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

After starting my search for the best driving roads near Tokyo, I found Mount Akagi to be the most fun—so far. I thought I had peaked too soon and wouldn’t be able to find a road that could be even better. But after trying out roads in various prefectures such as the Venus Line in Nagano, Mount Akina in Gunma, and of course the Hakone Turnpike in Kanagawa, I thought I’d give Tochigi Prefecture another try.

I’m glad I did, because I found another hidden gem that you too should check out.

Tochigi is about a two hour drive north of Tokyo on mainly straight and smooth motorway. Unlike the motorway going south of Tokyo there’s far less traffic here, so that two hour drive can be easily shorted.

Tochigi is known for its strawberries and gyoza dumplings, as well as being home to Honda’s motorsports R&D facility and Nissan’s factory for the GT-R and some Infiniti cars.

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The mountainous terrain and stunning landscape also make for an ideal driving road candidate. It’s not the first time I’ve driven on a road in Tochigi before—I took a Honda S660 to the famous Irohazaka road last year.

But for this drive I had a completely different kind of car. The road I had planned to go to was about 200 kilometers north of Tokyo, which meant I needed a car that could cruise comfortably yet still be fun to throw around when I got to the twisty stuff.

So there was only one place to go to: Aston Martin Japan. They very kindly lent me a 2019 DB11 Volante which turned out to be the perfect car for the job.

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Since it was a mild overcast day I left Tokyo with the roof down with everything in comfy “GT Mode,” the eight-speed ZF left to its own devices and wafted along towards Happogahara. There’s something different about being in Aston Martin—it makes you feel a bit more special than any other car.

It doesn’t encourage you to drive like a hoon, instead allowing you to relax and take in the elements. In almost any other car and I feel like I wouldn’t have been able to have fun and appreciate the scenery of the drive, but not in the DB11.

With the exhaust burbling subtlety in the background and the smell of the gorgeous leather giving gentle reminders you’re in something special, it’s hard to not feel relaxed in this. A big GT car like the DB11 was designed to eat up miles and the two and a half hour drive to the town of Yaita felt like child’s play.

Recommended lunch stop

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I love driving out in the Japanese countryside. It’s a world away from the fast paced way of life in Tokyo. Out here you can take your time, and everyone is more laid back. It suits the DB11 perfectly.

As I burbled through Yaita, I stumbled upon this adorable little cafe and restaurant run by an elderly couple. It was the sort of place that has probably been around for decades and frequented by locals. The location was perfect too as it was right at the bottom of the “starting point” of the Happogahara road.

Perhaps it’s too early to say, but this road is now my current favorite.

The Akagi road was more dramatic but different backgrounds, varying elevation changes, lack of other road users, and a mixture of fast and tight sections make this road more satisfying to drive on. The cooler temperature and slightly spooky forest views gave it the surreal vibe of a Studio Ghibli movie.

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In Sport Plus mode, whatever was in that forest had been awaken by the sound of the downshift pops and crackles from the AMG-sourced V8. I was surprised by how capable the DB11 was at going around corners.

The last time I took a big ol’ cruiser on a hunt for a driving road it didn’t go well. Luckily the Volante was more than happy to point its nose into a corner and keep its tail in check.

This is a road where you don’t need crazy amounts of power to have fun. There were few opportunities where anything over third gear was necessary. A car like the DB11 wouldn’t be the first choice to have the most fun, but I was amazed by how it coped with the job on hand. Certainly, something like a MX-5 or Elise would be all you’d need to get the most thrills on this road.

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The Happogahara road is a 33 kilometer stretch sweeping through forests, past waterfalls, and popular hiking trails. It’s a properly outdoorsy sort of place, and I guess driving a convertible car through here is technically an “outdoors activity” too. Sure, why not.

It’s no surprise there are plenty of opportunities to pull over and take in the gorgeous scenery of one of the prettiest parts of Japan.

About two-thirds up the road, thing went all Spice Girls on me and two lanes became one. Fearing of having a head on collision in an Aston Martin that wasn’t mine in the middle of a forest road, I found a turning point and drove back the opposite way. Unsurprisingly it was as much fun going in the opposite direction as it had been going up.

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Just before heading back towards Tokyo I found a dead end road branching out from the main Happogahara road. With daylight slowly fading away I made a beeline straight for the very end. I didn’t regret the detour. Yet another empty stretch of fantastic road with no other cars in sight.

The autumn leaves on the road made it feel even more like something out of Gran Turismo. There was this fantastic moment of going up hill and past out of the trees to the peak of the road.

Excuse the Starbucks cups

At the top was a parking and observation area. On a clearer day I’m sure the view would’ve been stunning, but all I had to look at were clouds. Having an empty parking lot and a practically empty road in front me, it would’ve been rude to not make the most of the opportunity. So with no one in around I quickly got some last minute photos before it went completely dark.

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This was one of the most enjoyable roads I’ve driven on. Not only was it empty and beautiful, it’s also about an hour’s drive from Utsunomiya City. If you like gyoza, treat yourself to some of the local joints in this city.

That alone will make the five-hour round trip drive from Tokyo worth it.

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