Toky Drifter

Stahly and Wielecki search for automotive Nirvana in the world’s most populous metropolis

WORDS MICHAEL STAHL PHOTOS THOMAS WIELECKI

APAN became an economic powerhouse through innovation, persistence and sheer long hours. There’s so much unpaid overtime, with almost five million people working (or at least at their desks) for more than 60 hours per week, that even the nation’s Prime Minister has criticised the corporate culture. What Japan needs is to take a sickie.

And that’s exactly what I do on a recent trip to Japan, stealing just 36 hours – so as to get home in time for dinner – without ever straying farther than 100km from Tokyo, the world’s busiest metropolis and home to more than 37 million people.

In perfect autumn weather, a Mazda MX-5 is just the ticket. The brand’s signature Soul Red colour now conspicuously peppers Japan’s streetscapes, which seem to be mostly bleached with white or silver sedans.

Our hearts sink a little on learning it’s a 1.5-litre automatic. “It sounds like a 12-volt air compressor,” notes photographer Wielecki as it idles at our hotel in Yokohama, the commuter-belt port city 35km south of Tokyo’s CBD. But a day later, we’d have no complaints about small cars and great driving – on any scale.

We leave town on a legend. The Bayshore Route, or Wangan, is an expressway that skips along a chain of artificial islands between Yokohama and Tokyo.

At 7:30am on a Thursday, it’s already jammed with delivery trucks and boring sedans. Remarkably, not one of them is dirty or dented.

Everywhere, like schools of whitebait, are the lightcommercial station wagons of Japan’s beleaguered Salary Man. The Nissan AD and Toyota Probox have fold-down tables and writing desks, so Salary Man has no reason to get out of the vehicle. Well, maybe one.

Definitely number two.

Eternal loyalty

WHY would anyone want to escape Tokyo?

Because we’re car guys. But there’s soul in this massive city and one little snapshot highlights two sides of Tokyo: Shibuya, the residential, shopping and nightlife precinct just to the west of the city centre.

Outside the train station is reputedly the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world.

Under the glare of Times Square-style video screens, often more than a thousand pedestrians scramble over the five-way crossing at each change. Amid this overwhelming pulsing of people, however, stands a small statue that symbolises Tokyo’s heart.

Hachiko was an Akita dog that belonged to University of Tokyo professor Hidesaburo Ueno in the 1920s. The dog accompanied his master to the station each morning, then waited until he returned in the evening. In May 1925, when Hachiko was two years old, 53-year-old Ueno suffered a cerebral haemorrhage at the university and died. Hachiko continued to wait for his owner at the station every day for the next nine years, being fed and cared for by the local community.

The locals honoured Hachiko with a bronze statue in 1934; the dog died the following year. In March 2015, on the 80th anniversary of Hachiko’s death, the university unveiled a statue of dog and master, reunited at last.

We wind through quiet rural villages

and rice paddies

The Wangan is famed for something quite apart from being a peak-hour car park; it was the birthplace of Tokyo’s extreme automotive culture of 300km/h street racing. It gelled in the mid-1980s in the fabled Mid Night Club, a gang at the cutting edge of the ‘tuner’ craze that coincided with the growth of aftermarket turbocharging. The Wangan’s instantly recognisable road markings became the visual language of electronic driving games like Gran Turismo.

Far below us is one of their staging points, the car park on Daikoku Futo. This artificial island, reached by a spaghetti-spiral of roadway from the Yokohama Bay Bridge, remains a late-night haunt for exotic cars.

An airliner swoops overhead, seconds from landing at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. Just as suddenly, our route takes a complicated spiral and we descend beneath a ziggurat-like structure.

Thus we enter one of the wonders of 20th-century infrastructure, the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line. This fantastic 15km roadway opened in 1997. It comprises 9.5km of underwater tunnel and a 4.5km bridge, linking Kawasaki and Tokyo with the semi-rural Chiba prefecture, on the Boso peninsula. The alternative is a 100km drive around the bay.

Two-thirds of the way across Tokyo Bay, as ambient light begins to glow in the tunnel, there’s an off-ramp.

Umihotaru is the extraordinary man-made island where tunnel and bridge meet. Coiled paper-clip access roads are dictated by the aircraft-carrier shape of the island, which measures just 650m by 100m (actually, three times the size of HMAS Canberra).

We drive into a motorway services that’s part shopping mall, part cruise ship. From the upper deck I can see Mt Fuji, fully 100km away. Container ships and fishing boats ply the bay, while planes float down the approach slope to the airport. To the east, the Aqua-Line bridge rises like a giant spray from a fireboat. I am transfixed by Umihotaru’s weird, between-worlds ambience.

Wheels firmly on the real earth of Chiba, we steer onto Route 409, which winds through quiet rural villages and rice paddies. Suddenly, we find a showroom of British Mini specials and a wrecking yard of several dozen more Minis. It feels like we’ve stumbled into a leprechaun orgy.

Just a few kilometres farther along, the aroma of fresh fields also yields a whiff of Castrol R. Up on a ridge, buried in heavy woods, the neat little Sodegaura Mountain Circuit is being plied by some Japanese Superbike racers.

The narrow Route 409 begins to climb and coil. Every corner or potential hazard is highlighted by broad bump-strips, a red-painted road surface or flashing lights in corner barriers. Like the Sodegaura Circuit, even this rural road looks like a video game made real.

I wonder; what else would I rather be driving here than an MX-5 with the roof down? The 96kW engine and six-speed auto barely dull the enjoyment of roads that would stymie a supercar, not all of which can match the MX-5’s fleet-footed chassis balance.

We spill down to a slightly swampy-looking coastline.

Ichinomiya Beach is just 90km from downtown Tokyo – it’s the same distance via the shoreline or the Aqua- Line – but it has the soothing, laid-back feel of surf towns from Torquay to Taiwan. It’s renowned for its monster swells during the September typhoon season.

At Wielecki’s insistence, we ignore the many western food options and lunch at a traditional Japanese okama restaurant, where fish, vegetables and noodles are cooked in a cauldron. It’s a good call.

The beach itself, with grey-black sand and concrete

Yatabe’s outer lane is banked at a

precipitous 45°

breakwaters, isn’t especially pretty, but locals saunter past in shorts and dreadlocks, carrying surfboards or pedalling beat-up beach bikes. We’re already unwinding.

We decide to just hang out for the afternoon with our buddy, design and automotive blogger Shogo Jimbo [drivethru.jp]. The escape that Tokyo sells in its oxygen bars, manga fantasy and $20 flagons of sake exists right here on its doorstep for free.

Well, not exactly free. The Aqua-Line costs a whopping ¥3000 ($34.50) each way – considerably less for ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) cardholders – and everything since Yokohama has been a toll road.

Our MX-5 is the only convertible to be seen. Indeed, over two days, I would spot only an NC MX-5 and a BMW Z4, both with their roofs up. Jimbo ventures that roadsters are often reserved for weekends.

With dusk nearing, we cut for the freeways that service Narita, Tokyo’s second international airport, to reach our night’s destination, Tsukuba. Near here is the Tsukuba Circuit, acknowledged as the birthplace of ‘time attack’ racing, but the following morning we drive instead to the Yatabe headquarters of JARI (Japan Automobile Research Institute), the independent body that conducts Japan’s official NCAP tests. We’re not here for that, either.

In 1964 virgin bushland gave way to a 5.5km oval test track, its outer lane banked at a precipitous 45 degrees, designed to accommodate a speed of 190km/h. In the same year that the Shinkansen bullet train was launched, the Yatabe Speed Course was the first highspeed testing facility in Japan.

Yatabe came to public notice in 1966 when Toyota took a 2000GT prototype on a 78-hour, FIA recordnetting endurance run. Production, prototype and aftermarket testing carried on here and in the mid-1980s Yatabe also opened itself to the 300km/h ‘tuner’ community.

Yatabe had its first (and only) fatality in 1998, when Option2 magazine editor Masa Saitoh crashed a highly modified Honda exiting the northern banking. The high-speed runs stopped. By then, Japan’s carmakers had their own proving grounds, and JARI had plans for an identical oval 60km away.

Yatabe Speed Course closed in 2005. All that remains there is a 12 metre-square slice from the centre of the southern radius. It has the aura of an Aztec temple. “It was just before we destroyed the track in 2007; everyone agreed we should keep something,” remembers Dr Minoru Sakurai, a JARI crash-safety researcher for 30 years.

But high speed and skilful driving are alive and well elsewhere in Yatabe. In fact, since 1988 people have been coming here from around the world – including Casey Stoner, between Motegi tests for his former employer Honda – for balls-out racing on a bonsai scale.

Yatabe Arena is probably the biggest and bestequipped radio control (RC) car racing facility in the world. It regularly hosts 1:10 and 1:12-scale world championship events on its four enormous tracks (each around 150m²) for circuit racing, off-road, outdoor circuit and the current craze, drifting.

Hiroshi Suzuki has managed the venue for 19 years.

He’s a three-time Japan RC off-road champion and now a top national competitor in RC Drift. He’s had a

Caravan Tokyo

This was not your average Tokyo accommodation experience. We spent a night in Drivethru’s Caravan Tokyo, a compact, kitted-out caravan parked in the ultra-hip Commune 246 in Minato-ku, central Tokyo. This cultural oasis on the busy, built-up Aoyama Dori features cool cafes, eateries and shared office spaces, and is within strolling distance of upmarket restaurants and boutiques. The caravan itself has a double bed, shower, toilet, kitchenette and electricity (naturally) – though the slightly claustrophobic accommodation and the proximity of people until the Commune’s midnight closing weirded me out.

From the upper deck I can see Mt Fuji,

fully 100km away

signature line of Yokomo 1:10 drift cars, and his own business, Team Suzuki, produces a range of aluminium billet suspension, steering and hub upgrade parts.

Most RC racing in Japan is electric, rather than ‘nitro’, but there’s nothing scaled-down about the chassis science. Camber, caster, toe angles, diff torque split and tyre compounds are a precise art – spread across the demands of carpet-floored circuit racing, polished-concrete drift or astro-turf off-road.

RC drift is the real growth category. “It’s different from speed, it’s not so fast and it doesn’t take up so much space,” Suzuki explains. “It’s more about the technique. I just like how beautiful it is, and how close I can get to the other cars.”

RC Drift competitions are judged by lasers that measure the distance between cars. Many of the judges are those from the full-scale D1 Grand Prix drifting series. “It’s 85 percent computer and 15 percent judges,” Suzuki says.

Suzuki grabs one of his cars – a sharp-looking blue Mazda RX-7 – and lifts off the body. It is pure purpose, with a spinal sandwich of carbonfibre, anodised billet bits, a central propshaft and a tiny cooling fan whirring alongside the motor. The tyres have a hard plastic tread encasing a soft rubber liner.

The smaller scale does nothing to diminish the balletic beauty of Suzuki’s driving. It’s actually better than watching real drifting, being noticeably slower, slipperier and lacking in tyre smoke.

Suzuki hands me the controller. The pistol-sized Cape Canaveral is capable of storing and displaying the throttle, brake, steering and differential settings for up to 40 cars, accommodating variations in track layout and grip. I lock my index finger into the trigger. I pinch the steering wheel with my right hand. And I proceed to be crap. This bloody thing is beyond me. I can’t even drive a lap, let alone drift one. I soon surrender to doing donuts and bouncing off the walls.

Suzuki says this car has a 1.7 rear diff, so the rear wheels rotate 70 percent faster than the fronts. An ‘easy drive’ drift diff is a 1.3. Conversely, a 2.0 would suit a tight, high-grip track.

The trick, Suzuki explains, is not to back off into corners. “More throttle is more stable, then full brake,” he says. I try it a few times. Set up into a four-wheel drift, a forward thrust of my index finger holds the car’s attitude, until I’m ready to squeeze back on the gas again. “If you try and go gently, you will just keep spinning. It’s too unstable.”

With more practice, I know, I could do this. I could get a car of my own, then retreat into this amazing scaled-down world… But my sickie is coming to an end. Southbound for Tokyo, the Joban Expressway soon rises up as the city of 37 million people seeps underneath. Rushing along between the high steel walls of the expressway, a red corpuscle in a stream of white and silver ones, I feel completely disconnected from it all.

The thought of having to return to an office on Monday would fill me with dread. If I lived here, I realise, I’d make a point of never doing this again.