A few years ago, I took my first ever international vacation to Japan. It was a phenomenal experience, but at the same time was missing something: a uniquely Japanese, car-related experience. I did my fair share of ogling at a number vehicles I’d never see in the U.S., but with the structure of that trip and me having very little experience with the language or culture, that was about all I could manage. I vowed to do better next time.
About a year after I returned, this article popped up on Jalopnik. In case you don’t care to click through, there exists a company named Fun2Drive which rents out a number of (mostly) JDM enthusiast vehicles in the mountains of Hakone. Their selection is filled with several noteworthy specimens from a Fujiwara-Tofu-branded-as-you-do AE86 to a track-ready S2000 to several GT-Rs. I knew immediately I had to make it a part of my next trip.
(Quick note: I already put this up on the Miata.net forums, but figured I’d share it here as well with some additional revisions and refinements. Also apologies in advance for any strangeness that may appear as a result of me still learning how to Kinja.)
Initially, I was expecting all of the preparations for this type of activity to be complicated, considering I was just some guy from Missouri with the smallest passable understanding of Japanese (hoping to pass the N5 next month) and zero foreign driving experience, unless you count California. Fortunately, it all was remarkably easy. Fun2Drive’s English website provided a fairly straightforward means of booking and my further inquiries were answered promptly via email.
I chose to sign up for their ”Ultimate Hakone Drive” tour, which visits several demanding mountain roads over the course of 6 hours. For those of you familiar with Initial D, about half of them are featured in the “Fifth Stage” of the show. As for the car, I opted for their 1993 Birkin clone of a Lotus Super 7. I did receive some flack from my friends for not grabbing something more properly JDM, but I was just too hung up on the idea of putting that pure, lightweight precision to use on technical mountain roads. Being a Miata owner well aware of benefits of adding lightness likely played a role in that decision as well.
The next step was to gather the required documents. Passport? Check. Driver’s License? Check. International Driver’s Permit? Erm … not check. A quick google search got me pointed not towards the DMV, but the local AAA office. There, I’d proceed to spend 15 minutes and $20 obtaining the second most hilariously unofficial-looking legal document I will likely ever have to my name. No quiz required. Good for a year. Sketchy as hell.
Finally, I had to figure out how to get there and back. Thankfully, Fun2Drive was a step ahead of me and provided some suggested routes for Tokyo and the Mt. Fuji area. Both were extremely helpful because I happened to be coming in from one and heading out to the other on the same day. Finding the correct booking office once I reached Shinjuku, however, wound up being the most difficult part. I quickly discovered that the company running the recommended bus line had several other offices in the vicinity for entirely different services. After awkwardly stumbling through a conversation at what turned out to be the Romantic Vacation Packages for Couples counter, I eventually figured out where I actually needed to go.
As with most Japanese transit, the bus trip was a pleasant experience and reasonably priced. For about $15, a single bus would take me all the way from Shinjuku Station to a bus stop directly across the street from Fun2Drive. They also apparently had worked out some architectural wizardry which resulted in my bus departing from the 4th floor of a building. Color this Midwesterner impressed. About two hours later, I stepped off of the bus and was immediately greeted by the sight of 4 chronologically ordered GT-Rs letting me know I was in the right place. Yes, there was a sign too, but that isn’t interesting.
The other side of their lot didn’t leave me wanting either, with their two mid-engine offerings also out on display.
I was greeted by Yoshi-san, who would be my guide for the tour and fortunately for me, was much more fluent in English than I was in Japanese. We sat down, exchanged paperwork typical of most car rentals, and discussed how the day would go. The plan was to hit up the tour’s planned routes with some breaks in between for rest (both personal and mechanical), food, and notable landmarks. He’d be driving in a separate lead car and communicating the conditions ahead by radio.
My arrival time was a little earlier than expected, so I had to wait around for about 30 minutes once all of the initial preparations were completed. The main building was a nice place to spend that time, since it also serves as a very basic cafe. They have a small drink menu, a fitting selection of manga (Initial D, Wangan Midnight, etc.), info sheets on their cars, and a DVD player with shows like Best Motoring and Hot Version to pass the time. While waiting, I watched a number of passers-by stop in to inquire about the rental service. Pretty understandable, I’d say, considering all of the automotive eye-candy sitting out front.
As the tour’s start time approached, Yoshi-san brought the 7 out of their garage, walked me through some of its mechanical details, and most importantly, made sure I could actually cram all 6’2” of me inside. Climbing in and out was tricky, but I did fit without any issues. We went through the controls, like the shift pattern and the non-self-terminating turn signal toggle switch that I’d later forget to turn off many times during the drive. A few brief 1st gear and reverse maneuvers around the parking lot later (which I suspect served as a cursory check to make sure I could actually drive manual), I was good to go. Yoshi-san tossed me a radio, hopped into the Lotus Elise, and we were on our way.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, this was my first experience driving on the other side of the car and road. Everything was a bit strange at the start, but sparse traffic, a lead car ahead of me, and radioed information on a well-maintained and clearly marked road system worked wonders for quickly adapting. I was also very pleased to see that most blind corners had mirrors posted up to aid in visibility, considering that buses would occasionally make sudden appearances in the opposite lane. The 7 was remarkably helpful as well, with its direct and responsive controls being easy to feel out and its open cockpit providing direct lines of sight to every corner of the vehicle. Many people seem to have trouble with car positioning when swapping sides this, but the 7's great visibility handily prevented that from ever being an issue.
Not long after I was starting to get comfortable, we turned into a parking lot, occupied by a FD RX-7 and an Evo VI Tommi Makinen Edition. The former was being rented by another young enthusiast from the U.K. with parents in tow. The later was presumably their lead car for one of the longer tours (of which mine was a part), driven by another of the Fun2Drive owners. After introductions and a few more details on where we were, including some cool matching shots from Initial D, the other owner headed back in the Elise, leaving Yoshi-san to lead us in Evo.
As we headed up into the first mountain pass, Yoshi-san radioed back that we’d be starting now, to have fun, and finally, with a small hint of amusement in his voice, to “go, at um... your own speed”. With that last remark, the Evo rocketed up the road ahead and we gave chase. I was at the tail end of the group, but thankfully the FD’s driver kept up with Yoshi-san well enough to not leave me wanting for a faster pace. We all traveled along at about 7/10ths, giving the cars a good push and leaving some room for error, not to mention with radioed aid for things like sharp turns, oncoming traffic, uncovered gutters, and tree branches in the road to keep us out of trouble.
Just as I was starting to feel out the 7 at that faster clip, I suddenly found myself with an unresponsive gas pedal. I immediately shifted into neutral and tried to blip the throttle a few times, but received no response. The engine sputtered to a stop just a moment later, so with what momentum I had left, I pulled over as far as I could onto the covered rain gutter and got on the radio. Yoshi-san headed back, grabbed his toolbox, promptly diagnosed a blown fuse, and popped in a replacement. A+ for preparedness there.
With that problem resolved, we resumed the drive and I quickly found it within myself to forgive 7 for that mishap. It was rapidly becoming clear that this car would live up to the mental hype I had built up around 7s in general over the years preceding this drive. Every single control was fantastically direct. The steering, through its small wheel and unassisted rack was quick and full of feeling. There was also just something immensely satisfying about seeing the front wheels bob and twist out in front of me.
Truth be told though, the seating position and live rear axle weren’t entirely appealing. Being tucked so far back in the chassis pushes the usual butt/torso axis of rotation much further forward towards the shin/ankle area. I knew to expect it from what I had read previously on 7 kits, but the difference in turning feel was much more drastic than I was expecting. The solid rear end also felt a little out of character for the car and introduced a slight delay between reactions of the front and rear. It also induced an unexpected wiggle over uneven surfaces which was pretty unnerving the first few times it happened. It took a while, but once I got used to those sensations and behaviors under various conditions, it wasn’t too difficult to exploit the 7’s large amount of grip and ease in transitions.
Additionally, the shifter was among the shortest I had ever thrown around and was precise enough that my new-to-shifting left hand could quickly learn the routine. As for the pedals, the pair of thin, narrow shoes I use for autocross definitely earned their spot in my luggage, because my usual size 12 sneakers would have not fared well in working them. The footwells were small, but the pedal positioning was perfect and eventually helped me fire off many a heel-toe with more confidence than my own familiar cars could garner. Finally, there was the sound. The exhaust note easily put my uncorked Miata to shame, singing along with every mash of the throttle and rewarding downshifts with an occasional burp of flame (visible as the flash reflected off the windshield) and a near-endless series of pops and crackles as the revs wound down.
Back to the drive itself, it wasn’t long before we climbed up into a sea of dense fog as we reached the first toll. Before going through, we took a short break and talked for a bit before continuing. The pace had to slow down significantly, but there was at least enough visibility to maintain a modestly entertaining speed as we pressed onward towards the Mazda Turnpike. Normally, there would have been another stop along the way for some scenic views, but that clearly wasn’t going to happen today.
For lunch, we stopped at the Turnpike’s Sky Lounge. There was a little disappointment here because I was hoping the Mazda branding would lead to some unique displays or souvenirs from that marque, but sadly, I encountered neither. Still, the break from the bothersome fog was a welcome one, as was my lunch of spicy ramen and mitarashi dango.
The turnpike itself was a fast, sweeping downhill run, with several signs encouraging engine braking and a few emergency runoff areas. I heeded the signs’ and Yoshi-san’s warnings in order to avoid roasting the brakes and we all survived without any (Initial D spoilers in link) additional braking assistance required. The fog was also nice enough to thin out right before we hit one of the turnpike’s bridges, rewarding us with a great view (google maps almost does it justice). At the bottom, we stopped once again to cool off and were joined briefly by a Fiat 500 Abarth 595 Competizione that had followed us down.
From there, we departed on the remaining afternoon routes, which included Nanamagari (literally “seven bends”, though it has many more), as well as my favorite for the day, the challenging Tsubaki Line. All of them were fantastically technical and more importantly, without fog. Yoshi-san kept the pace and radio information flowing flawlessly in order to let us fully enjoy the performance our cars had to offer. The now-familiar 7 continued to be a delight, dancing with ease through the tricky curves and keeping up well with the FD and Evo despite the power deficit. The limits were easy to feel out and a great deal of momentum could be held nearly everywhere. I loved every moment of it. It really was the next step in low-weight automotive athleticism I was hoping for.
Amusingly, the 7 also garnered many a double-take, smile, and wave along the surface streets and toll booths between some of the routes. However, I should at least offer a token mea culpa to any residential areas I may have disturbed with the 7’s unavoidable pops and bangs at lower speeds.
Eventually things came to a close and we went to fuel up on our way back. I hadn’t considered it up until this point, but I choose the most economical vehicle of the group by far. The 7 only managed to sip away a mere 17L of fuel, compared to 28L from the Evo and an astonishing 42L from the FD (granted, they probably had another hour or two of driving on that tank, but still...). Gas is not cheap in Japan. If I remember correctly, the cost was around $1.35/L or $5/gal at the time. With my wallet more than happy to escape intact, we returned to the shop and I begrudgingly yielded the keys. After snapping a few more pictures and bidding farewell, I hopped back on the same bus line, and one transfer later, I was off to the Mt. Fuji area for the next leg of my trip.
Of course, I would be remiss to not mention the cost. The grand total for me, covering car rental, tour, tolls, and gas wound up being around 45,000 Yen, or $430 at the currently not-so-great exchange rate. Considering that I had to shell out about that much for a day with a Lotus Elise in California, I’d say the price was reasonable. All in all, I’d recommend it without hesitation to any other car enthusiast visiting Tokyo, Mt. Fuji, or any other nearby areas. It’s the best day of driving I have ever experienced and I’ll definitely be going back for more next time I visit.
In closing, have a Suzuki Hustler.