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

The Tokyo Wan Aqua-Line Expressway connects Tokyo to Chiba, and boasts a six-mile long underwater tunnel—the fourth-longest in the world. I’m driving a bright green Lamborghini Gallardo Balboni following a gold Aventador S. We’re doing, well, let’s just say literally some speed in the tunnel, when all of a sudden a white R33 Nissan Skyline GT-R pulls up next to us.

A phone sticks out of the passenger window to get some video of the two Lamborghinis before the Skyline rockets off into the distance. The driver of the Aventador in front of me tries to catch up, but the GT-R is still pulling away. As we arrive at the Umihotaru Parking Area, we start talking to Komohara-san, the driver of the R33.

“Yeah, this has 800 horsepower,” he says.

I went to an impromptu harishiya (street racers) meet, one that’s held once a year. It’s a different sort of event—as you might expect it’s not organized by an official club or team like other meets in Japan. Instead, it works a bit like the meets at Daikoku and Tatsumi, except far less frequent. Word about the meet was shared around Japanese social media only a couple days prior with the location being kept hush-hush.

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Komohara-san is also the man who brought everyone together. It was basically an excuse for everyone to catch up, see each other’s latest builds, and just have a casual drive out of the city. Umihotaru Parking Area is about half an hour out of Tokyo, and there’s noticeably less traffic on the roads.

I’ll preface this story by saying that street racing is illegal and dangerous and often has very bad results, but unsurprisingly it remains a part of car culture, even here in Japan. It may be less popular than it was in the ’80s and ’90s, but going from what I saw on the road and on the speedometer on the way to the parking area, it is far from dead.

Call it an unfortunate circumstance, because we all know the consequences this behavior can have. But as I’ll touch on in a minute, getting your car on track in Japan is a lot harder than you may expect, and I think that contributes to at least some of the scene.

While the drive to Umihotaru was anything but relaxing, once everyone got there it was back to typical Japanese good behavior. Umihotaru is an incredible parking area, quite possibly the coolest of its kind in Japan (note to self: the search for the best parking areas in Japan should be a story.)

It’s a five-story rest stop literally in the middle of the sea. There are three floors for parking, with the top two filled with restaurants and shops.

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During the day you can get a fantastic view of Tokyo, Yokohama, and Mount Fuji. The whole “island” itself is shaped like a boat, and walking around in the top two floors feels like being in a ferry. There’s plenty of space in the lower three floors for shenanigans, but being Japan, there weren’t any silly burnouts or skidding. With these sort of cars in attendance I was surprised by the lack of anti-social behavior.

I’ll admit this is a scene I’m not all that familiar with. I get sleepy around 11 p.m. most nights, but these guys can still be seen out driving around the Tokyo expressways until sunrise. Usually the meeting place would be Tatsumi, Daikoku, or any of the other smaller parking areas in and around the C1 loop. Having this meet at Umihotaru was nice change of scenery for them.

Walking around the third floor parking area, where most of them had set up for the night, it was interesting to see how they’d all sort of parked with similar cars. The Hondas, the Audis, the Benzes, the GT-Rs, and hot hatches all had their own little sections of the parking lot.

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What made it even better was seeing all the subtle differences in setup and preferences of each driver between similar cars. You might see an Integra Type R with a splitter and canards while another wouldn’t, but had a bigger rear wing. Or the different takes on an E46 M3; one was simple and pure, the other one went to town with the carbon fiber aero accessories.

Speaking of going to town with aero, the second-generation Honda City with quite possibly the biggest wing I’ve ever seen was the undisputed highlight for me of the night. Sure, the Ford GT was cool, but this was something else. A Honda City isn’t exactly the first car that comes to mind for an ideal street racer, but clearly this guy thought otherwise.

Yes, this really started out in life as a Honda City

Like most meets in Japan, there was some variation in the modifications. Not everything had massive wings and splitters, others were simply lowered with aftermarket wheels and stickier tires. Some were completely stock like the McLaren 540C, Dodge Challenger, and Aerial Atom. The Atom is probably one of the fastest cars around the Shutoku.

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—a Japanese car meet isn’t complete without some form of widebody car. Luckily, there were two Liberty Walk cars present. The black Nissan Skyline Coupe (or Infiniti G37 to you Americans) was quite subtle, and I didn’t realize it was an LB car at first. That wasn’t the case for the bright orange GT-R.

Just seeing all these different ideas shows there’s still life left for the Japanese car scene, despite how many Priuses get sold. I can’t help but wonder how much better the scene would be with easier and more affordable access to track days to give these guys some sort of release beyond their highway runs.

Street racing may be in decline but there’s at least a reason why it’s still clinging on to life—the cost of circuit driving is too high. For example, owners tell me that to rent out the main Fuji Speedway circuit costs ¥843,500 ($7,700) per hour. Even for people dumping tons of money into their builds, the average street racer build costs between ¥1,500,000 - ¥2,000,000, that’s a disproportionate amount of money that’s very much only for the super-wealthy to enjoy. That’s why most of the Fuji Track days involve racing cars and supercars. And even if you can afford it, track days aren’t as regular in Japan as they are in other countries, owners say. Fuji Speedway only open up their full track to non race-license holders a couple days a year. (Although it’s worth noting that aspiring drifters, at least, have a cheaper option in the form of Ebisu.)

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The touges are great fun and all, but for most of these people who live in and around Tokyo, they’re a bit out in the sticks. That’s why most of them stick around on the highways until the early hours of the night, when the roads are emptiest.

The police are cracking down, too. They’ve recently added a fleet of supercharged V6 Toyota Mark Xs to patrol the highways, and speed cameras are placed in high risk areas. It’s not going to get rid of street racing but it is discouraging it. However, people will always find a way around them. If Japan’s car scene evolved and adapted from street racing, the next logical step would be to bring all their know-how on to the safety of a closed circuit.

Everyone wants a piece of the Wangan Midight life, but for me it was a very smooth and steady drive back to Tokyo in someone else’s Lamborghini. There might be another big meet at Umihotaru again in a couple of months, one with a more singular theme, which should be pretty good.

Update: This story has been updated to add a link to Ebisu’s drifting track, and to make clear that owners are the ones making claims over racing costs.

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Comparing notes. Also, note how much smaller the DC2 is compared to the FD2
Now THAT’S a splitter
Note the stone chips on the bumper

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That’ll buff out
There’s a lot going on and I kinda dig it

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Battle scars

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Whatever this look is, I like it