I concede it's been a little while since I've posted. And I suppose one way to resume is to feature automotive subjects a bit of a departure from the standard German and European fare we're used to here.
In March 2018 I embarked on an around-the-world trip and in an effort to upkeep my lifelong affair with cars and traveling, I had to squeeze in a drive amid a leg of the trip. While it was my second time in Japan, I had never actually driven in the country and thought now is as good of a time as ever to get behind the wheel here. I had always wanted to after all (who doesn't?).
So prior to the trip, I had heard about http://fun2drive-japan.com, a car rental service of sorts located in the Kanagawa Prefecture where you get to book a JDM car of your dreams and go drive around a number of pre-designated mountain routes. The tour is guided by a lead car on these routes and the tour guides were extra careful to emphasize the need to be cautious behind the wheel of right-hand drive sports cars.
I mean, what can go wrong when you invite a bunch of throttle-happy American and western tourists to blast around Japanese mountains in 200, 300 to 500 horsepower RHD cars?
For the average American or really any non-Japanese tourist visiting, an international driving permit, passport, and your home country's driver's license is all that's needed. Beyond that just ensure you bring plenty of greenbacks in the form of the yen. More will buy you either a better time or perhaps oversteering disaster.
During my booking, I had my eye set on a Nissan GT-R. No of course I'm not referring to the R35 that every American car enthusiast has seen in the flesh dozens of times over at Cars and Coffees. The GT-R that had captured the minds of every millennial gearhead around the world was the R34 that Americans never got. The R34 was the one I wanted.
Alas apparently everyone else that had planned on visiting had the same idea too. Their R33 and R34 GT-Rs were booked out many months in advance.
So I went back to looking at their fleet and while a glorious Ferrari F355 and Porsche 964 Turbo were very desirable candidates here, I had wanted something Japanese and something that never made its way stateside. This, I thought, was a more apt method of Japanese touge baptism.
Two cost-effective options stood out, an original generation Subaru STI (no not a 22B, I wish) and a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 6.5. What's a 6.5? Further research showed that the Evo 6.5 Tommi Makinen edition was a fairly rare and sought after Evo based on the Evo 6. The decision between it and the Subaru proved to be tough, but that Tommi Makinen paint scheme was just too cool to pass up.
The trek over to the rental spot was a bit out of the way. The place wasn't too far from the Tokyo area but we had made our way over from Osaka via Shinkansen bullet train and bus. The one-way journey cost us over two hours.
We arrived a tad late to the displeasure of the tour guides (in Japan, tardiness tends to not be excusable) but luckily we were given the go-ahead on our reservation. Following a few simple checks of driver seat positioning, mirrors and operation, we were off. I had driven RHD once in Ireland but never up a mountain pass. Staying left was crucial here.
Our group was encouraged to drive slow at first as a way of acclimatizing to the cars and road and it was bit slower than I would have liked. At lower speeds, the Evo 6.5 was in every way I had feared it to be, a disappointment. The car was sluggish, it bogged and did not quite pose to be the tight-handling rally rocket it came to be cherished for. Crawling around, the car simply felt like a rattly 90s-era base Lancer.
However, patience paid off once roads widened and straighted, just a little. And a little was all that was needed for me to squeeze the throttle and enter full boost.
As the drive progressed and paces picked up, weather worsened. Gradually, it became evident that the Evo 6.5 was actually a better car than I had imagined, brilliant really. Once boost hits, the car pulls brutally and much harder than you'd expect for a car to be rated at around just "276 bhp". And yes, I'm well aware of that Japanese Gentlemen's Agreement pact years ago. Despite this power and torque, the car never exhibited signs of struggle for traction. Even in 2nd gear under full throttle around a corner, the tires would grab onto wet pavement and the car would go. The harder it was driven, the better it was.
During a brief break, the tour guides revealed that they knew their audience well and even brought screen captures from the animated show Initial D. Much of Initial D drew inspiration from the roads around Mt. Hakone.
Snow-lined roads, pouring rain and rough bits of pavement made me realize some of these mountain passes can truly be treacherous. Many patrons of the tour have ended up putting highly sought after cars into ditches and rails over the years. Though I must say the existence of such a service speaks to the enthusiasm the Japanese have for driving pleasure.
I think for that I'm grateful to have driven Japan this way and to have experienced the thrill and sheer aggressiveness of a collector's Evo. One thing is for sure however; I'd simply be lying if I said once is enough and don't plan on returning here behind the wheel of something else.
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