As a city to drive in, Tokyo isn’t the worst, but it is bad. London and L.A. were more chaotic and traffic in Tokyo isn’t nearly as bad as the latter, but it’s still not the ideal place to drive a sports car. So where does one go if one wants some nice roads to drive on? Well there’s one obvious place.
The Hakone Turnpike has been dubbed “Japan’s Nurburgring.” It’s a privately owned toll road but with a twist, or several. For the most part it’s a relatively empty mountain road with stretches of elevated straights and long sweeping curves. As well as being one of many touge roads in Japan, it’s also easily the most famous being the favored road for the local motoring press to test cars on.
That’s what led me there, in a grey Mazda Miata MX-5 RF. It was a grey Sunday morning in Tokyo. I had a convertible, manual sports car waiting outside and I was itching for a drive.
Getting to the Turnpike from Tokyo is relatively easy. It’s about a two hour drive on the smooth (albeit expensive) motorways. With the thought of getting back on the Turnpike in a manual car, I hopped in the MX-5 RF ready for a day of very legal touge driving.
The starting point was Nihombashi, right in the centre of Tokyo. At 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday it was eerily empty. Getting on the Shutoku Motorway was easy, though it’s an immediate ¥1300 toll fee (almost $12) just to get on. Driving in Japan does get costly very quickly, especially if you use the motorways.
Since I have such great luck, weekend I had the RF to take to the Turnpike there was a typhoon warning. With the folding hardtop well in place I felt more secure in the torrential rain than I would’ve in the soft top.
After an hour-and-a-half of motorway driving it was time to get off at the Odawara exit. It’s hard to miss the Turnpike entrance, it’s got massive green “Mazda Turnpike” signs. The entrance fee is a mere ¥720 ($6.50) and for that you get access to one of the best roads in Japan.
As you drive through the entrance gate and up on the first uphill section of the Turnpike, you’ll immediately notice the quality of the road surface. It’s unbelievably smooth, race circuit smooth in fact. That gives you the confidence to bring any car here—even the hardest and most extreme of cars.
It’s a somewhat challenging road that tests both car and driver, so it’s the ideal place to take a MX-5 and see what that whole jinba iitai thing is all about. As the go-to place for Japan’s local motoring journalists to test new cars on, you would’ve seen countless photos and videos of cars ripping it up the Turnpike.
More hardcore Turnpike fans come here at the break of dawn to avoid any chance of traffic, though even during the middle of the afternoon there’s very little. It’s about a 14 kilometer hill climb from the entrance to the peak where the fantastically named Sky Lounge is located.
Given you don’t exit the Turnpike, you can drive up and down here to your heart’s content. Or until you run out of fuel. There are no petrol stations on the Turnpike itself, so you’ll need to fill up immediately after exiting the motorway.
A road as great as this deserves a great driving car. The MX-5 RF was the perfect companion, despite the weather. The 2.0-liter naturally aspirated engine with 158 horsepower and 148 lb ft of torque was plenty to have fun in. While you won’t be doing crazy speeds (and in all honesty who would in that weather), it was more about enjoying the brilliant steering and perfectly balanced handling through the twists and turns.
While you could take a ridiculously fast car up here and blitz through the course (sorry, I meant road!), and I have done it before in a C63 AMG and M6, I had more fun in the MX-5. Those high power cars were too hectic. Blink and you were already at the summit. The Miata let me take my time and enjoy things.
Whereas in the RF you could take your time hitting the apex, finding the limits of the car, and mastering the joyous slick and short gearbox. While it’s not an official race track and still a road it’s best not think too much about setting record times or hitting max speed but simply enjoying driving.
You won’t be alone on this road too. Some locals do use it as part of their commute so you’ll see random kei-cars and minivans driving up and down the Turnpike. Enthusiastic drivers from neighboring prefectures take their cars here for a casual weekend drive too.
Even with a typhoon warning there were still a few people tackling the Turnpike. From completely stock to heavily tuned, there’s never a dull mix of cars out there. You’ll see most at the top of parked at the Sky Lounge. That’s where people rest for some food or coffee.
The great thing about the other drivers on this road is they’re there for the same exact reason you are. So when a couple of Porsches filled the rearview mirror of the MX-5 it was only polite to engage in a bit of playful cat and mouse. They probably took pity on me and held back as they never tried to overtake me once.
After a couple of hours of driving up and down the Turnpike and with the weather not looking to improve anytime soon, I went off to my final destination that day. Before that I got curious and wanted to explore some of the neighboring touge roads that split off from the Turnpike.
You could literally spend an entire day around this part of Japan and keep finding extraordinary driving roads. I had my final destination of the day set to Fuji Speedway for a pretty special event and the Mazda’s sat nav took me on even more challenging twisty roads.
Going right at the T-junction by the Sky Lounge, we went down towards the Hakone Skyline. Another toll road but a more reasonable ¥360($3.20) fee, it was even more misty and wetter than the Turnpike. It was also a lot more empty but with tight sections and random elevations it was still pretty fun. There was a random shrine by the side of the road I couldn’t resist getting photo op with too. There was also a bit where the road ‘sang’ to you. It was incredible.
Immediately after the Hakone Skyline it joined on to another touge that was so fun and challenging it didn’t even have a name—it simply went by Route 401. Now this was the sort of place where you could hide a body and no one would find it but it looked intriguing from the sat nav map. If the Turnpike was level 1, the mysterious Route 401 was level 5.
A jagged zigzag of a road that went from the clouds in the sky to piercing through forests. For the most part of the drive it was empty. Who’d be out here on a Sunday during a typhoon? Crazy Jalopnik writers in Miatas, that’s who.
By this point I reached the limits of the MX-5's grip. The back managed to get out ever so slightly but with sheer luck and a testament to the car’s balance, I didn’t end up at the bottom of the touge prematurely.
If you’re visiting Japan and want to get out of the city, visiting the Mazda Turnpike and neighboring roads is a must. While you’re here you might as well check out Fuji Speedway too.
If you feel like your rental car isn’t quite up to par for the road I suggest checking out Fun2Drive. I’ve never used their services myself but might just have to one day.