‘STOP AT THE TRAFFIC LIGHTS ON ONE OF THE MAJOR JUNCTIONS
AND SUCH IS THE SHEER NUMBER OF BODIES SWARMING OVER THE
MULTIPLE ZEBRA CROSSINGS THAT IT LOOKS MORE LIKE
A MURMURATION OF STARLINGS THAN A CROWD OF PEOPLE’

ONE BIG FILM SET, THAT’s WHAT JAPAN feels like. Everything is so neat, so clean, so very Japanese that it feels like it’s come to life from a carefully crafted storyboard. The traffic around us on the motorway is all moving in such a considered, almost polite fashion that I begin to wonder if it is referring to some unseen script. When the lanes drop from two to one, everybody filters perfectly, like a zip. The cars themselves are pristine, with no dents or scrapes in sight, as though they’re props only taken out in the dry and then popped back in bubble wrap every night. When we pull into the Ebina Service Area there is a Nismo R35 GT-R and a V-spec R34 parked up, because that’s what you’d expect. I really don’t think I’d be surprised if Godzilla itself (the lizard, not the eponymous R32) heaved into view on the horizon. If the roads we’re aiming for live up to this cinematic fantasy then we’ll find ourselves inside Initial D, rendered in anime and delivering tofu, before the day is out.

Ten years ago Richard Meaden and Andy Morgan drove out of Tokyo in exactly the same direction as photographer Aston Parrott and I are going. You might wonder why we’re heading the same way, given that there are so many fantastic places to explore in Japan, but while Meaden and Morgan investigated the north-westerly end of the famous Hakone roads in a Nissan 350Z (evo 088), they left the south-easterly stretches of the region untouched. So, with time to kill between the Tokyo motor show and another appointment nearby, Aston and I have half-inched a Cayman GTS (lovely, if not the most culturally appropriate set of wheels) and are heading towards Kanagawa Prefecture to see what we can find.

I actually have an idea about what our first destination will reveal because Japanese magazine Motorhead (RIP Lemmy, but this wasn’t his gig) held a small hill climb event on a portion of the road in 2014 and the resulting film, which you can see on YouTube, is stunning. After leaving the Tomei Expressway, we’re relying on the satnav, which is a slightly baffling JDM device slotted into the hole where the PCM screen usually lives. As we head further into a town, I feel certain that we must be going the wrong way, but the road signs mean nothing to either me or Aston so we have to trust the pictures on the small screen. Just as I feel sure that I’ve seen the same Nissan garage at least three times, we spear off onto a side road and drive past a big green sign pointing up a steep access ramp hoisted above the ground. ‘Welcome to the famous Hakone Turnpike’. The Hayakawa tollgate is not really very picturesque, yet nevertheless there is something attractive about it. The rare Ducati Sport 1000S parked up artfully next to it probably helps. The stage is set. 

The nice man in the regulation blue jacket bows slightly and almost reverentially hands me my change through the window of the Cayman (a ticket costs about £5), then we’re released onto the turnpike. Built in 1962, it is essentially an 8.6-mile bypass for National Route 1, but it is also the gateway to the famous ‘touge’ roads where drifting was born, raised and became legend. In 2007 Toyo Tyres took on sponsorship of the road and then in 2014 Mazda took over the naming rights. I’ve heard it referred to as Japan’s Nürburgring, so I’m excited, but my enthusiasm is rather tempered by the knowledge that, unlike the Ring, the turnpike is two-way and there is a 50kph limit (albeit rather loosely enforced, as we’ll soon find out).

The gradient is steep initially, but the road is wide and the corners are long. They’ve stuck to the seemingly Japanese tradition of labelling them in accordance with their radius, so there is everything from a 100R (100-metre radius) up to a 200R. It’s strange, because although it’s a lovely

bit of road it looks like you would have to be travelling ridiculously quickly before it became a real test of car and driver. There are, however, some beautiful stretches, none more so than when the trees part to reveal a perfectly curved red bridge spanning a small valley. I instantly recognise it from a scene in the Motorhead film where a 1000bhp drift-spec Rocket Bunny R35 GT-R, smoke pouring from its rear tyres in fifth gear for 100 metres or more, oversteers perfectly across this bridge. The tyre marks are gone now, but I can picture the scene in my mind’s eye and, like seeing the Mulsanne straight on a non-race day, it’s somehow still impressive.

After a couple of miles we pull into the Goshonoiri car park, a largish area complete with a small fishpond containing some koi carp. This was the makeshift pit area for the hill climb but it’s empty today. Aston decides to take a few detail shots of the Cayman while I stretch my legs. 

Quietly an Audi R8 slips into the car park and stops a little distance away. It’s an early car clothed entirely in black – sideblades, wheels, the lot. It looks fantastic. A mass of immaculately wild hair wearing a white T-shirt and jeans gets out (unsurprisingly it’s a left-hand-drive car, as having the wheel on the European side adds kudos in Japan) and walks around to the front of the car where he pops the boot. Aston returns to taking photos and I wander over to talk to the fish. It’s all rather peaceful.

A couple of minutes later I glance back towards the R8 just in time to see the fellow calmly removing the second screw from the front registration plate and putting it all in the boot, leaving a completely blank black nose. Odd. He then drops into the driver’s seat, fires up the distinctive 4.2-litre V8 (which it’s now obvious is attached to an aftermarket exhaust) and rolls past us before exiting the car park as though he’s just reached the end of a pitlane. The fish scatter as in a heartbeat the V8 shatters the previously sepulchral silence, the driver only punching in upshifts once he has squeezed every last rev from each gear. It’s such a calmly blatant two-fingered salute at the speed limits that I can’t help smiling. Aston and I stand there listening to the fading noise as the R8 attacks the turnpike flat-out, no holds barred. It is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

After a while we continue up the turnpike, not quite at the same speed but certainly emboldened by the R8’s display. The road proves to be much the same all the way to the top, with wide flowing corners through the red and orange tunnel of trees. I imagine it must be equally spectacular when the pink cherry blossom is out, but whatever the time of year, it feels too fast and too broad to be enjoyable unless it was closed to other traffic. 

It would be a shame to get rid of the other cars, however, as they are proving as interesting as the road. There is an immaculate 1980s 911 Targa, an Impreza that has had a huge amount of work done, various Skylines and GT-Rs, a couple of MX-5s, another 981 Cayman, an AE86 and various motorbikes. And this is on a quiet mid-week morning in November. A hexagonal restaurant marks the top of the road and provides a viewpoint towards Lake Ashi far below and also along the ridge towards the Skyline roads that run alongside the lake. You can turn round here and go back down the turnpike or you can loiter and look around at the machinery coming and going. It’s a bit like the car park on the Döttinger-Höhe straight, but with a better view and noodles rather than bratwurst. Alternatively you can head onwards…

The Mazda Turnpike actually carries on for an extra couple of miles, although you first have to drive along a stretch of normal public road to get to this second section, which winds along under a huge cliff and is still fast and wide. Go through the toll at the end, turn left, then immediately left again and you reach another tollbooth. There is more polite exchanging of yen and, as we drive away, Aston kindly points out that I seem to be mumbling fake Japanese noises in a slightly bumbling British attempt at a respectful response to the smiling tollbooth attendants. I tell him he must have been mistaken and turn the radio up to listen to the dulcet tones of some Teletubbies on a particularly nasty acid trip.

We are now on the Yugawara Parkway toll road descending down and down into a bowl of autumn colours. This stretch is much more suited to the Cayman. The surface is pitted and rough but the corners are just that bit tighter and more closely linked, requiring second and third rather than third, fourth and fifth. It plays to the Cayman’s strengths of beautiful poise and is a reminder that while the GT4 is taking all the headlines, the GTS is still a wonderful thing. As the road plunges onwards into the trees the standard steel brakes are getting a serious workout but thankfully don’t appear to be wilting. We don’t see another car in the 3.5-mile length of the road and it feels much wilder and more remote than the Mazda Turnpike, so I feel much happier driving quickly here, enjoying the lovely six-speed ’box and listening to the sports exhaust with the windows down. 

At the bottom of the road there’s a small village where we turn left. This loops us back up to the viewpoint restaurant via the Tsubaki Line, which Initial D-legend has it is the home course of Sidewinder. Despite the yellow stripe down the middle it feels fiendishly narrow, and after the Turnpike and Parkway it seems like we’re on a sliding scale of serpentine, with this the most tortuously twisting yet. The vegetation either side is dense and crowds in tightly to the side of the road, adding to the tunnel-like feel. 

WITH TIME RUNNING OUT, THERE IS JUST ONE MORE ROAD I want to try. Originally when I was planning our adventure on Google Maps, back in the office 6000 miles away, I had thought we might drive over to Fuji Speedway, and although there isn’t time for that today, I still want to have a look at the road that would have taken us there: prefectural road 337. If I wasn’t looking for it there is no way I would have found it because the entrance is disguised by trees and a lay-by cunningly masks the tarmac’s flow from the main road into this backwater. As the Cayman noses down the steep incline over rough tarmac, the thoughts scudding across my mind are all saying that this is a mistake. Only the narrowness of the road and a nagging curiosity mean we decide to push on until there’s somewhere wider where we can shuffle out a three-point turn. 

The light seems to dim as we descend further into the autumnal patchwork. Then, abruptly, it begins: dark tyre marks scrawled all across the surface of the road. We drive on, marvelling at the almost blanket coverage in places. At times the lines seem to have been scribed in unison, but elsewhere the strands separate like spaghetti picked apart. Then it stops. Guillotined in full flow. We continue on to check, but it’s clearly just those couple of kilometres that have been used. It’s like flicking through an apparently blank new notebook only to discover that the middle few pages have been vividly attacked by a three-year-old with a crayon.

We eventually turn round and head back to the hallowed stretch, parking up after a few corners to walk the ‘track’ and inspect the artwork. The road is almost gallery quiet, adding to the reverential air with which we inspect the scene. Framed by the tall, thin trunks of the trees, there is a beautiful flow to the lines. The white Armco scribes one clean stripe up the road with the tarmac following it more broadly. Overlaid on this are the tyre marks, which seem to curve in unison with the asphalt at points but then exaggerate or even contradict the natural radii of the road. 

Kneeling down to inspect the surface more closely, it’s clear the tarmac is covered with more rubber than a gimp in mating season. I feel like an Indian, tracking the path of individual cars, noting where one has transitioned earlier than the others, or where another has run wide, the black marks arcing into the contrasting white paint on the road’s edge. The thickness of the rubberisation visibly builds and recedes through the corner where the drivers have worked the throttle to provoke, sustain and rein in the slides. You can almost hear the fluctuations in engine note, big-bore exhaust roaring loudly in the confined space, building, plateauing, dying with a dump-valved tchieww! then repeating over and over. 

Of course I can’t resist a quick run up the road in the Cayman with the PSM turned off. The road feels even narrower from behind the wheel and you can’t help but have respect for whoever the tarmac tattoo artists are. There is a helpfully positioned convex mirror on the outside of each switchback, which is nice, and although the long gearing and slightly timid limited-slip diff aren’t natural aids to drifting, the Cayman is pleasingly willing to throw some shapes on the corners. As we already know, it is a beautifully balanced chassis, and there is a nice sense of how the grip is ebbing, so that you can really make the most of the 280lb ft of torque. Push the nose in hard, wait for the right moment, then be aggressive with the throttle, confident that you can hold the slide into the camber of the uphill bend. It’s great fun but a little bit of me can’t help lusting after a tatty 200SX with a drift diff and a big bar. 

With the light fading, Aston packs up and we head back to the ridge to begin the two-hour journey back to Tokyo. I’m much happier than I was a few hours earlier, though. I had feared that the drifting that brought fame to these roads in Fuji’s shadow had been eradicated. But it’s clear from this small side road that while it might have been forced to vacate the famous touges, its underground heart still beats up here near Hakone.

We pop back out at the top of the ridge behind a second-generation Daihatsu Copen and this time we carry on past the Mazda Turnpike, heading instead for the famous Ashinoko Skyline. There is yet another tollgate and I remember to remain tight-lipped as I hand over the money, but as we drive away Aston, almost in tears, points out that I have replaced faux-Japanese mumbling with repeatedly bowing very slightly instead. 

Just up the road we stop briefly at the Fuji View cafe to get some coffee and chocolate and admire the huge wall of car photos that have been snapped outside over the years. It seems everything from a 1950s MG TF to various modern Ferraris have visited. Despite not having a sponsor, Ashinoko Skyline has more of the same commercial polish found on the Mazda Turnpike, but yet again it is distinct in character from all the other roads we’ve driven so far. Rising and falling as it tracks the ridge, it is perhaps the most beautiful road yet and much of it is great to drive if you ignore the 40kph speed limit, as plenty of people seem to be doing. Sadly, however, there is a fly in the ointment. Pretty much any corner that looks like it might once have been a prime location for a clutch kick and some opposite lock is painted with thick red lines that act like mini speed bumps. Even the Cayman’s PASM hasn’t got a chance of smoothing them out so you’re forced to trickle round, jiggling like you’ve flat-spotted every Pirelli. Dorift-no.

There is one part of the road where you very definitely want to drive slowly, however, and it’s so that you can hear the music. Not the bizarre stuff on Aston’s iPod, or even the yowl of the 3.4-litre flat-six, but the music from the road. You see, there is a short stretch of tarmac that has been laid specifically so that tyres hum loudly at varying tonal pitches as they go over it. Much like some sections of the M25. If you drive at a steady 40kph then the theme tune from an animated Japanese television series called Neon Genesis Evangelion drifts hauntingly on the breeze. It’s rather fun. The tune is apparently called ‘The Cruel Angel’s Thesis’, which makes me think it is slightly more sophisticated than Thundercats

We drive up and down the Ashinoko Skyline a few times, stopping to take photos, and as the sun comes out and Mount Fuji appears to the north-west it is an undeniably lovely place to be. A Honda SP-2 plies back and forth, getting progressively quicker as it nails the lines through a particularly good (unpainted) section. We meet the owner of a rather nice Lotus Exige, complete with a removable steering wheel and some excellent carbon bucket seats that are much better than the standard items (I swap him a sit in the Porsche for a sit in the Lotus). But although we’re having a jolly nice day, there is also a feeling that it’s all a bit controlled, like these toll roads are now museum pieces or tame theme park rides. They might once have been the illicit home of drifting, but it seems to have moved out some time ago.

USUALLY THAT WOULD BE IT. CREDITS ROLL. BUT ONE OF the most exciting bits of driving actually comes on the way back into the fluorescent firework of a metropolis that is Tokyo. Driving in foreign countries, and particularly their large cities, is always exciting, and nowhere is this more true than Japan. The expressways that carry us through the suburbs are toll roads, but somewhat different to the ones we’ve been on in the mountains. Soaring above the rest of the city’s streets on concrete stilts or diving beneath them through tunnels, the Tomei and Shuto Expressways are marvels of engineering. These tributaries of traffic are slim dual carriageways, closely boxed in by concrete walls. The further you head into the city, the more they seem to twist and turn like an increasingly wild rollercoaster, meaning you often have a relatively short and narrow field of vision. Despite this the traffic flows at a remarkably rapid rate; cars, motorbikes and small lorries all slicing neatly around each other as vehicles dip in and out of the stream via the short entry and exit ramps. I’m pleased that the Cayman feels small and easy to place. 

At night it is mesmerising with the headlights and taillights rushing through the darkness. We drop down into a tunnel where the walls are painted with huge arrows as it curves sharply left, then we turn back right while rising to the surface and dashing between the twinkling facades of the adjacent skyscrapers. It feels impossible not to link it inextricably with video games like Wipeout and suddenly I’m 14 years old and back in front of my friend Chris’s original Sony PlayStation. 

Dive off the expressway and things become even more bamboozling. Roadworks are lit up with more lurid flashing lights than a dozen fruit machines all dispensing jackpots and your eyes swim as you try to see past the vibrant miasma. Stumble into one of the busier districts and even on a quiet Tuesday evening it looks like Oxford Street during the Christmas sales. Stop at the traffic lights on one of the major junctions and such is the sheer number of bodies swarming over the multiple zebra crossings that it looks more like a murmuration of starlings than a crowd of people. 

Later on we head out to the docks and Daikoku Futo, where beneath a huge helter-skelter of a motorway junction, cars of every shape and size gather for impromptu meets. There is a Lexus with serious stance, a gorgeous track-spec NSX, a pair of Truenos with single headlights popped up and a Ferrari 360 with LEDs and a paintjob that definitely wasn’t sanctioned by the Maranello fashion police. Talking of which, a vast convoy of cops swoops in about half an hour after we arrive, blocking the exits and setting up a mobile MOT station. It feels rather exciting and I’ve never seen so many ride-heights altered or exhausts muffled so quickly.

The famous roads that we went looking for, then, are good, but like the movie’s lead character that finds love in an unexpected place, the car culture in Japan is what’s been even more fascinating. You might think that we catch glimpses of it in the UK with the GT-R and Type R tribes, but there is so much more to it than that, evinced by the sheer variety of machinery that we’ve seen today. The mixture of home-bred shapes and European cars, expensive and humble, all cared for, tweaked and fettled with enthusiasm is endlessly captivating. Some of the mods are for performance, others are for show, but it’s all done with pride. And it’s nice to know that when no one’s looking there are still some that are prepared to head up into the hills and use the side windows as windscreens.