The Land Rover Discovery sticks out like a sore thumb in the traffic jam I’m currently stuck in, its hulking white presence in stark contrast to the conglomeration of kei cars all patiently inching forward on Tokyo’s complicated, and currently clogged, motorway system.
Back home in Australia, traffic tends to bring out the worst in people. We have zero tolerance for the types of snarls that blight our daily commutes, our frustrations building as we creep ahead slowly and inexorably towards our destinations.
Here, however, in the largest metropolis in the world, there is no such angst. People simply sit in their cars with a palpable air of calm. There’s no tooting of horns, no angry gesticulation, no incessant lane-changing in the hunt for that extra 1km/h. Instead, there’s simply an overarching serenity. If that sounds a strange description of an unimaginable traffic jam, that’s because it is. Yet, here we are.
It’s symptomatic of Tokyo, and Japan, as a whole. There’s serenity pervading through the air unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a city as large as this one. And make no mistake Tokyo is large, with a metropolitan area population of around 38 million, making it the most populous city in the world.
Tokyo, the city itself, is home to over 13 million people. For context, Sydney’s city region houses just over 200,000 people. That swells to around 5.3 million in the greater metropolitan area. So yeah, Tokyo is huge. Even if its cars aren’t.
Kei cars account for around 40 per cent of the Japanese domestic market. In 2018, the top four selling cars in Japan were kei cars, led by the cute, yet practical, Honda N-Box. Kei cars enjoy tax and insurance benefits over their bigger siblings, while their diminutive dimensions make perfect sense in Tokyo’s urban landscape.
That’s why the Land Rover Discovery that is my steed for two days of touring Tokyo and its surrounding countryside, looms even larger than its already large SUV segment dimensions suggest. Certainly in present company.
It’s no ordinary Disco either, festooned as it is with Rugby World Cup decals, a nod to Land Rover’s status as a Worldwide Partner of the 2019 RWC taking place in Japan. The Disco itself is near the top-end of the specification tree, a HSE SD6. Powered by a twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 diesel making 225kW and 700Nm, mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission, the Discovery can muster a 0-100km/h dash in 7.5 seconds. Not bad for a vehicle with a tare mass of around 2.2 tonnes.
It’s a redundant performance stat right now though, with a tailback stretching into the kilometres if the native sat-nav with live traffic updates is to be believed (spoiler alert, it is). Yet, what the Discovery provides is a comfortable and calm environment in which to simply sit in traffic and bide your time.
It wasn’t always like this. A day earlier, I’d successfully navigated Tokyo’s complex network of city streets and motorways (and believe me, it is complex) thanks entirely to the excellent on-board navigation. I only took one wrong turn, and that was my fault, not the sat-nav’s, which quickly and easily had me back on track and heading towards my destination for the day, Mount Fuji.
It’s an ambling run too, made easier by Japan’s tacit road rules. My guide offered a fascinating insight into how the Japanese conduct themselves on the country’s system of roads and motorways.
Simply, there’s a tolerance of between 20-40km/h on the signposted limits. Most of the streets around the city are posted at 40km/h but you can safely and easily and without fear of being booked drive at around 60km/h. Similarly, motorways are posted at a miserly 80km/h, yet anywhere up to 120km/h is perfectly fine. ‘Just go with the traffic flow’ is the simple instruction. Imagine that in Australia? No, neither can I. And it works too, with the stream of traffic humming along in an entirely predictable and orderly fashion.
And, like they are in life, Japanese drivers are unflinchingly polite. There’s no aggression, and lane courtesy is exemplary. Done overtaking? Keep left. Simple.
That loping run is the entrée into the countryside outside Tokyo’s metropolitan sprawl. Once off the motorway, the serenity of Japan is tangible. You can see it in the people, with an economy of movement that is fascinating. Think Rajio Taisou’s (similar to China’s more well-known Tai-chi), gentle and flowing movements. There’s a simple and rather lovely poetry to this place and its people.
With the city well behind me, Mount Fuji beckons. And beckon it does, its 3776-metre snow-capped peak dominating the surrounding landscape. It’s easy to understand why Fuji is such a central tenet of Japanese culture, its looming presence visible from as far away as Tokyo, Yokohama and, spectacularly, the International Space Station.
Fuji’s fascinating history of formation is worth exploring. Still regarded an active volcano (it last erupted in 1707), Mount Fuji has formed through volcanic activity over several million years, in the process burying two other mountains underneath its 3776-metre presence. The first, Komitake Fuji, was buried by volcanic activity by what is now called ‘Old Fuji’ some 100,000 years ago. ‘Old Fuji’ enjoyed a 90,000-year reign over the landscape until ‘New Fuji’ formed over the top around 10,000 years ago.
It has, over the millennia, become a sacred and cultural icon of Japan, and in 2013 was granted World Heritage List-status by UNESCO. Temples and shrines celebrating its grandeur are liberally dotted around the surrounding landscape, including the Hakone Jinja, buried in the woods just outside the town of Hakone on the shores of Lake Ashi.
Established in the year 757 on the summit of Mount Hakone, the Shrine was moved to its current location in 1667. It is, as you would expect, a restful place, shrouded by tall timber and sparkling in today’s dappled sunlight. A wall of wishes, placed there by worshippers, clatters in the gentle breeze. Koi circle a pond hopeful of scraps.
Whether you ascribe to a spirituality or not (I don’t), it’s hard not to feel an ethereal presence. Wander down to the shores of Lake Ashi and you’re met by an armada of people all waiting patiently in line to snap a selfie at the Hakone Jinja’s torii (or gate). Traveller tip: forget the gate and its horde of snap-happy tourists and wander a mere 50 metres or so along the path winding through the trees to the right and you’ll soon have the lake and the woods to yourself. Take a breather on one of the wooden benches and let the ripples of Lake Ashi wash away the spectre of the madding selfie crowd.
Back on the road, the Land Rover Discovery again underlines its touring credentials, despite its unquestionable off-roading credentials. The ride is supple and comfortable, the big seven-seater swallowing up the roads in and around Hakone with ease. That turbo-diesel six too, is effortless in its execution, offering a relaxed, and ultimately comfortable ride.
That comfort is highlighted on the next stretch of tarmac, the Ashinoko Skyline, a 10.75 km twisting stretch of road that climbs into the hills surrounding Lake Ashi. You’ll need ¥630 (around A$8.40), cash only, to take this private road, but it’s well worth the spend, if only for the 320-metre stretch of road that – literally – sings.
It’s known as ‘musical road’ – or ‘melody pavement’ when directly translated from Japanese – and it plays the theme song from popular anime series, Neon Genesis Evangelion, as you drive over it.
How it does this is via a series of tiny grooves with an average width of 9mm and depth of 6mm, which, when spaced at specific intervals along the stretch of tarmac, create a melody in conjunction with the friction of the vehicle’s tyres. Gimmicky? Absolutely. Yet, it’s also a safety feature, with vehicles needing to be travelling at 40km/h for optimal playback. It is truly bizarre, yet utterly compelling.
So too is the view from the top of Ashinoko Skyline which opens up to stunning vistas of Mount Fuji which commands the land around it like only a snow-capped mountain can. Fun fact: Mount Fuji generates its own clouds. This happens when warm and humid air hits the side of the mountain, rises up its slopes and then condenses to form clouds. It’s strangely compelling, and yes, calming (there’s that word again), to witness.
The serenity was short-lived, however, as a fleet of JDM hero cars pulled into the lookout carpark, their collective noise a beacon for hungry petrolheads. The Land Rover Discovery never looked more out of place lined up alongside a Nissan GT-R R33, Nissan 240Z, Mitsubishi Lancer EVO 6, and Mazda RX-7. And while there was no smell of burning rubber, and over-worked brakes, the tell-tale ticking coming from under their respective bonnets hinted at a bit of a workout. Unsurprising, really, since the quartet had just completed a Hakone Skyline run.
Hakone Skyline… one of the most famous stretch of roads anywhere in the world. Short, at just 5km in length, its series of twist and turns speak of a promise that, to be blunt, the Discovery I’m in cannot deliver. That’s not a slight on Land Rover product, not by a long way, but the Discovery is not a corner-carver in the same way the quartet of JDM product cooling down in the carpark is.
Still, having parted with ¥360 (around A$4.80) the simple fact of driving on one of the world’s most famous roads is worth the price of entry alone. There’s plenty of evidence of previous fun, lines of black rubber snaking along the tarmac.
The Discovery, though, isn’t about to burst into a rendition of Tokyo Drift. Yet, at a sedate pace, and using the Hakone Skyline in the manner for which it is intended – as a scenic tourist drive – highlights its ability as a comfortable, touring SUV.
It ends all too quickly, and the temptation to turn around and drive Hakone again is strong. The schedule though, demands several more hours of driving, first to the shores of Lake Saiko for yet more stunning views, more serenity, and then on to Yamanashi for an overnight stay at the beautiful Hoshinoya Fuji resort.
Individual concrete boxes built into the side of a hill don’t sound glamourous on the surface, but with spectacular views over Lake Kawaguchi to Mount Fuji, so close you can almost touch it, it’s difficult to tear yourself away. There’s something quite transcendental about sitting on the balcony of your concrete cube, a small open fire doing its best to ward off the chill of the evening. There is no sound; it’s as if the mountain swallows all noise, leaving nothing but you, the splendour of Fuji and the thoughts inside your head, although these too give way to the surroundings, as if Mount Fuji itself absorbs them into herself. Sleep, when it comes, is total.
The return to Tokyo is nowhere near as spectacular, a run on the motorway where the Discovery’s loping gait is the perfect accompaniment to multi-lane blacktops populated by an armada of kei cars. In this company, the Land Rover is a giant, towering above the chaos of Tokyo’s traffic. Behind me, the mountain, always the mountain.
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