Beat a storm on a grand tour of Japanese automotive culture



The storm hit at dawn, but the little open roadster was already miles ahead. Typhoon Lan hit the Japanese archipelago with Category Four winds and rain, a blow that saw up to 500 millimeters of precipitation fall over a 72-hour period.

Just before the storm front, I knocked down the roof of the Sanyo Expressway. At speeds above 80 kilometers per hour, rain poured down on this Mazda MX-5 from the Japanese market, giving it the sensation of riding a massive wave. Hit a tunnel, crank up the revs on the gem of a 1.5-liter engine, then detonate the other side like you’re shooting a barrel.

I recommend wearing your hat, but otherwise it’s a wonderful pleasure despite the weather. Bless the Japanese people for providing us with a lasting interpretation of the little British roadster; the MX-5 is as light and perfect as an origami crane, and it’s the perfect vehicle for taking a Mille Miglia’s equivalent of some of the hidden gems of Japanese automotive culture. Cursed be the typhoon.

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A Japanese-spec Mazda MX-5 sits outside a temple in Kyoto.

We start in Hiroshima, with the running of the bulls. Hiroshima is a small town by Japanese standards – a Canadian leader stationed here once called it “The Saskatoon of Japan”. Nevertheless, Hiroshima has its own culture, its own landmarks and its own car brand, Mazda.

If you choose to visit, I highly recommend the Peace Memorial Park, Itsukushima Shrine, and the Mazda Heritage Museum. The latter is open to the public and features wonderful quirks such as the Autozam AZ-1 and Mazda’s Le Mans-winning 787B race car.

However, we have come to find the unusual, and for that we will need a guide. Tomohiro Aono pick me up for some okonomiyaki (a tasty pancake that’s a local favorite), and we’re heading to his latest purchase.

Tucked away in a Hiroshima garage, a multitude of ultra-rare supercars all carry street signs.

It is a Ferrari Maranello 550 GT with carbon fiber bodywork.

Perhaps due to the spectacular canyon roads that branch out across the region, the people of Hiroshima all seem to be going crazy. In Aono’s case, he has a small collection of supercars and he drives them all down the street.

Tucked into the shop with Aono’s widebody Ferrari is a Lamborghini Murcielago RG-1, Bentley Turbo R and Vector M12, of which only 17 were made. The Lamborghini, although a racing car equipped with a roll bar, has license plates. If it hadn’t been for the approaching typhoon, you might find any of these cars prowling the city streets.

Roads like these are what spurred the development of the original Miata.

Satisfied with local specialties and imported Italian firepower, the next step is to drive a dozen hours from Hiroshima to Tokyo. In the early 1980s, a few British car enthusiasts managed to convince the CEO of Mazda to take the same trip in a Triumph Spitfire. He loved it, and the purse strings were opened for research and development on the Miata.

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Taking the long haul rather than one of Japan‘s excellent bullet trains costs a bundle. Toll roads are everywhere, and if you don’t have a transmitter, you have to stop and trade jokes (and money) with one of the friendly toll people.

Another feature of the Japanese highway is its many roadside parking areas. Every few miles you can walk to sparkling clean facilities, visit a restaurant, or – like I did – buy a can of hot coffee from a vending machine.

Japanese highways are full of small rest areas like this one.

Rather than heading directly to Tokyo, we had to make a brief stopover in Kyoto. The original capital of Japan, Kyoto is a beautiful city of temples and ornate shrines. Here, however, we don’t stop for the architecture, but for an automotive ancestor: the Toyota 2000GT National Club braved inclement weather.

The 2000GT is Japan’s first supercar and the most valuable collector’s car. Values ​​are well over $ 1 million, but seven of the cars have chosen to weather the storm. An owner even got out of Gunma in a car – we’ll be visiting her collection shortly.

The 2000GT was Japan’s first supercar and remains one of the most beautiful cars ever made here.

In the meantime, it’s back in the saddle for the push to Tokyo. As you enter town, the multi-level highways form a maze, with the buildings brightly lit and the advertisements giving a whole Blade runner to feel.

The next day, I run to Yokohama to visit the Mooneyes cafe. A name that will be familiar to any hot rod in the audience, Dean Moon’s former company is steeped in Bonneville Salt Flats speed tracks and California car customization. However, its headquarters are in Japan.

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Mooneyes Japan is a searing touchstone, with roots dating back to the 1960s.

Owner Shige Suganuma started hanging out at Moon’s boutique in California as a student and eventually brought the brand back to Japan. His parking spot is empty today – he drives normally in a 1960s Ford Thunderbird – but pin-striper (Wild Man) Ishii works hard in the store.

It was then up to Gunma prefecture to visit Takeshi Moroi, president of the 2000GT owners’ club. His collection occupies the entire upper floor of his factory and includes a Porsche 962C, a Le Mans endurance race that he occasionally drives in the streets.

In a warehouse in Gunma, north of Tokyo, a huge collection includes all kinds of rarities.

Just as Singer managed to rework the classic air-cooled Porsche 911, Moroi began to pay tribute to the Ferrari 308 in small batches. It begins with a Group A rally car, which has a steel and fiber body. of carbon, and will also produce Tribute Cars 288GTO and F40LM in very small quantities. The work is superb.

As if that were not enough, his workshop has also just completed the restoration of one of the two 2000GT convertibles used for the filming of You only live twice. The two cars will be reunited later at the Toyota Museum, and you can see Moroi’s 2000GT at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles in the middle of next year.

The MX-5 reaches the top of the Hakone Toll Highway, with Mount Fuji in the background.

As a last hurray, I descend the little Miata to Odawara, and the Hakone. One of Japan’s most famous toll roads, this short stretch of road winds through the mountains, full of loops and meanders. A camera crew and a Porsche 911 show up just after my arrival, along with a couple of full-leather bikers with worn knee pads.

The attendant takes my ¥ 730 ($ 8.28) and politely bows. “Have a good trip,” he said in perfect English.

I pull away from the tollbooth, bounce the needle of the little MX-5 off the rev limiter, and climb the hill. Mount Fuji smiles benevolently. It’s a perfect day, the typhoon is just a memory.

The writer was the guest of Mazda. The content was not subject to approval.

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