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

When I first heard the Gumball 3000 Rally was coming to Japan this summer, I wasn’t entirely sure how well it’d go down here. Given the reputation of the Gumball over the past few years—let us not forget two civilians were killed in a traffic accident in Macedonia during one rally a decade ago—their antics don’t really mix well with the Japanese by-the-book attitude towards everything in life.

The police kept a close watch on the rally

Still, I was invited to join the Gumball 3000 by Tokyo Supercars, who had also had a few customers on the rally. While everyone and their cars caught a plane from Bologna to Osaka, I had to drive down to the start line of the Japan leg in Osaka from Tokyo. That involved a six-hour drive. Long, but worth it to see how this sometimes infamous event would go down in Japan.

For the Gumball I didn’t get into a Porsche 911 Turbo, a Rolls-Royce Wraith, a Ferrari GTC4 Lusso or any car I would’ve preferred to have done 2,000 kilometers in.

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Instead I got a track-ready Toyota GT86.

The trusty steed which covered 2000 kilometers without breaking

The plan for the Gumball in Japan was to kick things off in Osaka and finish in Tokyo after four days of exploring some of the sights Japan had to offer. For many people doing the rally it was their first time in Japan and Asia. Luckily Japan’s sweltering summer heat and humidity was in full force to give them a proper warm welcome.

It all started off in Osaka, where the local cars joining for the Japan leg had gathered at the starting point at the Conrad Hotel, while the cars that flew in from Europe were awaiting pick up from Kansai Airport.

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After a driver’s meeting in the morning the Gumball had officially started as the local cars drove towards the Central Circuit in Hyogo Prefecture and the owners went to collect their cars from the airport.

But that was easier said than done. Not only was Kansai Airport in the complete opposite direction from Central Circuit, some of the cars didn’t make it out of Italy.

On top of that, some of the cars that did make it to Japan couldn’t be driven out of the airport due to insufficient paperwork, or simply because some of it hadn’t been filled out correctly. This caused some last minute scrambling for some of the participants to secure rentals or replacements cars—some even just had to jump in the back seats of other teams.

Heian Shrine

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After what felt like an eternity some of the first cars started arriving at the Central Circuit where immediately some cars took to the track. It didn’t take long for things to go wrong though as someone immediately wrote off a rental Maserati Ghibli into a tire wall. This sort of set the mood of things to come.

Some Russian dancers
Godzilla and Godzilla

It was then a motorway drive from the Central Circuit to the hotel stop in Kyoto. The cars would pass through the famous and very pretty Heian Shrine where local fans greeted them. It was a slightly unremarkable two-hour drive on a motorway, understandably to let some of the track drivers cool off before arriving to Kyoto, which made the motorway drive worth it.

Chiron drew the most attention everywhere it went

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I was genuinely surprised by the crowds waiting for the Gumballers at the Heian Shrine. For weeks leading up to the Gumball the Japanese automotive social media was full of exciting Gumball posts, and clearly word quickly got out.

In true Gumball fashion, these guys were keen to put on a show with revving, smoke grenades, and dancing out of sunroofs. Which definitely looked out of place with the backdrop of a 123-year-old shrine.

Leaving Kyoto later than planned, the rally headed off towards Nanao on the Western Coast of Japan. This was going to the first long driving stint, it’d be about five hours total driving with a small break at the very eclectic and strong Motorcar Museum of Japan in Komatsu.

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JIOTT Caspita

This was a very strange museum. There was literally a mix of everything inside from old Citroën trucks to two Toyota 2000GTs, a collection of cars with pop-up headlights, and a JIOTT Caspita, a prototype supercar made by DOME which fell through due to the recession in the early ’90s.

The car here was the Mark 1 which had a detuned F1 flat-twelve with 577 horsepower. It’s a damn shame this thing never saw the light of day.

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Outside the museum it seemed as though the entire town had come to greet the Gumball. Fans were lined up by the intersection outside the museum cheering the rally on, taking selfies with the YouTubers, and just appreciating seeing these foreign supercars visiting their small town.

If there’s one thing I took out of this entire experience, it was the absolutely friendly welcome the locals gave the brash and noisy rally wherever they went. For many people, in the big cities and small towns alike, it was a whole new experience seeing more than 120 supercars descending together. Some of the local owners also showed up and put together a small meet out by the museum to give the Gumballers a taste of the local car culture.

Usher in a G

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From there it was onwards to the coastal town of Nanao via a stunning coastal road. Even along here fans were lined up along the road and on service area stops waiting to get a glimpse of the Gumball driving past.

It’s rare for people in this part of Japan to see supercars at all, so it was great to see them out and excited by everything.

Gold under the rainbow

The end of the day two of the Japan leg was at the Kagaya Hotel in Nanao, considered one of the best hotels in the country. Overlooking the Yellow Sea, the entire fleet of the Gumball Rally shut down the small fishing village. Here they’d have a traditional Japanese dinner as they rest up for the last leg of the rally.

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Day three was a drive from Nanao to finish grid at Tokyo with a lunch stop at the Fukashi Shrine. The route card given at the start of the day directed the Gumballers to take the longer and more boring motorway route.

However, since most people couldn’t even read the road signs the route cars weren’t much use. Instead, most people ended up using Google Maps which took them on a more direct and scenic route.

Luckily, most people went on this route. A 288 GTO from Dutton Garage zigzagging through traffic overtook us. We caught up with it at the toll gate but then lost it on the mountain roads, only to find it at a gas station later.

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As we cleared the mountains we and got closer to Fukashi, we ended up driving straight through rice fields. With the rest of the rally behind us, I couldn’t help but wonder how amazing some of those cars would look driving through here.

At the lunch stop at Fukashi Shine, cars would come and go at different times. There must’ve bene a few hours between the first car to arrive and the last car to arrive. It wasn’t without its problems, though— a Hennessy Dodge Demon from Dubai ripped its supercharger belt to shred trying to do a burnout outside the shrine. It was down hill from there as the two motorway drive to Tokyo was the first time we hit traffic.

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A last-minute addition and surprise to the route before Tokyo was supposed to be a stop at Daikoku Parking Area. However, these days Daikoku gets shut down early enough as it is due to the rowdy local meets. It was shut down even earlier than normal when word of the Gumball cars heading towards there got out. Some cars had made it in but the police we keen to kick everyone out.

Some cars did make it into Daikoku PA

By the end of the last day the cars had eventually reached the final stop at the Odaiba Port where all the cars were kept in preparation for their return to their home countries. Some cars went to their hotel instead for the free day on Sunday.

This was a chance for some of the Gumballers to meet up with the local car scene. Of course it wouldn’t be complete without an appearance by the Godfather of the crazy Lamborghinis, Japan’s Morohoshi-san.

Other than this there wasn’t much opportunity for them to stop at any major sights. Mt. Fuji wasn’t visible due to the clouds. There was also no time to go on any decent driving roads, except for the detour thanks to Google Maps. But there was nothing on the route plan.

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Due to the delays and the schedule, they also didn’t have much time to see true local culture and sights, just lots of motorway driving. Only those who had set up to meet local owners and meets saw this side of Japan. For the rest, it was just driving on motorways to and from hotels.

When Morohoshi met Team Salmonone

I’m not entirely sure I’d be happy to pay the claimed five-figure entry fee to join the Gumball Rally. Sure, that includes shipping your car over from Europe to Japan but still, doing a road trip or rally on your own or with a group of friends would be just as a fun for much, much less.

The Gumball may have gone on for 20 years, but can’t see it lasting another 20. I do sort of see the appeal of the rally, where you have a mix of driving during the day and partying at night, if that’s the sort of thing you’re after. But if you just want to drive around experiencing the best Japan has to offer there are better ways to do it.

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