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

Ask anyone where their dream driving road is and they’ll probably tell you it’s somewhere in Europe. Perhaps somewhere near the Alps, or that one road in Romania that was on Top Gear with the impossibly long name. Some might say the Pacific Coast Highway in California or Route 66. But most probably wouldn’t say Japan. That’s because they haven’t heard of the Venus Line.

(Full Disclosure: McLaren Japan provided the car for this story.)

A country roughly the same size as California with one of the most densely populated cities in the world doesn’t sound like the ideal place for a road trip holiday but as I’ve discovered recently there are some hidden gems here.

After stumbling across a popular driving spot near Lake Miyagase in a McLaren 570S Spider, I got the help of another McLaren to explore a different part of Japan.

19 gallon fuel tank is not big enough for this sort of car

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For a long time, I had been looking forward to visiting the Venus Line in Nagano Prefecture, 140 miles west of Tokyo, in the right car. I first heard of the Venus Line last year when the Rally Nippon drove through it and the views looked amazing.

Supposedly, it was the sort of backdrop you’d find in a Tolkien story. Roads flowing through golden hills, bright flowers either side of the road, and plenty of spots to stop and admire the view. I had timed the trip hoping to catch some of the cherry blossoms as well.

However, as these things seem to go for me, that wasn’t the case. Sure, some of the hills were golden, but in an aging Golden Retriever sort of way. All the flowers and trees hadn’t bloomed because while the rest of Japan was enjoying spring weather, no one told Nagano which was very much still in winter. It was 0º celsius when I went there and it even snowed very briefly at one point.

I should’ve known this wasn’t going to go well when the start of my drive on the Venus Line involved a fuel stop.

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Still, regardless of the weather the views were still going to be great, the roads empty and stunning, and I had a McLaren 720S. With a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 pumping out 710 horsepower and 568 lb-ft of torque, this was bound to put a massive smile on my face.

The performance, handling, ride, visibility, and amazingly the noise all added to the overwhelming experience of driving one of the most accomplished supercars on sale right now on one of the best roads in Japan.

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You know a road is great when there are places to stop and take in the views every 5 minutes. I took this as an opportunity to take photos of the 720S with these stunning backdrops. The views were some of the best I’ve seen in Japan.

Some parts reminded me of the United Kingdom, others of New Zealand. Perhaps the McLaren had something to do with that.

The Venus Line is basically a road that twists up a mountain. The first section has plenty of sharp turns at the which then opens up to longer straights and faster corners. There’s a speed limit sign of 25 km/h (15 mph) but all the few other cars that were on the road were definitely not going 25 km/h.

One of the best bits of the road was one point where there were three consecutive downhill hairpins and you could see the road drop from the top of the first one. In the summer the road is used for hill climbs, which is probably more enjoyable than driving in the cold. But at the same time I’d imagine there’d be a lot more traffic.

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The 720S impressed me here, especially the ride comfort over the imperfect roads. On smoother roads in Tokyo it was more refined than the already comfortable 570S, but the way it dealt with bumps out here was impressive—as was the grip.

The car’s clever Variable Drift Control system meant I was able to control how much slip I wanted, which was great for a numpty of a driver like myself. So even with some snow on the ground, I was still able to get the back out in a controlled fashion without killing myself. Admittedly, it does intervene quite abruptly but never too much where you can’t get it pointing in the right direction.

Then there’s the acceleration. Since everyone knew it was too cold and dreary to drive out today the roads further up the Venus Line were empty—too empty for my liking. That’s because half up the road was closed due to the weather, it’s scheduled to be reopened later in the month when it warmed up.

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So I turned around and saw an open, empty stretch of road in front of me. Now, when you’ve got a 710 HP supercar at your disposal and there’s not a car in sight, you’d think it was the perfect opportunity to try out the launch control as well. I thought so too.

I’d heard everyone harp on about the 720S’ incredible acceleration, 0-60 mph in 2.7 seconds or something ridiculous like that, but there’s still no way to prepare yourself mentally or physically for the way it propels you to the horizon. It’s not acceleration so much as teleportation. It’s scary how addicted I became to the acceleration. This isn’t a car where you can find and exploit its limits on public roads. After having “tested out” the launch control a couple of times I settled back to normal driving mode and headed back down.

At the main intersection around halfway down the Venus Line we met Meshijima-san, the owner of the black Suzuki Kei. He was driving around the Venus Line when he saw us driving the opposite way.

Because he doesn’t see too many cars of this sort here, he apparently did a U-turn to try and find us. He showed us around some of the roads that went off from the main Venus Line which he said would be good for photos. He wasn’t wrong.

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Meeting Meshijima-san and seeing his excitement with the 720S was one of the highlights of this drive. It was like he’d been presented with a UFO, which is basically what this thing looks like.

It wasn’t the first time the 720S got attention; even in a city like Tokyo it still managed to turn heads. We started talking about his cars, alongside the Suzuki which sports the special commemorative Rugby World Cup plates (normally kei cars have yellow plates), he also has a modified first-generation Miata. Clearly a man of good taste.

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By the time we headed back to Tokyo the sun was setting. Out in front of us were some alps, something I didn’t realize Japan had. A motorway drive in to and from Tokyo is never complete without seeing Mount Fuji at some point, and this was no exception.

Nearly three hours later we arrived at Nihombashi in Central Tokyo. The empty and open roads of the Venus Line seemed like a world away from the busy roads in Nihombashi. But what didn’t change was how at home the 720S felt in both environments. It’s a mighty impressive car.

The Venus Line was quite a bit of a journey away from Tokyo but the views alone there are worth the drive. Plus, it’s nice to see a different part of Japan that’s not just Tokyo. And you don’t need a twin-turbo V8 supercar to enjoy it either.

I’ll have to come back when it’s warmer, but if you’re after the world’s greatest driving roads, put this on your list.

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Clear roads, less clear skies

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In case you get lost, just follow the squiggly line

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Still no cars here...