Grand Tour of Japan On The Peninsula Tokyo’s Rally Nippon
Grand Tour of Japan On The Peninsula Tokyo’s Rally Nippon
It’s raining. My navigator sits to my left. Parker Collier is a seasoned rally expert. She calls out: “A left, then a sharp right, go .30 mi/48km; hang a right; next go 1.51mi/2.43km; a left at “what’s this symbol?” It’s Parker’s first visit to Japan, the country of my birth. It’s my first road rally. We are both veterans and rookies on this serendipitous classic car tour through the most beautiful sceneries of this historic country.
“That swastika signifies a temple,” We make a dozen turns in the first half-hour. The turn signal stays on for five seconds. I pull a knob to turn on the wipers. There are no side mirrors. I know so very little of this venerable car, the 1962 Lotus Elite II SE. It is part of Miles Collier Collections at Revs Institute, an automotive museum and research center in Naples, FL. My first acquaintance with the Lotus was in Carmel Valley, Calif., for a test drive. That was two months ago, 3,000 miles away.
I’m an architect residing in America, and have worked with the Colliers over the years. That led to an invitation to drive the Lotus on the Nippon Classic Rally. So here we are, cruising through the landscape I knew as a child in a car that was contemporary in my young-adult years. Adventures and, yes, unknowns, lay ahead.
Having left Kyoto amidst resplendent ceremony early this morning, I am now fast familiarizing myself with the dashboard. All controls are with my left hand. The vibrating pedals feel attached to my feet, thanks to my brand new racing shoes. The wood steering wheel feels like an extension of my arms, steadying the direction, thrusting into the road ahead. Everything is up close. Tight quarters. My body within the monocoque chassis, a snug fit. Body and machine feel as one.
Day One’s terrain is quite familiar to me. I have a clear mental map of its geography. Yet, traveling normally by train, I have seldom driven by car through this region. Now I’m in a vintage car, off the highway, and in pouring rain. Along the route, people with umbrellas, grandpas and kids cheer us on. Thrilling!
Japan is densely populated and urbanized, with cities concentrated in the alluvial plains and delta. The rest is 80% mountainous. The sectional sensation of up/down/over is perfectly suited for car travel. The rally confronts the country’s native topography, winding through its deeply forested heights. We enter the realm of the gods, shrouded amidst heavenly clouds high above at Mt. Hiei. At this hour, it’s just the ancient spirits, us and the monks of Enryaku-ji a monastery founded in 788 A.D.
The engine whirl of Ferraris, Porsches, Lamborghinis, Bugattis reverberate through the tall cedars and awaken the stillness of these sacred precincts. A man suddenly appears and asks, “Can I take a picture of your Lotus? I’m a staffer at this temple. Welcome!” People of all religions, it seems, can worship at the automotive altar.
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My mind was programmed for a scenic road trip under crisp October skies. All Japanese know that it’s the best month of the year…except this year. It’s still raining, and a typhoon is forecast. This Lotus is invincible, I say to myself, a fast-moving ninja turtle spraying through secluded valleys and ancient mountain paths. Clouds are ubiquitous in traditional landscape art; now it seems we’re driving through familiar scroll paintings.
“Over there beyond to the east lies the historic battleground of Sekigahara (1600 AD), cradle of Japan’s feudal past, thousands of warriors buried all around us here,” I explain to Parker. “If you liken Japan to the shape of a human body, right here would be its hip.” “Mind the road!” “Focus on the drive.” Yes, but translucent visibility from this thick wet firmament carries me away from the present.
Years ago, when I was back in Japan after college in the U.S., I had the pleasure of driving my father’s bright red Alfa-Romeo Giulietta. Back then, there was only one highway between Tokyo and Yokohama. There were two Nissan Cedric highway police cars on that stretch, and I knew that the Cedric couldn’t catch the Alfa, except when they hid around the turn ahead. My collection of speeding tickets finally caught up, and quietly, I paid my dues. It’s an unexpected memory.
A wonderful dinner awaited us followed by a soothing hot-spring bath at Yamashiro Onsen, our first night’s stay. Today’s was the shortest travel distance of the Rally, but what a world of revelatory experience it was!
It’s 5 a.m. and I can hear engines revving up outside my window. An early start is in order. The rain is now heavily upon us. In fact, our rally route lies within the epicenter of a forecasted typhoon path. Perhaps we’ll reach today’s destination just before the storm’s worst hits? Best divert from the course, not drive up to the peak of Hakusan Skyway. We reset our own course northward to the plains of Kanazawa. But not before an unscheduled stop at an “insect museum.”
A quick detour and we find ourselves in the company of kids enthralled by butterflies aflight in an aviary. We too were mesmerized, totally forgetting the hour that had passed by. Resorting now to iPhone navigation, we speed past desolate coastlines of the Sea of Japan: Ishikawa, Toyama, Niigata, and over into Nagano. Quite a surreal drive, at times feeling as if surfing on water, in the unrelenting downpour. Wipers swishing, towels wiping away the frosted interior, the rally manual wet and rendered irrelevant. We are indeed in the midst of the typhoon. Are we the only vehicle on the highway?
“Thank goodness these highways are here, electronic sign-boards, clear directions,” I mutter, as the Joshinetsu Highway winds upward through mountains and tunnels. I glance quickly at the approaching tunnel sign calling out its length, 745m…, 420m…, 1800m. Images of a similar cadence, while driving through Italy’s exhilarating Ventimiglia–Genoa A10 Autostrada, flitter into my fogged-up view. So Japan is now well ensconced as a first-class car-attuned society, I muse. We’re ripping through a major typhoon, through Japan’s 21st century top-notch infrastructure.
But just short of the day’s destination, our Lotus Elite gave in. The clutch died and the gears would not engage. We found ourselves roadside, drenched in the downpour, dark, waving a torchlight, until finally the emergency crew took us back to our hotel for the evening. This day certainly was one of endurance for all of us, especially for our Lotus. Mechanics will repair the malfunction this evening. Let the typhoon pass. The Rally organizers mercifully announced a late start for tomorrow. Weather conditions will improve, our Lotus will be revived, and we’ll be on our way. We hope.
The morning skies are slowly clearing. Foliage colors visibly surround us. It’s autumn in Karuizawa – the longtime resort of upper crust Tokyoites and the internment haven for foreign residents during WWII. I wished to explore this reputed idyllic town, but being in a rally we had to move on. Less than an hour on the road, however, the clutch gave in again. Our Lotus refused to continue. After some somber deliberations, keys were handed over and by late afternoon, atop a flatbed truck, the car was headed for the port of Yokohama. I figured that the Lotus was homesick for Florida.
An alternative plan ensued: part with the motorway, devise a new route on the Japan Rail (JR) system and off we go. A bullet train on the Joetsu Shinkansen took us to JR Tokyo, where we switched onto the Tokaido Shinkansen, headed west, and then transferred to a local train to balmy Izu Peninsula. Finally a short cab ride put us at Shuzenji Spa, where the rally drivers, by happy coincidence, are also just arriving: brrrmhh-brrrmmmh- brrrrmh. We’re welcomed by the setting sun with a majestic silhouette of Mt. Fuji. I have viewed it from myriad points of view and even made three ascents in my youth. But from here at Shuzenji, the pure symmetry of its conical creation was simply unmatched!
For me tonight, I’ll sleep comforted by Mt. Fuji’s presence. It’s been awhile. Oddly, a Classic Car Rally catapulted me back to this beloved native icon.
The final fourth day of the Rally is onward to Tokyo paralleling the coastline through continuous metropolitan traffic. Without our dear Lotus, Parker and I once again resort to the bullet train. I would have loved to drive through the Yokohama neighborhood and school where I spent much of my youth. The rally route stopped for lunch at the Osanbashi Pier, where I sailed to America for my college education.
In fact, I recall that the first day out at sea a monster typhoon swept in, scooping us hurriedly out to the Pacific. Today, under a clear blue-sky the day after the typhoon, we arrive at our goal in Tokyo. Think typhoon, divine wind, kamikaze.
I had heard descriptions of classic-car rallies: beautifully restored cars, proud owners, camaraderie among well-seasoned aficionados and of course, the joy of driving they all share. As a novice, I was filled with intrigue and rare excitement. Despite our breakdowns, in a drastically compressed time, we had virtually relived the Edo-period poet Matsuo Basho’s itinerary described in his late 17th-Century work Narrow Road to the Interior 奥の細道 , albeit in a four-wheel 20th-century machine.
“Every day is a journey,” he wrote, “and the journey itself home.” Especially, I would add, a journey into the depths of Japan in a classic Lotus Elite.
Shun Kanda, Senior Fellow at MIT, is a Tokyo native and the Director of Architectural Studies for the MIT-Japan Program.