubbing salt into our wounds, as we’re tracking down and attempting to fix the water leak in Kev’s car, we hear (and briefly see) others drifters out having fun on Minami – including two of Australia’s best sideways specialists, South Australian Christian Pickering and Victorian Nic Wilson.

It’s incredibly cool seeing two top-level guys pushing each other so hard on a world famous drift track, but, for Chris and I, we both know if we don’t get at least one car sorted by Sunday, he won’t be competing.


Saturday – Day Three

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An early start sees us back in the pits working again on the two cars – Chris’ four-door R32 and Kev’s four-door R33.

We get Chris’ car down off its makeshift wheel-and-tyre ‘jack stands’, but the parts required to finish the gearbox swap are still yet to arrive, making the likelihood of getting it out on track by Sunday all but impossible.

Luckily, the backup plan, Kev’s car, has had its water leak fixed. And after fitting up some modified steering knuckles, should be ‘driftable’ by lunchtime.

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Knuckles in and the ‘33 is done. We take it out for a pre-lunch test run and shakedown but the results are mixed. There are no more leaks, but the car is wanting to spin early and Chris isn’t able to access all of the available steering lock the car should now have.

We quickly change wheels and tyres, and head out for our first laps of Nishi – the track where Sunday’s D1 Divisional round will be held.

With the car feeling better but not perfect, Chris makes the decision to shave down the car’s lock stops to free up even more lock.

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We dash back to the Minami pits, grind down the lock stops, and with excitement high but light fading fast, we duck over to Ebisu’s Touge for two extreme runs through the tight and twisty public road-like mountain pass.

Chris and I can’t stop smiling. He knows at this point that, despite never having driven Kev’s R33 before, there’s a chance for a reasonable crack at tomorrow’s competition.

It’s 4:15pm and getting dark. We pack up and head back to the Drifter’s Lodge.


Sunday – Day Four

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Today is the day Chris and I came here for: the D1 Divisional round.

Chris has won this sort of competition before but that was in his car, a battered but well-sorted grey R32 four-door. Today, his only option is a backup car he’s barely driven – a white R33 four-door that happens to belong to his boss at Driver Dynamics.

First things first, though. We need to sign in, fuel up and fix a sporadically sticking throttle (kind of important when intentionally sliding towards walls at high speeds).

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The other key factor for today is the weather. It’s been raining all night, it’s still raining, and by all forecasts, it’s set to continue to rain. Terrific.

Held at Nishi, the competition starts with an open practice session, followed by a roulette-style qualifying session, where two judges pick the drivers they feel are consistent enough to move through to qualifying proper.

Oh, and those judges… Only D1 legend, Naoto Suenaga, and the man behind the entire Ebisu complex and the owner of the famous Team Orange drift mob, Nobushige Kumakubo – so, no pressure.

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Still wet, still raining, Chris’ number makes it onto the list, meaning he’s through to qualifying. Now he has two qualifying runs to impress the judges and secure a spot in the Top 16.

Two runs later – one not bad, one less good – we wait with Chris for the results. He’s far from optimistic.

98.45 for Run One and 83.25 for Run Two. Chris qualifies 11th and immediately goes over to meet and shake the hand of his first opponent, the sixth-best qualifier in Car #23 – a Japanese driver driving a black S15 Nissan Silvia.

Watching a tandem drift battle live is quite the site, and Chris’ first for the competition is a cracker.

A lead run and a chase run each and a result is too close to call. The judges demand a rerun. Same result again.

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The pair rerun for a second time, but after clearly bettering his opposition on his chase run, Chris spins on his final lead run, handing victory to his opponent.

One error, one slip-up and that’s it. We’re done. Three days of hard work trying get at least one car up and running and competitive and it’s over. For now anyway…

Tomorrow is Monday and we’ve still got Chris’ car to finish and get sorted ahead of Friday’s G1 Grand Prix (a three-round Japanese drifting series exclusively for foreigners or ‘gaijin’) event and following Drift Matsuri – the latter being a mental 36-hour, non-stop festival of sideways mayhem.


 

Monday – Day Five

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With the pressure off, we spend the morning resting up and exploring the city of Nihonmatsu. That is, until we get word that Chris’ missing RB20-to-RB25 gearbox conversion parts have come in and are on their way to the track. A quick change of clothes and we’re optimistically on the way back to Ebisu. But something’s happened at the track…

Nic Wilson – one of the Aussie drivers we saw drifting hard on Minami only days earlier – has had a big crash at North Course that’s resulted in a rollover.

A properly scary crash, Nic’s JZX90 Toyota Chaser had its rear-end tagged at high speed, sending the car up an embankment and triggering the car to roll onto its roof. Driver and passenger – a random experiencing his first ever time in a drift car – are amazingly both ok. The guy who tagged Nic, though? Fellow Aussie, drift mate and outright friend, Christian Pickering.

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And with the roof of the car having been compressed enough to have snapped the top of Nic’s driver’s seat, everyone – particularly Christian and Nic’s girlfriend Jess – is relieved to see all involved somehow avoided injury.

Back at the Minami pits, it’s time to get Chris’ R32 going. Another day though, another drama.

The parts arrive, but there’s a problem. We’re still missing several key components and Chris’ existing tailshaft from the old RB20 gearbox won’t fit up to the new RB25 gearbox. No tailshaft,  no drive.

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A ‘simple fix’ – we’re assured – involves a cutting disc, a uni-joint and time.

Luckily, the Power Vehicles workshop has the tools Chris needs, with Power Vehicles’ owners, Andy and Emily Gray, letting Chris (a former employee) work into the night to try and resolve the problem.

More rain doesn’t help the mood, but tomorrow should be the day we can piece things together again, and hopefully turn key on the ‘32.


Tuesday – Day Six

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After a day fiddling, modifying, and hoping, at around 3:00pm – hey presto! Chris finally gets the uni-joint to fit into the tailshaft.

From here, despite the days of mucking around, everything comes together reasonably easily – with the exception of a minor hiccup with the supplied gear shifter not actually fitting the new gearbox.

The tailshaft goes in, a shifter that fits goes in (pinched from Kev’s ’33), the new gearbox’s clutch slave cylinder is hooked up and bled, the radiator is topped up and we finally turn key on the ’32.

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Immediately, Chris heads up the hill from the Minami pits to School Course and puts on one hell of a drifting display. Full noise, full attack. Each lap is a more and more concentrated blend of relief and excitement, and the passenger seat is where we’re lucky enough to experience it from.

Chris attracts so much attention that other drifters, eager to see if they can match his intensity, enter the track, and in no time at all, Chris is battling a black Nissan 180SX in not-far-off full competition mode. He’s back. The car is back. The smiles are back. We’re back.

The focus is now well and truly on Friday’s G1 round, the last of the championship – a championship Chris has won twice before.

We debrief over fresh iPhone videos, pack up the car, pack up the tools and leave the track for well-earned showers at the lodge and a much-needed feed.


 

Wednesday – Day Seven

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Daily entry fee paid (around $18.00), we roll through Ebisu’s main gates in our Mazda Demio hire car and cruise down to our home away from home – the pits at Minami – to start tackling some minor ‘tweaks’ to Chris’ Skyline.

We tighten a few bolts, adjust the clutch, and change the front brake pads – when you’re sliding towards walls and other cars at over 140km/h, being able to reliably stop is a really good thing.

Moments later, while bleeding the brakes, the answer (we think) to some suspect pedal feel is abruptly revealed, as a front brake line bursts. Brilliant.

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Adding insult to injury, it’s 11:50am and we’ve both paid for track access from 12:00pm, confident that we’d be out sliding later in the day.

With help from Power Vehicles, some second-hand front brake lines were sourced and fitted, but the doughy pedal feel remains. Next step, we try to locate a new (but still second-hand) brake master cylinder. Confidence is not high. It’s now 2:05pm.

Forty minutes later, we’re ecstatic. Thanks to more help from Power Vehicles’ legendary mechanics, the new master appears to have done the trick. We finish up, bleed the brakes again and finally get to the clutch adjustment originally planned for the morning.

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With the clutch feeling much better, we throw fresh fuel into the tank, a little more air into the tyres, and head up the super-steep hill to Ebisu’s North Course for some shakedown laps.

After some properly top-shelf and high-speed slides on North Course, and a little tandem battling, Chris heads over to his old ‘test bed’ – Touge.

With the smile inside his helmet getting bigger and bigger, Chris deftly slides the four-door Nissan up and down and through the super tight, twisty and tricky course, lap after lap.

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With several monkeys (read: gremlins) off our back, we head to one of Ebisu’s two skidpans and – all too kindly – Chris slings me the the keys to the ‘32.

For me, this is it. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for since I first came to Japan in 2006: the chance to slide a car in the place where drifting began.

With two witches hats set up, Chris takes me through drifting 101: handbrake turns, slide initiation, manipulating weight transfers, and throttle control. I’m listening to his instructions and paying attention, but inside, I’m just giddy with excitement about the whole surreal situation.

It’s not the first time I’ve ever intentionally slid a car, but it is the first time I’ve ever done it in Japan. And to be guided by a two-time G1 GP drift champion, is no bad thing.

With some of our previous luck rearing its ugly head though, a minor clutch issue cuts our lesson short and, with light fading fast, dictates that we wrap up, tidy up and head home for the night.


 

Thursday – Day Eight

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Up bright and early, we head to the Minami pits, get the R32 out into the sun – seven-degree mornings and cold concrete don’t make for the most fun working conditions – and get straight onto changing the clutch master cylinder for a replacement second-hand item.

Clutch master changed, and clutch bled and adjusted one more time, we throw more fuel into the ’32 to try and improve a minor engine miss, and head back out to North Course and then Nishi – the latter being the same track as last week’s D1 Divisional round and where (hopefully) Chris will battle it out in Friday’s G1 competition.

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The next few hours are spent swapping between the track and the pits trying to fix the engine miss. It’s still there. We change spark plugs. It’s better but still there. We re-gap the plugs and try again. It’s better again but still not 100 per cent.

It’s dark and we have to leave for the day, which means we either leave it altogether, or have a crack at changing the coil packs first thing in the morning…


Friday – Day Nine

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It’s game day. We kick off super early, as we need to get the car as close as we can to ‘right’ before Chris starts the competition.

As is tradition for competition days, Chris has a mandatory Boss coffee – canned coffee that comes straight out of hot vending machines or warmed glass cabinets. For the not caffeine-inclined, they also do a seriously good canned hot chocolate.

With time getting away from us, we make the decision to turn the car’s boost controller off, rather than try completing any potential coil-pack swap – meaning halving turbo boost pressure from 16 to 8psi.

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Chris signs in and, along with all the other non-Japanese drivers, carefully absorbs the drivers briefing – run by Kumakubo and Suenaga, with Aussie expat, Alexi Smith, tasked with translating.

With the judges’ requirements fresh in his mind, Chris heads out for morning practice ahead of qualifying later in the afternoon.

Practice goes well enough, but Chris knows power is down, so we up rear tyre pressures to 450kpa (65psi) for roulette qualifying.

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The results from qualifying are in. Chris makes it into the Top 16, qualifying fifth. His first battle is against Marco Blastta from Italy, competing in a white S14 Nissan Silvia.

A better start than in his D1 Divisional round, Chris wins in the normal two runs (one lead, one chase) and progresses to the Top Eight.

Next, Chris takes on West Australian Scott Tuna – competing in a black S14 Nissan Silvia – and wins, securing himself a spot in the semi-finals.

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With a spot in the final up for grabs, Chris goes up against good mate and fellow Victorian Nic Wilson. With Nic’s ‘street-spec’ Toyota JZX90 destroyed in his North Course rollover, he takes Chris on in his competition JZX90, which is even more heavily modified.

The two runs are close, but Nic takes the victory, sending Chris into a battle for third place with Hong Kong-born US Formula Drift driver Charles Ng and his Nissan S13 Silvia.

Chris battles hard in the underpowered ‘32, pushing Charles and his S13 to the ragged edge. And, after some super-close battling, all our hard work pays off, with Chris coming out on top.

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The result not only means third place for the round, but also third place overall for the series – not a bad effort for only competing in two of the championship’s three rounds.

With Chris done for the day, we join the rest of the crowd to watch the final. It’s between ‘Captain Crash’ Nic Wilson and one of the most down-to-earth people you could ever meet, Tasmanian Brendan Mansfield.

With Nic again in his black JZX90 and ‘Brendo’ steering a white JZX100, it’s the battle of the big four-door Toyotas. And the anticipation is palatable.

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Super close and super exciting, the first run goes to Brendo by half a point, but Nic takes out the second run. The judges (and fans) demand a rerun.

With Brendo leading and Nic chasing, Nic makes contact with Brendo right in front of the judges, sending himself into a spin and handing the round win to the overtly tall Tasmanian. In a fairytale twist for Brendan, the win gives him enough points to claim the G1 Grand Prix Championship by one solitary point over the championship leader, West Australian Ken Leong.

And that’s it. It’s 4:15pm, we pack up and head to the traditional post-competition barbecue to celebrate Brendo’s big win – the people’s champion if ever there was one.

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The celebration marks the night before the start of the 36-hour Drift Matsuri, but for me, it represents my last night in Japan… Tomorrow is a pre-6:00am start, a three-hour drive to Narita airport and nine-and-a-bit hours on a plane to reflect on the trip.

Coming to Japan was about more than seeing a few cars drifting. It was about exploring the world behind drifting.

In a little over a week, I got to see the drifting ‘holy land’ that is the Ebisu complex – and all of the tracks and safari park-ness that that encompasses – meet some of the doyens of drift, drive and slide a legitimate drift car in Japan (okay, it was just on a skidpan but still) and, most importantly, be welcomed into a fraternity of people who simply love and respect the art of going sideways.

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In our experience, it’s the sense of community, the high levels of sportsmanship and mateship, the friendly banter, and the well-placed jibes that make drifting great. The smoke, noise, and excitement are all simply by-products of good people getting together and supporting each other in their chosen sport.

During our time at Ebisu, no one drove inappropriately or disrespectfully within the confines of the complex or its surrounding areas. Not once. No one left tyre marks where they shouldn’t have. No one was rude, or unhelpful, or unsupportive. Everyone was just there to have fun and enjoy (and perhaps hurt) their cars.

So with the whole Japan drifting trip done, is it a case of ‘box ticked’? Hardly. Now all I want to do is learn more, study harder and, someday soon, return with my own car. And plenty of tyres.

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If the idea of getting to Japan and drifting your own car over there interests you, it is possible. Thanks to people like Andy and Emily Gray, and the rest of the team at Power Vehicles, you can do just that, with mechanical support and stacks of advice to boot.

My tip? If you’re remotely into drifting, or want to learn as much as you can about it from a raft of people who seriously know their stuff, head over to Japan and get sliding. You won’t regret it…

Note: For making this content possible, Dave and CarAdvice would like to extend a huge thank you to Chris DeJager and Kevin Flynn from Driver Dynamics, Emily and Andy Gray from Power Vehicles and Team Orange and all the crew at the Ebisu circuit.

Click on the Photos tab for more images shot by David Zalstein and edited by Tom Fraser.
Videography by David Zalstein. Editing by Igor Solomon.






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