Looking for an indicator of just how impressive Japan’s automotive culture is? There are any number of things to look at. Sure, you could visit a big event like Tokyo Auto Salon. You could tour any one of the amazing shops and garages spread across the country. You could even meet with outlaw street racers at some hidden location in the middle of the night. Or you could just head out for a relaxing Sunday drive.
That’s exactly what I found myself doing recently when a couple of friends asked if I wanted to tag along with them on a Sunday morning outing to the legendary roads of Hakone. With no big events or photoshoots planned for this day and the weather forecast looking great, I was quick to accept their offer.
Little I did know that this casual outing would turn out to be one of the more exciting and productive days of my trip, and another brilliant example of why Japan’s car culture just might be the best in the world.
The adventure began with a 6:00am departure from central Tokyo. It was an early start time for sure, but a necessity when dealing with a highway system that quickly clogs with weekend travelers.
With traffic light, we began making our way out of the Tokyo sprawl on the Tomei Expressway, but despite the hour we soon began encountering other enthusiasts heading out for a day of driving. Here we’ve got a Lotus Esprit which passed us at a good clip in the fast lane.
Shortly after that, we encountered this clean little AE86 Levin notchback cruising along at a modest pace. The highway was alive with cool machinery.
At one point a couple of radical shapes appeared in the mirrors, and they soon revealed themselves to be a pair of NSXs looking like they’d been time warped from a late ’90s JGTC race.
We continued on through the scenic hills of Kanagawa Prefecture before arriving at our destination – the Mazda Turnpike.
For fans and admirers of Japanese car culture, this should be a familiar spot. You’ll likely remember it from Dino’s dream drive story a couple of years ago, or from the recent Motorhead hill climb video.
While I was certainly aware of the road’s reputation as a brilliant driving spot and a popular destination for Japan’s gearheads, I was amazed at just how alive the place was. It felt like a special occasion, but the truth is, there was no big event or meet going on.
This was just a typical Sunday morning at Hakone, and the roads were bustling with cool vehicles. Of course, it helped that the weather was just about perfect on this day – a sweet spot in Japan’s yearly climate after the chill of winter but before the punishing heat and humidity of summer.
We decided to take a little break after the drive over from Tokyo. We bought cans of coffee from the nearby vending machines and sat there for a bit watching the cars roll up to the toll gate.
It was a constant parade of interesting machinery. There were vintage cars, there were GT-Rs making cool turbo noises, there were exotics, and there were a ton of motorcycles.
The quality of the cars that emerged around the corner and up the hill was incredible, and easily as good as the stuff you’d have seen at Cars & Coffee in SoCal before it was shut down last year.Up The Hill
After watching the parade for a little bit, we were anxious to see what was going on at the top of the hill, so we hopped back in our Toyota 86/Integra Type R duo and made our way through the gate and up the legendary turnpike.
Dino’s post already gave us a good look at what it’s like to drive this scenic and winding piece of pavement, so I’ll focus more on the incredible machines we encountered during our time on the hill.
We hadn’t been driving for long when we decided to stop at one of the many break areas along the route. We’d come across a rather interesting group of cars and decided to go in for a closer look.
One of the cars that had assembled here was a Suzuki Swift sporting a full rollcage, sticky tires and healthy dose of functional camber up front. It looked like a one-make racer or gymkhana car of sorts.
A couple of Corvettes had also gathered, including this white C6 Z06 and a black C4 ZR1. Their V8 exhaust notes would be a nice addition to the wall of engine sounds echoing through the mountains on this day.
And then there was this – a stunningly beautiful Hakosuka Skyline hardtop looking as tasteful and timeless as you could want. We’d just started our adventure and already my jaw was on the floor.
I spent some time admiring the fine lines of the Hakosuka, but it was hard not to be distracted by the continual parade of high performance machinery passing by us on the turnpike.
I decided to throw on my telephoto lens to try and capture some of the cool stuff rolling by, and when I did felt like I was at a rally event or a racing circuit rather than a public road on a Sunday morning.
Actually, with beautiful scenery, tight corners and the neverending stream of exotic machinery coming up the hill, this was better than a lot of the racing events I’ve photographed over the years.
I could have stayed there all day watching the show, but there was still a lot of road to be driven and other parking lots to be hunted. I hopped back in the 86 as we continued up the turnpike toward the top of the mountain.Sky Lounge
Not long after that we arrived at the Mazda Sky Lounge, a place which offers beautiful views of the scenery below and a perfect spot to take a break after attacking Hakone’s corners.
Up here there’s a large restaurant/cafe which seems like it was built for car enthusiasts to gather, with all sorts of information about the surrounding roads and a number of delicious items available to order. Once again, it puts the roadside establishments here in the US and in many other parts of the world to shame.
But it wasn’t what was inside that we came to see. It was the stuff outside.
Up here an even larger and more exotic group of cars had assembled, and every time you looked up there was something cool entering or exiting the parking lot.
Among the cars cooling down atop the turnpike was the group of Caterhams which had passed us back down the mountain. These things are so common in Japan that you’d think they were invented there.
Another rare sighting was this Tommy Kaira ZZ – an iconic machine to the video game generation and a perfect weapon to cut up the tight corners of Hakone.
I’m still a complete newbie when it comes to motorcycles, but even I was digging the assortment of two-wheeled specimens parked up at the Sky Lounge. The place is a paradise for exotic bikes as much as it is for cars.
It seems you’re never far away from a tough Porsche in Japan, and there were several of them hanging around on this particular morning. Among the bunch was this TE37-equipped 996 which also showed up at Magnus Walker’s Tokyo night meet.
Equally cool was this 997 GT3 RS sitting on Advan wheels and wearing some very sticky rubber. Like so many of the cars that come to play at Hakone, this one seemed more like a race machine than a traditional street car.
And should you come to Hakone with a wife, girlfriend or someone else who might not be terribly interested in cars, you need not worry. The scenery up there is spectacular enough to put anyone in a good mood. Here’s the view looking down at Lake Ashi from the Sky Lounge.
We spent a while taking in the scenery, cars and cool mountain air before we decided it was time to head out. It wasn’t even midday yet, so rather than heading directly back to Tokyo we decided to make a detour up to Fuji Speedway. And that’s where we came across one of the best grassroots drift meets I’ve ever attended.
A typical Sunday out and about with some friends, or an unforgettable day of car culture and Speedhunting? In Japan it seems like they are one in the same.
Boy do I love that place.
The car variety is just mindblowing over there. I wish it was 1/100 of that over here!!
My hair was on tingle the entire time reading this. This article really felt like speed hunting, finding cars in the wild, great location, great cars, all done on the fly.
Well done sir, well done.
One day. I wish to enjoy the roads of Hakone as well.
Ugh those Caterhams looks like so much fun
Bro, you forgot to mention hakone from initial d stage 5
Daaaaaaamn... what else is there to say? This is one of my favorite articles in a while, thanks!
Nice ITR! I've got an American RSX myself. Lowly base model, but still makes the daily commute a blast.
pinnacle of car culture, Tommy caira zz wow
Wow, so jealous!
What's with the "Mid Night" decal on the turquoise 993? Former Mid Night Club member or something? This whole article makes me want to study abroad in Japan next year!
R34 GT-R Z-Tune?!? I would have just followed THAT up and now Hakone all day.
Awesome story Mike! I drove down from Tokyo to find that the toll road was closed due to snow at the top (middle of Winter) which was such a shame. Will have to go back when the weather is less inclement.
Watchout for shinigami mike!
Any more pictures of that black C4 Corvette? It looked pretty interesting. I remember there being a pretty sweet C4 'Vette in the "Tokyo Extreme Racer" video game series; an outfit called West Corvette" apparently built it. Not sure if they're still in operation in Japan...
Just a perfect day. My kinda scene
Dat hardtop tho...
Most interesting article yet!
Am I the only one who noticed the Chrysler 300C srt8 in the eighth picture? I'm pretty sure they're rare in japan.
Where was that?
I was thniking the same.
Three photos further down there is a VW Golf MK3 Variant (Estade). Nerver knew they where sold in Japan.
(i´m a MK3 guy^^)
Mind blown! The only thing I can think of that would compare in the states is Tail of the Dragon. However it's never cars of that quality and quantity (aside from club meets).
MadisSidam I saw something red with white stripes lol... look again
KhaledDulli well spotted
This looks like fun. Cars from all corners of the globe just having fun with their drivers. I know almost anything looks big next to an Elan, but that 997 looks like a beached submarine.
This is what happens when you DON'T HAVE a self-righteous government/culture/police force that chooses to CRUCIFY all car enthusiasts!
Sad to hear about the iconic SoCal Cars and Coffee ending. RIP.
Slappy_Pistons Very True.
It's clearly evident of the era of McMansions and McMassive Cars.
It really demonstrates how much car you DON'T NEED.
On a positive note: BITCHIN' post.
Great write-up. I've never been to Japan but after following this site and marathon watching Initial D I can't wait to visit some day.
Almost got to Hakone at the start of the year. (Timing conflict with going to Karuizawa) but I'm gonna make a point of heading there next year. Especially after seeing this post. Hopefully the enthusiasts will be out in spring time.
Talking about true Speed Hunters, Glad to see motorcycles in SH. Even do it was not the center of the story. You guys should get into motorcycles from time to time...you won't be dissapointed.
That's a sweet spot to drift!
That's why i would never be able to transform my car in an unregistered fully fledged track car ( even if I had the money to do so ). This kind of mornings are one of the best things in life, even if you can't go always flat out, driving in your favorite roads, enjoing your car and having a relaxing drive is something magic.
Awesome article, recently mentioned the ZZ on the comments here a few weeks back and then one pops up!
anyone have any idea what wing is the DC5 ITR is running???
@Jrod It is EVO8 one
How's the driving manner now a days over there? That was our regular playground back in late 80s, mostly on motorbikes. It's got so bad at one point - so many nutty ridings/drivings and accidents - that it totally became out of hands. Regular folks complained, the law came, and we slowly faded out, but not entirely. Now I look back, what we did was totally stupid - I survived, but quite a few didn't.
@HermitsUnited Lots of people driving/riding spiritedly but I didn't see anything that looked too out of hand. Then again my exposure is relatively limited.
importfan Agree completely.
EliThanos I think cars keep us busy enough as is, but most of us here can certainly appreciate bikes. Def a big part of the atmosphere at Hakone.
tokuku As long as it's a weekend and the weather is nice I don't think you'll be disappointed.
Jeffrey Customs You'll love it!
@THE GRINCH Thanks much. Haha.
@THE GRINCH Well to be fair the Japanese government is quite strict when it comes to modified cars. However, that hasn't seemed to stop a whole lot of people haha.
Slappy_Pistons Yeah pretty crazy to see!
KhaledDulli Regular 300Cs are actually fairly plentiful in Japan. Definitely one of the more common American cars you'll see. Not a whole lot of SRTs though.
CoreyKononchuk Yeah I think West is still around. Need to check them out sometime.
Blake Jones Thanks Blake. Yeah you should certainly check it out sometime.
MadisSidam A few FDs up there, but they are actually so common in Japan you almost forget to shoot them haha.
CyborgGT Glad you enjoyed it!
E Sutton You can say that again.
seattlejester Thanks so much!
EHSCHMIDT It was one to remember for sure
gundanium2002 and just to add...
Jeffrey Customs You should Google 'Chubu Touge' then, and rent a car for the Usui Pass... Neko.
Midnight windscreen banner on the 993?
You can never be to busy for bikes. We are very fortunate to be alive and witness what's happening on this current times on the motorcycle industry. While the cars manufacture are going green and hybrid and killing the big and naturally aspirates engines. In the motorcycle industry we are seeing something than the last time it happens was 15+ yrs ago. The truce or gentleman agreement is over. And the horsepower War is On. Do wee need 200+ hp bikes? Of course not, do we want them hell yeah we do. I wonder how long it will last until they again become the target of ignorant politicians looking to make a name in the so call name of road safety. Nevertheless great times for Speed Hunters.
Pics of the C4 ZR1! I have still never seen one in person, and they were built only an hour away from home.
This reminds me of a weekend night on woodward. No special events are planned, the cool cars just show up. Obviously the scenery is different but the way you described it just made me think of that. Always a good time.
and no one says anything about the midnight sticker! lol
Wonderful write up! Looks like a great way to spend the day, beautiful scenery and a great variety of cars.