A Car Nerd's Guide To JapanAn insider look at car culture in Japan.  

When McLaren Japan offered me a 570S Spider to drive for a few days, I knew I had to take it somewhere special. This wasn’t some boring kei car—this was a car that needed to be taken on some proper roads. It would almost be blasphemy to only drive in a congested city.

The problem was that I couldn’t take it anywhere too far, which meant I had to find some roads worthy of this car nearby. This proved to be more difficult than I had expected; I realized I don’t actually know too many good driving roads within close proximity to Tokyo.

So here’s what I did: I figured it out.

You won’t lose this in a car park.

(Full disclosure: McLaren Japan loaned me a 570S Spider with a full tank of gas to test. That was nice of them.)

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Okay, I knew a few. There’s the Hakone Turnpike to the south where I took a Mazda MX-5 Miata RF last year, and as good as that road is, it’s a bit cliché. I’d say a large chunk of Japan’s motoring publications test the cars they get on that road. The Irohazaka Route in Tochigi was where I tested the Honda S660, but that’s even farther away from Tokyo. I whipped out Google Maps to try and figure out some roads nearby.

Luckily Mount Takao to the west of Tokyo in Hachioji looked promising. This was a popular tourist destination and mountains are always a good sign for driving roads. The starting point was in central Tokyo near the National Diet Building. It’s basically the government building of Japan; “Diet” is a Latin-derived word that means “meeting.”

It was a short 60 kilometer drive on the motorway which should’ve taken 70 minutes. However, there was some unexpected traffic which added about another half hour to the drive. Luckily the baby McLaren coped with stop and start traffic well.

It also allowed other motorists to take a few snaps of the ludicrously blue supercar. This was only the beginning of all the camera phones this car attracted.

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The sign says 20 km/h but you can go through at 50 km/h if you’re brave.

Once we got off the motorway the scenery was refreshingly rural. I hadn’t driven that far out of Tokyo, yet the crowds of people, the mile-high towers and the bright neon signs felt like a world away. I got to the road leading up to Mount Takao and it looked like something straight out of a period drama.

It wasn’t so much a road but a giant foot path surrounded with traditional Japanese houses selling local omiyage (souvenirs) and delicacies. I kept driving up only to find the road was blocked by signs not allowing unauthorized vehicles to go up the road.

Parked obnoxiously in the middle of the ‘road’.

This wasn’t how I had expected the day to go. I had been stuck in traffic on the motorway and I’d basically driven on a foot path to a dead end. To make matters worse, doing a three-point turn was near impossible with all the tourists walking up and down this road wanting to take the cable car to the top of the mountain.

Eventually the car pointed in the direction of the exit, but I had to stop in the middle of the road to get a photo of this car with the quintessential traditional Japanese background. Can you blame me? At least everyone else got a kick out of it. A group of elementary school kids on a field trip here shouted stuff like “kakkoi” (cool) and “sugoi” (amazing), while some of the older adults simply stopped to admire it.

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Squiggly roads are always a good sign.

I parked up for lunch to try out one of the many soba noodle shops on the main road. In the station car park the 570S’ spaceship-like shape stood out even more, especially amongst white, grey, and black econoboxes. At lunch I consulted Google Maps again to see if there were any interesting roads nearby.

And there it was; the Otarumi Touge. It was a squiggly roads in the direction of Lake Miyagase, a picturesque location. It seemed perfect, some driving roads with a photo opportunity at the end.

Empty, squiggly roads are even better.
Not a soul in sight.

I’ll be perfectly honest and say I’ve never been to this area of Japan before or even heard of this touge. But I was in for a treat. It had tight, winding roads which cut through a forest. There were swooping s-bends and a mixture of uphill and downhill corners.

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The best part is that it was practically empty, except for a few motorcycles going in the opposite direction. It wasn’t until the road got closer to civilization where I caught up with other traffic.

Views all around.

McLaren’s littlest supercar shone here. It may be the “entry level” McLaren, as ridiculous as that concept is, but it still has a 562 horsepower twin-turbo 3.8-liter V8 mounted behind the driver. Even in this age of insane power outputs, I don’t really see why anyone would want any more than this.

The steering, electro-hydraulic by the way, was perfect. It didn’t take on corners but rather flowed through them. Then there’s the grip, which was plentiful. I know the electronics on this car are doing most of the work but I could not believe how planted it felt. The last time I was in a car this powerful with this much grip it was the Nismo GT-R.

I was going the speed limit, officer.

Eventually the road leveled out as I got closer to the lake. Due to all the mountains nearby there were several tunnels as well, which I didn’t shy away from.

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I was in a 562 HP supercar with the roof down, near some tunnels. What would you have done?

A good road needs tunnels.

The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission changes gears in an instant. Everything about this car is instantaneous, especially the speed. Work the engine up past 3000 RPM and you better be clinging on to for dear life as it catapults you to speeds that would result in time behind bars. Luckily the stopping power from the carbon ceramic brakes is immense.

A pretty blue thing, and a lake.

Shaking from adrenaline, I gingerly arrived at the parking area of the Lake. I needed some time to collect myself, but it gave a chance to have a look around the car park. You know there are roads nearby when bikes and a variety of driver’s cars are gathered up. I didn’t realize this area was a popular place to meet up and drive on.

It’s like a baby McLaren.

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9000rpm redline. 6-speed manual. Rear-wheel drive. You’re doing it right.
I love a Busso V6 Alfa.

There was everything from the usual suspects—including new and old Toyota 86s, Lotus Elise, and Nissan GT-R—to some other interesting cars like a Fiat Barchetta and an Alfa Romeo 147 GTA. There was a group of car guys working on their cars here too, fine-tuning them for the roads around the lake. They would go out in turns testing out each other’s cars around the roads here. I had never seen anything like it before, even at Hakone.

It seemed like this was a place generations have come to meet up with friends and drive. It wasn’t a place to do street racing or drifting, the barriers in the middle of the road would see to that, but it felt like a more chilled and relaxed driving road. So naturally I had to try it out myself.

Unexpected ‘car meet’.
Subtle clues this car gets driven properly.

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The road basically goes around the outside of Lake Miyagase, with stretches of downhill straights and fast corners. The roads around here aren’t big or wide so the guys in the Caterhams, MR2s, and S2000 had the right idea.

As much fun as it was blasting up and down here in the topless McLaren, I felt like I would’ve had as much fun in a car with less power. That said, I was glad I wasn’t in any other supercar because the 570S was just such a joy to drive. It was playful, had power to spare, and the ride over the rough rural roads was better than any other car of this type.

After draining most of the fuel left in the tank I parked up at the parking lot to get a shot of the McLaren at sunset. Despite the rough start, this day turned out to be one of the best and most memorable drives I’ve had. This is an incredibly beautiful park of Japan and the people were very open and friendly. I imagine this was how Tatsumi and Daikoku were back in their glory days—a place where car people would meet up and exchange tips on getting the most from their cars. With this setting and the predominantly JDM cars, it felt like I was in an episode of Initial D.

Some days are better than others.

On the drive back to Tokyo, I got me thinking of what other hidden roads Japan has to offer. There are definitely some secrets the locals have kept to themselves where they’re living out their driving dreams.

Consider this the start of a challenge to find some of the best driving roads in Japan. One of these days I’ll have to check out the real life locations of the roads featured on Initial D too. Stay tuned for that.

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BRZ with some STI bits but not actually an STI.
One of the locals.
GT-Rs and bikes always means good roads are around.

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Hey, you can have fun in a front-wheel drive Fiat Barchetta too.
MR-2 surrounded by some kei-cars.
He probably had more fun than me.
Japan can do views too.
Plenty of opportunities to open it up. Literally.
The old couple came up and asked what it was.

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Why would you want anything more?
Even the bikers approved of this spot.
Pick your weapon.
Oh you know, just casually working on your Trueno at a car park...