Mates of mine who live in Japan tell me driving enthusiasts have an almost spiritual connection with the legendary Hakone Turnpike – or Mazda Turnpike as it is now known. That’s regardless of whether you're a local or an import to the land of the rising sun like they are. There’s just something about that racetrack-smooth stretch of tarmac that irons a winding black ribbon through the mountain forest near Odawara.
If you’re wondering whether Japan does automotive fanaticism with the requisite level of gusto, the mere fact that a manufacturer has purchased naming rights to a stretch of toll road should banish that dirty thought from your mind. Imagine the Great Ocean Road being called Subaru Highway. It wouldn’t happen. You might think we’re obsessed with performance cars in Australia – until you set foot in Japan. The country is absolutely bonkers in regard to all things four-wheeled.
Orderly, neat, clean and respectful, that’s the country and the people. Japanese car culture is almost like an irreverent antithesis to the establishment. The louder the better, more garish, more hardcore, more power, more performance, cars in Japan are a complete deviation from the pervading culture of the country – and it’s absolutely sensational because of it. It is therefore one of the best places in the world to go driving regardless of where your automotive loyalties lie.
On our recent trip to sample the facelifted 86, Toyota Australia PR manager Stephen Coughlan organised a special treat for us. We’ll be driving the breathtaking Hakone Turnpike, along with some of Japan’s most famous stretches of touge tarmac in the Hakone region – but we’ll be doing it in a tidy AE86 Trueno and a tuned 2JZ Supra. All in the shadow of the towering Mount Fuji. Yep, this day is one for the highlight reel.
If you’ve never heard of the Turnpike, head to YouTube and look for the videos from 2014, when the road was closed to traffic for the day. Some of the drift work you’ll see is spectacular, not to mention the rarity and quality of the cars that were driven at breakneck speed over it on that day.
Getting out to Hakone is easy enough, it’s a two hour drive (depending on the epic traffic jams) from Tokyo’s Haneda airport, and the added benefit once you get into the mountains is how incredibly beautiful the region is. Perched up in the hills, dwarfed by the mystical Mount Fuji, the views and crisp, fresh air make the destination well and truly worth the drive regardless of the driving that is on offer once you get there. It’s a popular tourist spot even for locals, with beautiful scenery, plenty of hiking trails, proximity to the legendary Fuji Speedway and amazing food everywhere you turn. We’re not here for any of that today though – today it’s all about driving.
If you want to experience the same evocative drive we did, you can hit Yoshi up at www.fun2drive.co.jp or email him at email@example.com. Yoshi is both a legend and fluent in English too, and he also acted as our guide for the day, leading the way in his B4 Liberty. He’s not afraid to get cracking once he knows that you know what you’re doing behind the wheel either, and having him as a guide saves an awful lot of time looking for the best driving and photo locations. He’s also a trusted local sweep car, even though the local police are incredibly tolerant to speeding. “Unless you’re being completely stupid, they will usually leave you alone,” he says.
His business isn’t all about Toyotas either. We were driving Toyotas (for obvious reasons) but you can hire some extremely tasty machinery from the boys including a modified Datsun Z, various iterations of the Skyline GT-R (including a replica of the 60s original) a Honda NSX, a Series VI RX-7, a Lotus Elise and even a Caterham. There’s some sensational stuff in the parking lot when you pull in, that’s for sure.
The day is going to be a riot despite the fact we spend so much time in the latest and most up to date automotive technology at CarAdvice. I’ve owned two ADM Sprinters before, but both of mine had the (asthmatic) stock 4AC carby engine, rear drum brake, no LSD package and I’ve never driven a JDM 4AG-E powered example. I’ve driven plenty of Supras over the years, but it’s been a long time between drinks and I’m looking forward to stepping back a few decades in technology terms.
I start out in the Supra. The driving position is still intrinsically right, and while it’s a big car externally, I’m reminded of how compact it is inside the cabin. Slim pillars make the most impact when it comes to forward visibility and it’s something we miss in regard to old cars. Turn the key and the modified 2J bursts into life settling into a smooth snarl. The 2JZ always was a sensational engine, even stock, let alone with some minor mods. Tuners in the States make gargantuan power from 2J engines, even with stock bottom end components, so it’s earned its reputation as one of the great Japanese engines.
First up, we head off to some photo locations that fans of Initial D will be familiar with and the unbelievable quality of the roads is immediately intoxicating. The surface is racetrack smooth, in fact I’m not sure there is a Japanese word for pothole. They wouldn’t need it, given we didn’t see one. The sweeping bends dip and swerve into the forest and the minute we hit a long tunnel, Yoshi’s voice cracks over the two-way and he says ‘there’s no cameras in here, let’s go’ and he promptly disappears.
I flatten the accelerator pedal and true to form, the Supra takes a deep breath and starts to accelerate while the big single turbo thinks about coming to life, by the time it does we’re already moving at pace and when the huffer starts to really work hard, there’s a decent shove in the back. This lightly modified Supra really isn’t fast by modern standards, it’s laggy and doesn’t have that slab of mid-range torque we always bang on about with modern cars, but it’s still a handful if you’ve never driven one.
The steering is direct, but it’s a little light, and the handling – thanks to the coilover suspension that’s been fitted – is pretty good too. It’s still a fun thing to pedal quickly despite being almost 20 years old now. The engine note, especially up near redline is sensational. It’s a reminder of the not so distant past, a time when engines sounded good naturally, when there was no such thing as exhaust amplification and silly systems that piped a fake engine note into the cabin. The 2JZ is as good as any of the great straight six engines.
If you’re driving, you won’t get much chance to enjoy it, but the scenery is breathtaking. It’s truly a beautiful part of Japan, lush green and almost completely devoid of traffic. In fact, most vehicles we encounter over the duration of our drive are being worked pretty hard by enthusiastic drivers who seem to be up here for the same reason we are. We don’t get stuck once behind a slowpoke. Yep, Japan is an awesome place to drive and how we wish this road was in our backyard.
Switching into the AE86, it’s like pulling on an old cardigan, so similar is it to the two I’ve owned. Except this one has a higher grade interior, a better engine, better rear end, better brakes and is set up to handle more competently than my stock examples did. The aggressive front wheel alignment makes the steering a little heavier than you’d like at low speed, but once you're rolling, the 86 is a riot.
The 86 is truly slow in real terms in 2016, and you have to work hard as well muscling the steering wheel and straining against the bodyroll into faster corners. Even more so than the Supra, I need to remind myself how important it is to work an older engine up near redline at all times to make any kind of rapid progress. The 4AG-E four-cylinder 16-valve engine always was a little cracker not to mention a 90s performance favourite and while it doesn’t make much power, it sings a glorious note in the top third of its rev range.
Stephen is my passenger for the afternoon and we’re both in hysterics as I whip the 86 into a frenzy trying to keep up with the Supra and Liberty leading the way. Our two 100kg frames aren’t helping the power to weight ratio either not to mention adding extra tax to the work the brakes have to do. After the first section of the Turnpike, we stop for some photos, and the engine is sweating and ticking away, the brakes are smoking and we’re both laughing like hyenas. I could probably have gone twice as fast in a new Yaris, but who cares? It wouldn’t have been half as much fun. I tell Steve I need to buy another Sprinter. Regret from selling mine is setting in…
You’ll notice in the photos that the Turnpike is a toll road and as such, is privately owned. That means, there’s usually very little traffic on it and hardly any local constabulary. In fact, we didn’t see a police car all day. This stretch of road is as good as just about anything I’ve ever driven in the States or Europe. Sweeping bends carve through the dense forest and swoop down sharply, before climbing back up rapidly. It’s a driver’s paradise and it doesn’t take long to understand why this hallowed stretch of bitumen is as revered as it is.
The Turnpike was originally sponsored by Toyo Tyres before Mazda bought in and the tyre company built an impressive restaurant, viewing station and rest area at the upper mid-point of the drive. Pull in for some photos, and stay for a while to watch the passing parade of modified cars and motorcycles. There’s plenty to keep you entertained and everyone will want to chat about what you’re driving, where you’re from and how you found out about the road.
We head down toward Lake Ashi after a rapid run up to Mount Mikuni for some more photos and a final blast to our fuel stop that signals the end of our day behind the wheel. Anyone who was involved in modified cars in Australia in the late 80s and early 90s would have been fascinated by Japan at the time. So much of the modifying fodder was Japanese, the JGTC was at its most interesting, and drifting (at least in an off-street legal sense) was finding its feet too. Plus, the unique Japanese way of modifying cars was intoxicating, but more visible than ever before too.
We used to spend hours poring over Japanese tuning mags even though we couldn’t read a word. Driving these famous roads, that are scarred by countless tyre marks from the midnight touge madness is a privilege that is much easier to access than you think. If it’s on your bucket list, get over there. Contact Yoshi and drive these amazing roads in a cool car. You won’t regret it. I’ll be back, there’s no doubt about that.